The chief executive officer of the Economic Development Corp. of Elkhart County says Amazon’s (Nasdaq: AMZN) announcement to build an ecommerce fulfillment center and a delivery station in the county has been nine months in the making. But Chris Stager says the time is well spent as it’ll bring 1,000 jobs to the area. More importantly, he says the facility will help diversify the county’s economy, which is heavily dependent on recreational vehicle manufacturing.
“During the last recession, we were the poster child for a non-diversified economy. So, we’ve been focusing a lot on that, in our efforts for the last six or seven years,” said Stager in an interview with Inside INdiana Business.
During the Great Recession of 2008-2009, Elkhart County had the highest unemployment rate in the country at nearly 20%. Several big RV makers and their suppliers were making deep cuts to the workforce. It took years to recover.
Now, the unemployment rate is about 2.8%, lower than both the state and national averages, because of a thriving RV industry. But county economic officials say now is not the time to be complacent with building a resilient workforce.
“We’re trying to be very respectful of the RV industry because it’s our legacy here, and we’re proud of it. But we do have to diversify and continue focusing on those kinds of things as well,” said Stager.
Elkhart County is recognized as the RV manufacturing capital of the world and manufactures 80% of RVs and towable trailers in the U.S. Elkhart County Board of Commissioners President Suzanne Weirick says Amazon’s investment will help broaden the county’s economic base.
“Amazon’s decision to support Elkhart County is a huge vote of confidence in our workforce development initiatives,” said Weirick. “Since investments by Amazon tend to attract related industries, we look forward to additional interest in Elkhart County by other high-tech companies.”
The e-commerce company says it will construct two buildings, totaling nearly 1 million square feet. The project includes an 800,000-square-foot e-commerce fulfillment center and a 180,000-square-foot delivery station.
The company says the fulfillment center will be a “state-of-the-art” building, using the latest robotics.
Stager says even prior to the Amazon project, Elkhart County was working to upskill its workforce. Ivy Tech Community College in Elkhart recently celebrated the opening of a new robotics, automation and manufacturing lab.
“I can’t speak exactly how much automation’s in there, but we’ve been told that it’s the latest Amazon technology that they’ve developed nationally,” said Stager. “We’re very happy that we’re seeing some advanced automation over the last two years. Even in the RV sector, we’re starting to see more automated processes…[and] optimizing our workforce.”
Amazon says both facilities are scheduled to launch in 2023.
Stager says the RV industry remains vital to the county’s economy, but he wants to avoid a complete reliance on it for jobs.