ECO­NOMIC IN­DI­CA­TOR ON WHEELS

Icon of US road, RVs show the econ­omy’s strength in elec­tion year

Muscat Daily - - FEATURES -

The six or seven ve­hi­cles that come off the assem­bly line each day at the River­side plant in In­di­ana's Amish coun­try look more like houses than cars, with work­ers in­stalling wooden roofs and fi­bre­glass in­su­la­tion be­fore ap­ply­ing coats of gleam­ing white paint.

For decades, recre­ational ve­hi­cles have been icons of the Amer­i­can road: homes-on-the-go fur­nished with beds, show­ers, kitchens and even tele­vi­sion dens that of­fer fam­i­lies the free­dom to roam and see the vast coun­try.

In an elec­tion year, RVs tell an ad­di­tional story. Ex­perts con­sider them bell­wethers of the econ­omy, dream-buys for Amer­i­cans who only shell out the tens of thou­sands of dol­lars when they feel com­fort­able.

As the elec­tion sea­son opens, a team from AFP trav­elled (al­beit not by RV) from Wash­ing­ton to Iowa, which holds the first pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion con­test on Fe­bru­ary 3, in hopes of feel­ing the eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal pulse of the coun­try.

In the north­east­ern patch of In­di­ana cen­tred around Elkhart, the ver­dict from the RV in­dus­try ap­peared to be that the econ­omy - a key fac­tor in whether Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is re-elected - seems strong, although a notch less than re­cently. "A lot of peo­ple think that RVs are an eco­nomic in­di­ca­tor and in many ways it is, be­cause a recre­ational ve­hi­cle is not a have-to-have, it's a want-to-have," said Don Clark, CEO of Grand De­sign, a maker of high-end RVs started in 2012.

He said that tar­iffs, im­posed by Trump on steel, alu­minum and other ma­te­ri­als cru­cial for man­u­fac­tur­ing, have "had an im­pact" and been an "in­con­ve­nience," but the in­dus­try nonethe­less was braced for its fourth big­gest year on record.

‘Not a bad pic­ture’

At the RV Hall of Fame mu­seum, whose dis­plays in­clude a 1913 Model-T with a con­vert­ible din­ing ta­ble de­scribed as the first recre­ational ve­hi­cle, vet­eran in­dus­try watcher Sher­man Gold­en­berg said he ex­pects a dip of six per cent in ship­ments in 2019 from the pre­vi­ous year.

The in­dus­try has climbed since the af­ter­math of the Great Re­ces­sion in the late 2000s, and "af­ter an eight-year run of growth, at some point it planed out, as all things do," said Gold­en­berg, pub­lisher of RVBusi­ness mag­a­zine. "It's not a bad pic­ture, but no, we're not break­ing records."

He said that younger peo­ple - who have coined terms such as "glamp­ing" for high-end camp­ing - have helped re­vi­talise an in­dus­try dom­i­nated by older peo­ple. He es­ti­mates ship­ments of around 400,000 RVs in 2019.

Eric Sims, an economist at the Univer­sity of Notre Dame in nearby South Bend, said that past over­pro­duc­tion was an is­sue - but may be ex­ag­ger­ated by the in­dus­try. "There's some of that go­ing on, but I think that there is also a gen­eral slow­ing of de­mand for th­ese kinds of ve­hi­cles in the econ­omy," Sims said.

"I would char­ac­terise the RV in­dus­try as still do­ing well," he said. "Rel­a­tive to where things were three or four years ago, things have cooled off a lit­tle."

Hard-work­ing Amish

Pro­duc­tion at the RV fac­to­ries of­ten be­gins be­fore dawn to ac­com­mo­date the farm­ing sched­ule of the Amish, who make up much of the work­force even though they can­not drive mo­torised ve­hi­cles them­selves. Men sport­ing sus­penders and beards, and women wear­ing plain dresses and white kapp head­pieces, punched out their shifts us­ing time clocks be­fore some left on bi­cy­cle.

Mervin Lehman, gen­eral man­ager at River­side, where up to 80 per cent of labour is Amish, said that the work­ers de­lighted the com­pany "The ethic of com­ing to work ev­ery day, good work­man­ship, that kind of cul­ture, is what they bring. On the flip­side, it's a very good, lu­cra­tive pay­ing job. With an eighth-grade ed­u­ca­tion, there is nowhere else you can go to earn the money that this com­mu­nity can," he said, re­fer­ring to the Amish cus­tom of end­ing school at the start of their teenage years. While the Amish are for­bid­den from buy­ing RVs, for other Amer­i­cans, the main ques­tion is cost.

Keith Hess of Wis­con­sin, vis­it­ing the RV Hall of Fame with his wife of 38 years, said he ex­pected to be able to buy a long­sought US$100,000 unit in five years.

"We would like to take a month or two to travel the West Coast to Alaska, just be­ing able to be self-suf­fi­cient as you travel, to stop and have a meal or to pull off and use the bath­room," he said.

"We are very for­tu­nate in North Amer­ica that we can drive to a lot of places," he said. "You can see a lot of beau­ti­ful sites that God has cre­ated for us."

A lot of peo­ple think that RVs are an eco­nomic in­di­ca­tor and in many ways it is, be­cause a recre­ational ve­hi­cle is not a have-to-have, it's a want-to-have

Don Clark

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