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Why Elkhart?

This recession is a sprawling national story, but its effects are local and personal: Families are facing heartbreaking setbacks; managers are laying off friends and neighbors; longtime businesses are closing. Yet our towns and cities also are places of hope, where community is a potent force and America's resilient spirit is ever present.

This is why msnbc.com is in Elkhart, Indiana.

This blog marks the beginning of The Elkhart Project, an effort by msnbc.com to focus attention on one town's battle against joblessness, diminished opportunities, a severe credit crunch and a population of newly needy residents.

In Elkhart this set of problems surfaced months earlier than in much of the nation. So, we will spend the coming months there to bring a better understanding of its people, the hard choices facing them and the triumphs they achieve.

We hope our reporting in this city of 53,000 will help us to understand the national struggle and offer lessons for all of us about how to adapt and endure.

We want to be there on the days that federal stimulus funds arrive or when new ideas and new thinking emerge from the hard times. We will introduce you to the people who will be key in determining the city's fate and to those young people who will be its future. To help us tell this story, msnbc.com is partnering with the Elkhart Truth newspaper. Its staff knows the city inside and out.

Why Elkhart?

The city's horrific unemployment rate, at 19.6 percent in February, already has drawn national attention. Barack Obama has come to the city three times in less than a year to highlight the city's troubles and to promise help. (Watch video below to hear him discuss the economy during a Feb. 9 visit to Elkhart.)

In a country where people ask "Why don't we build things anymore?" this area has long been the rebuttal. Before the current recession, it thrived as a manufacturing center even as foreign competition routed entire U.S. industries. If Americans are to continue producing manufactured goods in the global market, communities like Elkhart must lead the way.

The people of Elkhart are its greatest resource, imbued with an ethic of hard work and a culture of inventiveness. In addition to building the first travel trailers in the 1920s, Elkhart County residents have designed and produced hundreds of products that ended up in homes across the U.S. – everything from popcorn poppers and golf clubs to electronic switches and specialized brass fittings.

Residents talk about the city's resilience in terms of being a bellwether for the rest of the United States. Elkhart, the saying goes around town, leads the way into recession and then shows the way back out.

That is why many Elkhart residents remain optimistic that they will put this economic downturn behind them.

"We've been in this situation before and I think we're going to get out of this all right," Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore told msnbc.com. "We're asking for some assistance, not a handout but a hand up."

The city bounced back after the 2001 closure of the Miles Laboratories plant, the maker of Alka Seltzer and for decades a major employer in the city. And it prospered despite the long slow decline of the musical instrument business, another former mainstay of the economy.

Moore is looking for $92 million in federal stimulus funding for public works projects that he says will create 2,310 jobs.

But even those who believe that the federal money will kick-start the local economy acknowledge that the city must tap new revenue streams, heed the lessons of the past and reinvent itself.

More than 50 percent of Elkhart's businesses are in manufacturing, and one-quarter of those are directly related to the RV industry, accounting for the city's self-proclaimed title of "RV Capital of the World."

Of all the 381 major metropolitan areas in the U.S., Elkhart had the highest share of its workforce in manufacturing jobs in 2007, according to an analysis by Moody's Economy of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

You can learn more about the local economy in the Adversity Index, a rich analysis developed by Moody's Economy in cooperation with msnbc.com that we're launching today alongside this project. This report includes an interactive map that allows you to see comparable data for the other 380 U.S. metro areas.

Local leaders are wracking their brains for ways to diversify the economy. Among them is Mike Yoder, a dairy farmer and county commissioner, who is championing a plan to use empty RV factories as fish farms. You'll meet him on Wednesday in a piece looking at how hard it is to change in the midst of an economic crisis.

Elkhart officials are attempting to entice businesses to relocate. At the same time, they're looking for the next big idea. Brian Gildea, Elkhart's economic development director, has a pile of proposals several inches thick on his desk, some of which include rough sketches and barely legible hand-written notes.

Moore said most of those he's looked at came from "people who've got a big hat, but no cattle."

There are some bright spots. In downtown Elkhart, a picturesque stretch of historic brick buildings around a central park and river walk, two new restaurants have opened in the past four months. Work also has begun to turn the old ELCO movie theater into a new performing arts center, scheduled to open in fall 2010.

But the economic cross-currents continue to tug hard at other parts of the community.

Long lines snake out of a branch library on the weekend, as residents without computer access at home line up to file the information that will keep their jobless benefits coming.

Vacancies appear to be the rule rather than the exception in many commercial complexes along Bristol Avenue, a major Elkhart thoroughfare. That's where Elkhart resident Ann Cari has had a furniture showroom since 1992, a business that may soon become the recession's next victim.

And "For Sale" signs and notices of foreclosure are common in some neighborhoods, particularly in the largely African-American and Hispanic areas south of the railroad tracks that bisect the city. (Click here for a map of the city).

Sergio Velasco, a real estate agent and mortgage broker, said many Hispanics have left to look for work elsewhere.
"It's terrible," he said. "People I know who have family and friends, they've already left. … It's going to be a ghost town."

And so, the tug-of-war between optimism and despair continues. In the coming weeks and months, we invite you to follow this important story with us, and to share your own stories from your hometowns. Your questions or comments are welcome below.