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Elkhart's industries could be transformed to focus on energy conservation and environmental improvements

February 16, 2009

I had a dream that I met with President Obama during his visit to Elkhart. It was just before breakfast in a school gymnasium. He was shooting baskets with one hand and drinking orange juice with the other.

"A little one-on-one?" he asked.

"No," I answered. "My basketball days are over."

"What do you do for fun?" he asked.

"I think up things for other people to do," I replied.

"And what do you think I should do?" he asked.

Remember, this is my dream, so I drove through that open door.

"Follow through on what you have said," I replied. "Work on energy conservation and environmental improvement while restoring prosperity to our economy."

"And," he said, sinking a hook shot, "how should I do that?"

"Well," I said in my best imitation of Ronald Reagan, "just look around us here in Indiana and in Elkhart County specifically. What do you see?"

I gave him no chance to answer, since I could not be sure how soon the Secret Service would move me away. "You see closed RV plants and struggling manufactured-homes producers. These are two industries that fit well with the necessities of our society." He smiled that famous Obama smile, but I wouldn't be deterred.

"That's right, Mr. President," I went on, "we can turn two industries that seem to be at odds with our society's goals into major assets for tomorrow. Gas-guzzling RVs and much-maligned manufactured homes can be instruments of energy conservation, environmental quality improvement and economic vitality."

"How?" he asked while an agent gave him a new cup of juice and offered a doughnut, which was declined.

"You have already established an urban affairs office in the White House," I said. "What do our cities need? They need to provide good housing for all income classes on land that is now under-used. Most of that foreclosed property is in the center of our cities. We need a program to reshape urban America, to build sufficient density of people and economic activity to support public transit.

"First, we would create jobs clearing out the decayed housing of our central cities, from Elkhart and Evansville, Goshen and Greenfield, right through Boston and Birmingham. Then, new urban communities could be constructed with manufactured housing and serviced with public transit vehicles built by today's RV manufacturers."

"Are you proposing gigantic trailer courts in our cities, with luxury mass-transit RVs serving them?" he asked, banking a shot off the backboard.

"You know I'm not doing that," I said sharply, since in my dream I could reprimand the president.

"Efficient, environmentally friendly manufactured housing can be built to satisfy the preferences of most income groups. We can reverse urban sprawl and make it possible for public transit to be successful. We don't need buses that are built for 40 or 60 passengers. Smaller units running more frequently would serve us better.

"Since the RV as we know it is not efficient and is not environmentally friendly, it will have to be redesigned. In the meantime, existing efficient technology could be used by former RV companies to produce appropriate buses for our new cities."

"This would help Elkhart County," he agreed.

"Mr. President," I said, "this would help cities across America. It would be more than a stimulus; it would be a transformative program to remove the accumulated decay of neglect and align our efforts with our goals for tomorrow."

"I like that line," he said. "It has just enough multisyllabic words to make me comfortable without making my listeners feel ill at ease." He then turned to face me squarely, and tossing the ball over his head, sank a three-pointer. With that swish, I woke up feeling I had done my duty.
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Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

 

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