No better time than now for diversification
While the economy is strong, the City of Elkhart is working proactively to increase economic resiliency and develop a clear growth plan.
ELKHART (October 5, 2018) – The City of Elkhart is known currently and historically as a manufacturing hub, contributing significantly to the regional and state economies. In fact, Elkhart’s base industries – which make up approximately 34 percent of the City’s employment – accounted for $14.6 billion in economic output and generated nearly $900 million in state sales and income tax revenue in 2017.
One week after a recent report by the New York Times deemed the state of the Elkhart economy as “decidedly ambiguous,” Elkhart-based Thor Industries became the largest RV manufacturer in the world. The annual Dealer Open House in late September reinforced the strength of the RV industry and a review of data collected by the City’s Building Department also shows that residential and commercial investments continue to rise. This Department, which plays a key role in the community’s economic development, is on track to complete over 4,000 inspections on new construction/renovation projects this year alone, a 58 percent increase over 2016. Through September of this year, the value of permits issued for these projects was just under $100 million.
This implies that confidence in the economy is still strong, but for many who have lived in Elkhart through various economic cycles, the sentiments expressed in the New York Times article were not surprising. Throughout the City’s history, the economy has been primarily driven by one industry at a time – pharmaceuticals, band instruments, manufactured homes, and now recreational vehicles. This over-reliance on a singular base industry has made Elkhart more vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy.
Recognizing this, the City of Elkhart began working earlier this year on an economic growth case study. It was important to dig deeper to understand and quantify what many local officials and residents know to be anecdotally true. While the economy is strong, the City is proactively working to increase economic resiliency and develop a clear growth plan.
As details continue to be finalized on the economic growth plan, certain overarching recommendations have already emerged. Economic growth objectives addressing industry diversification, talent development, quality of life issues, land use planning, and investment in aging real estate are needed to ensure Elkhart’s future resiliency.
By examining the current base industries as well as workforce requirements, the City will identify two to three industries that they would specifically target for future growth. These industries should complement the existing base, have different market demand factors, and have the ability to be filled by the existing and new workforce talent. These industries could include distribution, logistics, supply chain management, information technology, data analytics, advanced manufacturing, engineered solutions, healthcare and technical training and education fields.
ADDRESSING WORKFORCE AND QUALITY OF LIFE ISSUES
Young people today are relocating to communities that offer lifestyle opportunities. Job opportunities are a secondary consideration. If the opposite were true, we would expect to see significant population growth as a response to the demand indicated by Elkhart’s low unemployment rate. However, that has not been the case.
Nationwide, millennials and baby boomers represent the largest populations, and both largely desire to live in walkable, urban communities with a variety of opportunity for recreation, hospitality, social connection, arts, culture, and other activities. By working now to create these conditions in our community, Elkhart will be at an advantage in terms of future population growth and the ability to support local industry.
In addition to creating a signature destination along Main Street and the River District in downtown Elkhart, we are also working to create more livable neighborhoods throughout the City. One way of doing this is through investments in our community gathering places, our parks. A citywide Housing Strategy is also being developed to address how we meet current and future housing demands, which will be essential to welcoming new residents to our reinvigorated community.
INVESTMENT IN AGING REAL ESTATE AND INFRASTRUCTURE
As the City identifies the industries we will target in the future, we must also prioritize local investments in a way that appeals to these target industries. Around the country, effective community growth is occurring in cities that have built a brand identity and have reinforced that identity through quality of place amenities and strategic infrastructure developments. These intentional strategic investments will be outlined in Elkhart’s first economic development plan and will aim to resolve impediments to targeted industries relocating to Elkhart. This will be done through creating shovel ready sites or repurposing aging real estate to meet current industrial standards.
These goals and recommendations offer a glimpse into the dedicated work being completed by the City of Elkhart’s economic development team over the past year. As we continue to invest in ourselves, we must have a plan that demonstrates to new industries and workforce that we are organized, and we are open for business. As that plan comes to fruition, the City is looking forward to sharing that with residents and business owners so that everyone will be a part of a reenergized Elkhart.