GOSHEN — Mounting talk of trade wars coupled with whispers of slowdowns in the automotive and RV industries have some in Elkhart County voicing concerns about what may be in store for the local economy moving forward. But according to one local business expert, those concerns are largely unfounded.
Mark Dobson, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County, provided county council members Saturday with an extensive look at his organization’s recent business attraction and expansion work both in the county and the surrounding region.
A public-private partnership serving the cities, towns, businesses and residents of Elkhart County, the EDCEC defines its mission as working to create an economically vibrant community by recruiting, retaining and strengthening the county’s economic base and being a catalyst for diversification, innovation and economic change. It pursues this mission by working with companies looking to locate or expand in Elkhart County.
Dobson’s update Saturday was provided as a lead-in to his request for the EDC’s annual funding contribution by the county, this year in the amount of $207,199. The request was later approved by the council in a unanimous vote.
According to Dobson, while it’s true there is a slowdown happening within the RV industry, that slowdown is not necessarily a sign of hard times ahead.
“You have heard rumors of layoffs, I’m sure, and there have been some,” Dobson said of the slowdown. “I have spoken to both of the locally headquartered folks, and also the folks outside of the area. There are a couple of significant things that have caused that.”
Among those, Dobson said, is a lack of technicians at the dealership level.
“So when you go in to purchase your RV, the prep effort is delayed right now because there is a lack of technicians in the market,” Dobson said. “There was also quite an exuberant 2017 RV Open House where virtually everything was ordered, and now the dealers are at the point of the 2018 RV Open House about to happen, and they are desirous to have the 2019 models, rather than the existing ones. So they are pushing back a little bit right now, saying, ‘Please, lets slow down a little bit.’”
But for those who might be tempted to view this slowdown as a portent to impending economic decline, Dobson urged caution.
“It’s actually a very healthy pause,” Dobson told the council. “It’s a time where they’re going through some process improvements and changing some things. So this is not the other shoe dropping. This is just a very healthy pause. Even at this level, they’re going to have 2018 as a record year unless the wheels completely fall off the buggy, and that would have to be something catastrophic. But this will still be a record year for the RV industry. So these are all very exciting things.”
Speaking specifically to the work of the EDC over the past half-year, Dobson again had encouraging words for the council.
“Our region, we’re St. Joseph, Elkhart, Marshall, Kosciusko and Fulton counties. We still represent over 50 percent of the projects that IEDC is working on (in the region),” Dobson said of the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. “Year-to-date we have seven project wins accounting for about 700 new jobs to the market. In fact, we were working on one this morning that would be a very significant impact as well. There are both RV and non-RV related projects in these project wins.”
Dobson said the EDC is also working on 12 active attraction projects within the county, and has even been working with a foreign direct consultant in trying to appeal to companies outside of the U.S. to relocate to the region.
“We are seeing some interest in locating in the United States,” Dobson said. “We also have 28 business retention and expansion projects we’re working on throughout the county. These are all businesses, all classes, again in the industrial and manufacturing space. We don’t help Kohls or Target expand, but we do help the manufacturing space with what’s going on there.
“Then, as always, we respond to state leads that fit Elkhart County,” Dobson added of the EDC’s work. “We have submitted 20 RFIs to the state this year. These would be the types of projects that would be huge. These are the 500,000 square feet, 1,000 job-type opportunities.”
One particularly positive thing that has come out of the EDC’s work this year is the group’s increasing interaction with site consultants from outside of the region, Dobson explained, noting that it has long been an EDC goal to get Elkhart County’s name outside of the Elkhart County area.
“We all know how good this county is, but we weren’t doing a great job necessarily of marketing ourselves to the world,” Dobson said of the EDC’s earlier work. “Site consultants now are coming to us with project opportunities, they’re asking us if certain buildings fit… We’re having a level of engagement with site consultants that we’ve not had in the past. So I think we are starting to bear that fruit, and what will be helpful about that is that will help us find some of that diversity in the industry outside of what we do so well in this community.”
Speaking to the well-known labor shortage in Elkhart County, Dobson pointed to things such as the EDC’s www.elkhartcountyworks.com website and a push to integrate ex-offenders into the marketplace as some of the organization’s ongoing efforts to try and help bridge that labor gap.
“We’ve had good interest and success early on with bringing ex-offenders to the marketplace or to employers,” Dobson said. “These are not people who are just released from jail and said good luck and goodbye. They have to have completed some leadership training, they’ve had to get a certificate while incarcerated, they’ve had to actually go through a process. The leadership training is actually the same that we do in our office.”
And according to Dobson, that push to tap the county’s ex-offender pool is paying off.
“We were not sure that employers would be enthused, but they seem more enthused about that as compared to the efforts we’ve been going through to bring retiring veterans from the military to the community,” Dobson said. “We’ve probably spent more time on the veterans, and have had the least amount of success. It’s just been a challenge translating the skills of the military to the skills necessary in the market, and the market was so heated up that businesses didn’t have time to do that translation. But we continue to work with INvets. It’s a statewide effort to bring vets here, and we continue to participate with them.”
Rounding out the EDC’s top goals for 2018 are plans for an in-depth study of the county’s industry diversity, Dobson explained.
“We know we are the best in the world at RVs. Nobody does better than this region building RVs,” Dobson said. “These same companies though are more diverse today than ever, and what we really don’t know, because of the way the federal government reports businesses, is how diverse, really, are we? We do need to do a better analysis of that, and that’s something we’ll launch in the fourth quarter of this year.”
Following Dobson’s presentation, Councilman John Letherman joined others on the council in praising the EDC’s work, noting that he feels the organization has really upped its game in recent years, and the results are evident.
“You’ve kind of moved up to the next level for the last couple three years, and it’s really great to see you taking charge of some things that maybe in some ways we hadn’t even thought about before,” Letherman said.
For more information about the EDC and its work, visit www.elkhartcountybiz.com.