Signs of Economic Recovery in Hard-Hit Elkhart, Ind.

BY Paul Solman  December 23, 2009 at 3:26 PM EDT

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that in the heart of unemployment country, Elkhart, Indiana, things are looking up — or, more accurately perhaps, “less down.”

Unemployment there now stands at 14.5 percent, reasonably well below its peak of 18 percent when we were there in March (you can see the video below). The reason: a pick-up in the Recreational Vehicle industry. (Viewers may remember that Elkhart is the RV capital of the world, hosting the RV Hall of Fame and a whole host of manufacturers.)

The closest approximation to a random sample that we in the anecdata business can easily conjure is to follow up with people we’ve already interviewed. So I called Ed Neufeldt, one of the stars of our March piece, who introduced President Obama when he made his third trip in a year to Elkhart in February.

As the *WSJ* reports today, Neufeldt has a job with an electric motor company that’s coming to Elkhart. “I was hired as a spokesman for the company,” says Neufeldt, “but there haven’t been many speaking opportunities.” So he’s been working part-time, helping clean up a building the Electric Motors Co. is getting ready for manufacturing, while also delivering bread on Wednesdays and Sundays. He’s earning no more than he did on unemployment insurance but says it’s much better: “I’d much rather work.” As for the rest of his family, which we’d assembled at Cook’s Pizza, here’s the latest rundown, in order of appearance: **Lisa Neufeldt (daughter):** Recently married, she’s still stocking shelves with bread, part-time. She had a chance to return to the RV industry but, her dad says, “She thought it was too risky to go back.” Her husband, a laid-off RV worker, has been rehired. **Lori Gaut (another of Ed’s daughters):** Still working part-time at Menard’s. **Josh Gaut (Lori’s husband, laid off for 4 months when we were there):** Back at work in the RV industry, 4-5 days a week, with a two-week furlough for Christmas. **Lucinda Gaut (Josh’s mother, who’d been laid off from the RV industry the week before we hit town):** She’s opened a consignment shop — furniture, clothing, etc. **Don Gaut (Lucinda’s husband):** An RV vet who’d been out-of-work for more than a year, Don has had recurring back woes, is not working. As for public stimulus money and Elkhart, Mayor Dick Moore had showed us three would-be projects: the renovation of an old, once-majestic vaudeville theater; a traffic overpass (or underpass, depending on your point of view) near the heart of town; and a long-needed overhaul of the city’s sewage system. All three are on track, according to the mayor’s office. The theater is ahead of schedule and under budget (by $130,000) is the word, slated to re-open its door in late 2010 or early 2011. What will play first? “A couple of guys want ‘Jersey Boys,” says Arvis Dawson, executive assistant to the mayor. “The mayor wants ‘Oklahoma.’ But in any case, something BIG.” The overpass/underpass has gotten a bit of money ($700,000) via the local congressman; the city is still lobbying for its $66 million-dollar proposal under the stimulus program. The sewage system is “proceeding”; the city is closing on very-low-interest money from the state next week. You can watch our March segment on Elkhart: