Obama returning to Elkhart County, Ind., land of recession and rebound

He keeps coming back, as if magnetically drawn to some ore of truth here.

For the fourth time in 15 months, President Obama will arrive in this blue-collar manufacturing area to sample the mood of the heartland and bring a message of change. He returns today to a community that has been hit as hard as any in this recession.

"Each time he comes here, I keep thinking things must get better," said Rosalie Collins, 43, an unemployed RV worker, as she waited in line at a local unemployment office this week.

This stretch of northern Indiana has become, in many ways, the poster child of the president's stimulus plans and promises of recovery.

Elkhart County encapsulates a key part of the country's industrial downturn. Unlike the great Midwestern auto towns that are tied to a single industry, the region occupies a slice of industrial America that encompasses small and large manufacturers in a range of businesses, including musical instruments and high-tech engines.

It is a place that Obama also has found attractive.

Elkhart, locals say, is in a traditionally conservative region that has shown a willingness to tilt Democratic. The county backed Sen. John McCain in the last presidential election, but the state went to Obama -- the first victory for a Democratic presidential candidate there since Lyndon B. Johnson won in 1964.

The visit fits a pattern of high-level White House trips to states that are historic presidential battlegrounds. Obama is looking to hold the state in 2012 -- and so Indiana is getting a disproportionate share of his travel time.

Economic recovery cannot come soon enough for the nearly 34,000 people in a county of about 200,000 who don't have jobs. More than 45% of the businesses in the area are in manufacturing, and one-quarter of those are tied to the recreational vehicle industry. More than a dozen factories have shut down in the last 12 months.

People here say they have begun to see a slight turn in their world -- small improvements and some hiring that hint that the worst may be over. But after so many months of grim news, they are still worried.

"We've all been scraping the bottom, and there's not much left to scrape," said Loren Begly Sr., 78, a retired truck driver whose six children have all had trouble either finding or keeping full-time work.

Since the late 1800s, when shops building medical products and brass machine fittings crowded along the rail line, diverse industries have been the area's economic backbone.

Located a few miles south of the Michigan border amid lush corn fields and dairy farms, the region has grown accustomed to economic roller coasters.

It survived after many jobs making musical instruments were moved overseas. It bounced back -- with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country -- after gas prices eased and interest in RVs resumed in the 1980s.

It recovered after the Miles Laboratories plant, where Alka-Seltzer and Flintstones vitamins were made, closed its doors in 2001.

"It's a national icon for economic cyclicality," said Kenneth Rosen, chairman of the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business.

The latest cycle is among the worst it has seen.

"We have been hit with extreme conditions," said Dick Moore, mayor of the city of Elkhart. "We've gone through these bust times before with the RV industry, but this has been one too many downturns to recover from on our own."

No one here could have imagined such hardship was coming when Sen. Barack Obama first stopped here in early May of last year in his campaign for the presidency.

It was days before the state's primary, and his campaign had been thrown off-kilter by racially incendiary comments made by his then-pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Obama and his family arrived for a get-out-the-vote event, and talked to residents about the war in Iraq, his "funny" name -- and jobs.

Collins barely paid attention to the news of the campaign stop. She felt secure in her job installing seats into RVs. The unemployment rate was at 6%.

When Obama returned that August, he was leading in the polls, but Collins was nervous. Factories across this northern stretch of Indiana were shedding jobs.

People were so eager to hear what Obama had to say that they arrived 12 hours early to wait outside of Concord Community High School.

When Obama came for a third stop in February, he came as a president trying to put a human face on why the country needed to support his $787-billion stimulus package.

Collins had lost her job by then and was scared. Gas prices had soared. Credit had dried up. Unemployment in the city of Elkhart had skyrocketed to 18%, one of the highest rates in the nation.

In the months since, the area has poured its resources into searching for the next manufacturer to bring new jobs. Obama's frequent visits have helped lure pitchmen from across the country.

Their ideas -- nanotechnology equipment, clean-coal technology, hybrid motors -- sit in a stack, more than 2 inches thick, on the desk of Brian Gildea, the city's economic development director.

Some of the ideas will undoubtedly become real factories one day, but that could be months or years away. For now, the area has banked on help from the president's stimulus plan. The county has gotten its share -- $38 million approved so far. Of that, the city of Elkhart has gotten $14 million approved.

Mayor Moore pointed to the city's first completed stimulus project -- a $3.8-million project to resurface the main runway of the Elkhart Municipal Airport that put about 100 people to work temporarily.

Now, there are hints of recovery. Seven area manufacturing firms, including makers of auto insulation parts, office chairs and RVs, have announced plans to expand their operations.

On Tuesday, Dometic America said it would put more than 240 people back to work in Elkhart, when it moves its air conditioner manufacturing here from a factory in Sweden.

And at the shuttered Monaco RV plant in Wakarusa, where Obama was scheduled to speak this morning, the doors have reopened and cars fill the parking lot again.

Obama will use the trip to announce grants for advanced battery and electric vehicle production, according to the White House. He'll also talk about what's needed to create conditions for sustained growth.

Ed Neufeldt was one of at least 1,400 people who lost their jobs at Monaco late last year. The 63-year-old had spent more than three decades in the factory's milling shop, turning planks of wood into RV cabinets.

Two of his daughters also worked at the company, as did two of his sons-in-law. Of the four, three were laid off. The fourth kept his job, but it was cut back to only a few hours a week.

In February, the White House contacted Neufeldt and asked him to introduce the president. He agreed to help sell the stimulus plan by telling America how much his family needed help.

Since then, one of his sons-in-law, a welder, has been hired by an RV company. The other had his job restored to four days a week. Neufeldt and one of his daughters have found part-time work delivering bread.

Neufeldt plans to attend Obama's speech today.

"I'm feeling really optimistic, but my family's more cautious," he said. "I guess we're all waiting to see what happens next."

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

Peter Nicholas in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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