ELKHART — The economic impact of the Elkhart Open House is a huge boost to the local economy, several people noted today during a press conference to kick off the week-long activities.
Industry leaders gathered at Forest River’s Dynamax facility to marvel at how the show has grown into the RV industry’s largest event of the year. The idea was first sparked by Forest River CEO Peter Liegl during the recession six years ago as a way to address two important needs. His company needed to present the new models to RV dealers, and the Elkhart community needed a financial shot in the arm after experiencing the highest unemployment rates in the nation.
The informal event was well received and expanded the following year to include Thor Industries. Since then, the event has exploded into a major regional trade show involving 60 RV manufacturers and suppliers and more than 4,000 dealer attendees, said B.J. Thompson, president of BJ Thompson Associates, who orchestrated the press conference.
“The open house is the largest annual business event for the Elkhart area,” he explained. “Just three of the manufacturers participating in the open house — Jayco, Thor and Forest River — account for 82 percent of all RV production nationwide.”
“Six years ago, in the depth of recession, Pete had a vision to invite customers here during times that weren’t the greatest of times,” said Mike Terlep, president of Coachmen RV, a Forest River company. “This has grown into more than a dealer show for our company, it has become an industry event.”
Forest River will have at least 600 RVs set up at the company’s display at the Dynamax facility, he noted, adding that a lot of company pride went into producing those vehicles.
Bob Martin, president and CEO of Thor Industries, drew attention to what happened when the industry worked together to create such an important event.
“Forest River really did start the open house week, and the rest of us followed,” he explained. “I thought it was a great idea for the industry to come together. I consider everyone here to be a friend.”
Derald Bontranger, president of Jacyo, noted that the Elkhart economy is driven by a quality workforce not found anywhere else in the world.
“Jayco was started by my father 48 years ago in Middlebury. Through those years, we had plants in various parts of the country and Canada, as many others can say,” he explained. “But, there is no place like home. The workforce of this community, the way this community supports our industry, the resilience of the workforce is second to none anywhere in the world, I’m convinced of that.”
The people of the Elkhart area benefit greatly by the RV industry, and its significance is felt around the world, said Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore.
“We thank the many who have helped organize the event, and who have worked hard to make sure every visitor has a pleasant and productive experience,” he added. “The people of Elkhart recognize the benefit the RV industry brings to the community. Wherever we go, people find Elkhart and RVs to be synonymous.
“The pride in the industry has become even more so considering recent developments relative to the downturn,” Moore explained. “I know the strength of the industry and have seen the transitions over the years. I told the people of Elkhart, don’t turn your back on our RV industry. It has sustained us well for many years, and will continue to do so for many more. They know what to do, and they will do it, and they have.
This event in our backyard is an example of knowing what to do,” he added. “You will see the best from where it is made.”
Kyle Hannon, president of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce, put some numbers behind the sentiment.
“The RV industry accounts for 3,000 local jobs and produces a $1 billion annual payroll,” said. “Dealers attending the open house get a concentrated look at the size and scope of the RV industry.”
Hannon said he likes to go to any campground and point out which RVs or products were manufactured in Elkhart.
“All of us in Elkhart are very proud to be considered the RV Capital of the World,” he added. “You play such an important role in our economy that goes beyond jobs and payroll. It is pride in what we do here.”
Dicor CEO Gregg Fore, who is the immediate past chairman of the RV Industry Association, said the economic impact of the three-day open house is the equivalent of adding 100 full-time jobs to the Elkhart economy.
“The amazing thing is, we do it all within three days,” he added.
Elkhart County Commissioner Frank Lucchese said it is hard to put a number to the overall impact the RV open house has on the local community, but as a restaurant owner, this week is one of his busiest of the year.
“There is not a family in Elkhart that isn’t touched by the industry in some way,” he added.