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The Journal Gazette

  • Fisel

Thursday, August 10, 2017 1:00 am

Ligonier getting RV plant, 130 jobs

Flush with work, town needs housing

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Ligonier has a labor problem. But it's a problem some other small Indiana towns would love to wrestle with.

The northwest Noble County city with a population of about 4,400 already had more than one unfilled factory job for every 10 residents.

And now, an Elkhart-based recreational vehicle manufacturer plans to create about 130 more jobs in Ligonier within the next two months.

Forest River Inc. is investing millions to buy and equip a vacant factory to build Puma brand travel trailers, Ligonier Mayor Patty Fisel said Wednesday. The company, which couldn't be reached for comment, plans to ramp up production by Oct. 1, she said.

Time will tell how easy it is to fill those production positions. Fisel believes the relatively high wages might persuade some residents who commute to other cities to apply for jobs closer to home. The pay could also attract commuters into Ligonier to work, she said.

Workers will start at $15 to $18 an hour and can eventually earn up to $40 an hour, depending on experience and position, she said.

Forest River's interest in Ligonier was a surprise to the mayor, who hadn't aggressively promoted the property that has been empty for only a few months.

The 118,000-square-foot building at 710 Gerber St. is the last available large plant in the city's industrial park.

“Just out of the blue one day, Mike (Stump) showed up in my office,” Fisel said, adding that the Forest River public relations director asked questions about the property's zoning status. “That was a really good day at the office.”

A zoning change enacted Tuesday evening will allow Forest River to use some of the 10-acre site for outdoor storage, a make-or-break detail, Fisel said.

The company isn't asking for tax breaks for buying the property or on the value of equipment being moved in.

Ligonier's rules don't permit tax concessions on industrial real estate unless a building has been vacant for at least one year, which isn't the case here, Fisel said.

As for the equipment, also referred to as personal property, the company could move it in but wouldn't be allowed to use it until after the lengthy tax break process was completed. The company was unwilling to wait, Fisel said.

That pressing need for more production space could lead to a second Forest River deal within the next year, she said. Ligonier's industrial park has space to grow, including lots measuring 51, 31 and 24 acres.

Stump “indicated within six months, they will probably looking for more land,” Fisel said.

Because Forest River didn't file a tax abatement application, details about how much it's spending aren't publicly available. But it's safe to assume the amount is in the millions because the company is buying the property, which was listed for $1.78 million on a commercial real estate website, and is investing in equipment.

The company's products aren't cheap. New Puma fifth wheels and travel trailers carry a suggested retail price of about $20,000 to $30,000, depending on size and accessories. Dealers often offer discounts, however. Other brands in Forest River's portfolio sell for much more.

The Berkshire Hathaway-owned company operates more than 85 plants, which employ about 11,000 workers nationwide, according to corporate videos available online.

“They're a great company to work for,” Fisel said. “I know other people who work for them.”

The mayor wants to be sure she can offer a great community where employers can set up shop. Short-term plans include annexing about 126 acres that will become residential development.

“We need single-family housing,” she said. “The jobs are here.”

Employer interest is strong enough that Fisel doesn't plan to follow the path of some other communities, which have invested in spec buildings in hopes of attracting an impatient manufacturer ready to jump into production.

Constructing a factory without knowing a company's needs for ceiling heights and other details would be too much of a risk, she said. Anyway, Ligonier isn't hurting for jobs.

“We are just pro-business here,” she said. “We know the bottom line is they have to make a profit.”

sslater@jg.net