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Sparks of hope, lingering pain end 2009

As Elkhart moves into the New Year, it sips a bittersweet cocktail of hope, painful transition, and economic setbacks.

On one hand, national economic indicators that allow for cautious optimism are playing out in some tangible change on the ground in Elkhart--much needed signs for a resilient but battered community.

Wholesale shipments of motorhomes had finally outpaced 2008, The Elkhart Truth reported on the final day of 2009, citing national numbers from the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. According to Mac Bryan, vice president of the RVIA the numbers reflect two positive trends: easing of financing, and growing confidence among RV dealers. With each month he says, there is "less likelihood of a double dip"--or potential second slump in demand.

Meantime, The Truth also reported that a local company producing doors for a variety of motor vehicles had purchased one of the many RV facilities that has been standing empty since August 2008. The shut down of the old Monaco Coach plant in Nappanees resulted in lay-offs for hundreds of workers, and the company that made the purchase, Challenger Door isn't likely to replace those jobs any time soon.

But the purchase of the 143,000 square foot facility signalled potential, and marked a step away from the trauma of the factory closure. Nappanee Mayor Larry Thompson told The Truth it was "very encouraging" to see a local company like Challenger invest in the community.

Of course, every few steps forward are punctuated by a step backward--including the Christmas Eve announcent by Mishawaka Humvee producer AM General Corp that it would lay off 250 workers because it hadn't received enough new orders to maintain the current workforce.

With unemployment still running around 15 percent in the area, the Elkhart Salvation Army reports that demand for food, utility assistance, and other services remains extremely high--some 20-30 percent higher than in 2008. And raising the funds to meet those needs remains a challenge, according to Major Steve Woodard of the Elkhart Salvation Army. The organization has raised about $300,000 of its $400,000 goal for the holiday fundraising season, which ends Jan. 31. Woodard said the general public has pitched in to make the bell-ringer campaign a success, and more than meet a goal for in-kind giving of household goods and food, while the mail-in campaign has lagged.

An anonymous Elkhart donor put up two major gifts during the holiday season--$100,000 to Church Community Services, and $200,000 to the United Way of Elkhart--in a challenge to other wealthy residents to give more. Perhaps the move will help philanthropy turn a corner here too, though that remains to be seen in 2010.

"It is bittersweet--a lot of people are still hurting out there," says Woodard, looking to 2010. "A lot of people are optimistic (about economic recovery) but it will take awhile."