IBJOpinion

MARCUS: Opportunity to Think in Elkhart County

Morton Marcus
January 16, 2010
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Morton Marcus

Sometimes, to get perspective on an issue, I go to an expert on the subject. Thus I called Euturn Wright, America’s leading authority on economic development. My first question was, “Why has it been so long since I last heard from you?”

“Youngster,” he erroneously called me, “aside from the fact that few seek my services, Indiana hasn’t had enough economic development recently to attract my attention.”

“But,” I challenged, “the Indiana Department of Commerce … ”

Euturn interrupted me. “The Indiana Department of Commerce? Did you ever search for them on the Web? Know what you get on Yahoo? You get the Department of Corrections.”

“That’s not important,” I said. “Today’s Commerce Department is, in effect, a subsidiary of the Indiana Economic Development Corp. Isn’t the IEDC doing a bang-up job?”

“They do announce many ventures and many jobs,” he said. “But I find it hard to assess their long-term success. Certainly it is not in their annual report. In fact, the latest annual report on their Web site is for 2007.”

“Oh,” I responded, “cut them some slack. IEDC does what needs to be done: helps firms find communities in Indiana where they can be successful.”

“Yes,” Euturn admitted. “I saw that announcement last week about Think announcing its plan to build its all-electric City car in Elkhart County. I know you find that especially important because you have been working with the Elkhart Development Corp.”

I blushed in acknowledgement.

“No need to be embarrassed,” he said. “We both know that economists make no specifically useful contributions to such decisions. But this was a fine moment for the principal parties.

“Think is unlike some companies whose announcements have been widely publicized. They actually produce a product. That was not a fantasy or even a prototype that local citizens drove last week. It seems the Think City will be the first electric car produced in America in this century. With its 100-mile range, the City should have a strong market among economy/environmentally minded commuters.”

“But, at $30,000, it might be priced too high,” I said.

“That’s hard to assess,” he said, “It’s in the neighborhood of the expected price for General Motors’ Volt, which does not offer even half the City’s range. But look at the bigger picture. Think will buy its batteries from EnerDel, which is in Indiana already. They will need other parts from other suppliers. That’s opportunity for Indiana automotive suppliers to get in this electric-car market at ground level.”

“True, very true,” I said.

“But Elkhart County,” he said, “needs to rethink itself. This, and most other projects in the county, did not originate locally. This investment is from somewhere else, using ideas and talents from elsewhere. Here is a county that puffs itself up as the recreational-vehicle capital of the nation, with lots of talk about its ‘entrepreneurial’ record. Thus far, however, local entrepreneurs and the RV industry are largely missing from the picture.”  

“I don’t understand,” I admitted. “What do you want?”

“I,” he laughed. “I don’t want anything. I merely find these scraps of truth instructive. Maybe Elkhart County needs to ask itself if there is long-term economic value in being the RV or even the electric-vehicle capital of the nation. Would more extensive diversification be more advantageous? As for its entrepreneurial nature, is that an accurate and meaningful claim?”

“With questions like that,” I said, “I see why communities aren’t calling you.”•

__________

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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