SPECIAL REPORT: How long can the RV industry continue to grow in Elkhart County?

How long can the RV industry continue to grow in Elkhart County? // WSBT 22 Photo

Elkhart County has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, just 2.2-percent.

Many say the area is thriving, calling it a community on the rise, but just how long can that last?

It's been 10 years since one of the worst recessions in history.

While the rest of the country was suffering from the 2008 recession, Elkhart County seemed to be in a depression.

The workforce depended on the RV industry. When things went bad, the first thing people stopped buying was RVs. Now that industry is back, though the question remains, will it continue to boom or bust?

Summer is in full swing in downtown Elkhart. It's known as the city with a heart-- but if downtown is the heart, what keeps it pumping are the hundreds of RV factories throughout the county.

"It's kind of soup to nuts in the RV industry. Whatever you need is produced here in Elkhart, Indiana,” said Mark Dobson, the president of the Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County.

About 47,000 people in the county are tied to RVs. One of those people deeply ingrained in the industry is Ian Roberts.

"I left straight from high school into the RV industry,” said Roberts.

He started in 2002 at Keystone RV Co.

“That time period with Keystone there was massive growth, kind of like what we are seeing right now. RVs were really popular, people were buying like crazy, dealers were popping up all over the county,” said Roberts.

Although that buying began to slow and by 2008 the country was in a full on financial crisis. People just couldn't afford luxury products like RVs.

Jason Lippert is the CEO of Lippert Components.

He says in a little over a year, industry sales dropped 60-percent.

"We had to make a lot of tough decisions and we had to keep the company healthy so we could employ the amount of team members we had at the end of the day,” said Lippert.

Tough decisions, like laying a significant amount of people off.

Lippert Components wasn't alone. It was just one of the companies trying to survive.

The unemployment rate in Elkhart County was 20-percent.

“There was some 20,000 people workers displaced at that time. There was nearly 20 million square feet of vacant facility at the end of the shakeout, it was devastating,” said Dobson.

Devastating is the same word Roberts uses to describe August 4, 2008.

“I drove to work that morning, they handed me a letter at 9 a.m. and they were like, “I’m sorry but we have to let you go,”" said Roberts.

He says for two solid years it was a struggle for his family, but his church and his faith helped him through it.

“My girls were two and seven at the time,” said Roberts.

It was those girls who drove him to keep going.

“I did a lot of side work, dry wall work, anything possible that people needed to try and support my family,” said Roberts.

He even pursued a degree at Ivy Tech.

“I didn't know if this was a five-year thing, a 10-year thing, a two-year thing, a one. So, at that time, you're like what else is there?” said Roberts. "Obviously I don’t want to build a future on this if this can happen again."

While Roberts re-grouped so did industry leaders like Lippert.

“We started thinking about just small and lightweight, low cost. Let's create RVs that more people can afford,” said Lippert.

Dobson says it was time to figure out how to get more people to buy the product.

“They've opened up new markets that traditionally weren't there,” said Dobson.

The recession forced the companies to consolidate and since people weren't buying RVs, the question was, what would they buy?

“We started a diversification plan to get into other industries and those include mobile transportation like buses and heavy truck, to marine and boats, to after markets, and Europe and some global business,” said Lippert.

After a few years, the industry's heart slowly started to beat again.

“Almost at the end of my degree pursuit, a friend called me from the company I worked for now and asked are you ready to go back to work?” said Roberts. "At that point you’re pretty desperate so you’re thinking yeah I need to go back to work and that’s exactly what happened."

Roberts went back to work at Heartland RV. He's been there ever since.

“Getting back to work was a struggle in the beginning because a lot of things are still uneasy,” said Roberts.

In the years since the recession, the factories have gotten bigger, the demand higher and the amount of workers has grown.

“We are running at below what economists say is full employment,” said Dobson.

Though the uneasiness is hard to shake for Roberts.

"You always have that nagging question in the back of your mind like ‘Will this ever happen again?’ That bugged me for a long time,” said Roberts.

It's unclear when the next economic downturn will hit, but what is agreed upon is that Elkhart County won't suffer the same way it did.

“Whether it's a 5-percent cut, or a 10-percent cut, or even a 15-percent, it's not going to be as deep as it was, and whatever it is, we will be a little more prepared because of what we went through the last time,” said Lippert.

Roberts says he knows there is some risk associated with the RV industry, but says he loves his job and will take the good with the bad.

“I'm not sure where the peak is, and I’m not sure that what happened then won't ever happen again, but I’m much more prepared this time and it won't feel the same at all,” said Roberts.

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