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Elkhart: RV Capital of the World

Friday, July 15, 2016

A study released by the Virginia-based Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, its first-ever economic impact study, showed that the RV industry had a national economic contribution of $49.7 billion in 2015.

111 of the country’s 228 RV manufacturing plants are located in Indiana. According to the report, $4.6 billion of that economic contribution took place in northcentral Indiana with Elkhart, IN as its epicenter of activity.

So important is Elkhart to this industry (and vice versa) that in June, President Obama visited Elkhart, holding up the city—and its manufacturing industry in particular—as an example of economic recovery after the Great Recession. “The story of Elkhart is the story of America’s recovery,” Obama wrote in advance of his visit. In 2009, Elkhart was the first city he visited as president because it was one of the cities hardest hit by the recession with an unemployment rate of nearly twenty percent. Now in 2016, “Elkhart’s manufacturing is back, and the town has regained nearly all of the jobs it lost during the downturn. The unemployment rate is lower than it was before the recession, and lower than the national average,” said the president.

Recreational Vehicle Industry Association

703.620.6003

www.rvia.org

 

How did Elkhart become the RV capital of the world? The answer is found in the following is a guest post by Al Hesselbart, Former Staff Historian at the RV/MH Hall of Fame in Elkhart, IN. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Today we all know Elkhart, Indiana as the RV Capital of the World. More than 80 percent of global RV production is based throughout the region. That means that if you see an RV rolling down the road anywhere in the world, chances are that it was built with the craftsmanship and dedication of Hoosiers.

But it hasn’t always been that way. Before retiring in 2014 as the walking RV encyclopedia for the RV/MH Hall of Fame, I was always asked one question: How did Indiana become the undisputed home for RV manufacturing?

The answer - as I describe in my book, The Dumb Things Sold... Just Like That - is a story of three Hoosiers. Milo Miller, Wilbur Schult and Harold Platt fell in love with trailers in the mid-1930s just like many of us have today, and they decided that because of Northern Indiana’s workforce, location and automotive heritage, there was no better place to launch their trailer businesses than their own backyards. As Miller, Schult and Platt found success, so did the Hoosiers they employed, many of whom went on to launch their own RV businesses.

By 1948, it was official. National press clippings show Elkhart referenced as the “Trailer Capital of the World.” At that point, 100 companies were building trailers in and around Elkhart County.

As more manufacturers sprung up, that attracted additional suppliers, which in turn attracted more manufacturers. As the Crossroads of America, Indiana’s location was crucial for manufacturers who needed to quickly ship their trailers across the country with the aid of the region’s robust system of railroads, rivers and roads.

These quickly growing companies also needed a large workforce experienced in manufacturing, something Indiana is still famous for today. Back then, it was auto manufacturing leaders like Studebaker, Pratt and Elcar. Today, its auto companies like South Bend-based AM General. Indiana is No. 2 in the nation for auto production, with five auto assembly plants and more than 500 auto suppliers supporting more than 100,000 Hoosier jobs. With the automotive industry acting as a base, Indiana has added 32,000 manufacturing jobs since January 2013 and is home to the largest concentration of manufacturing employment in the nation.

That type of manufacturing strength is important for the growth of RV companies today. One in five Hoosiers work in manufacturing, many at companies that supply both the RV and auto industries, and that crucial diversification and stability helps supports the strength of both supply chains. RV companies also need a strong business climate with low taxes and limited regulations. Under the leadership of Governor Pence, that’s exactly what the RV industry is finding in Indiana today.

While the recession hit Elkhart hard, it's the same qualities that supported Elkhart’s booming economy in the 1930s that support its epic comeback today. The story of California-based Fleetwood Enterprises proves that Elkhart’s story can't happen just anywhere. With the rising cost of doing business in California, industry giant Fleetwood Enterprises filed for bankruptcy in 2009. When a private equity group purchased its motor home assets, it decided that production of Fleetwood RVs needed to move to a more affordable home - Decatur, Indiana. At the same time, Elkhart-based Heartland RV, now a subsidiary of Thor Industries, acquired Fleetwood’s towable trailer assets and moved their production to Elkhart.

Today the RV industry is stronger than ever in Northern Indiana. This state's central location, skilled workforce, thriving business climate and manufacturing strength earned Indiana its status as the RV Capital of the World years ago, and today it’s the reason why after generations, Indiana continues to roll ahead of other states as the undisputed RV manufacturing leader.

Mr. Hesselbart’s book on the subject, The Dumb Things Sold…Just Like That, is available at: www.amzn.com/B00CD3SXUG