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GE's departure hit hard. Now the emphasis is on diversity.

A building that once housed Decatur's largest employer, General Electric Co., now stands empty. "It's something you don't get over for the long term, with a plant that's been part of your life," laments the city's mayor, Fred R. Isch.

Though the GE departure hit the city hard in the late '80s, the emphasis now is on diversity, businesses to balance the strong recreational products industry that is Decatur's major employer today, Isch says. The northeastern Indiana city boasts the headquarters and factory of one of the nation's premier luxury boat makers. It's also home to one of the most modern recreational-vehicle plants in the country.

Decatur is the county seat and, with a population of 8,800, is the largest city in Adams County. It dominates the northern half of the county, while Berne dominates the southern part. Although Adams County borders heavily industrialized Allen County, it turns rural south of Decatur, where a large Amish population lives. Decatur's employers traditionally draw workers from throughout Adams County as well as from Jay County to the south, and from Ohio.

The GE departure-after 75 years as a community fixture-served some good purposes, says William Bradley, executive director of the Adams County Economic Development Corp. "There was a waking up of the community, realizing they have to get an ongoing economic development effort of some sort," he says.

The ACEDC itself is a legacy of the GE departure. According to Bradley, development efforts previously were left to the individual towns and chambers of commerce. Those organizations remain, he says, because some functions seem to work better at a local level, but the ACEDC is coordinating marketing activity.

And the ACEDC is administering a $525,000 revolving loan fund, about two-thirds of which came from a federal Economic Development Administration grant. The balance came from Decatur, the county and a GE grant. That's the biggest pool of money local officials have for putting together incentive packages. Loans that Bradley expects to make from that fund in the near future have the potential of generating about 400 jobs, he estimates.

According to Bradley, a study by the Northeast Indiana Regional Coordinating Council identified metalworking, fiberglass, agricultural- and food-related industries as industries for the city to target in the wake of GE's closing. The community wants to concentrate on companies employing between 50 and 150, he says. The ACEDC also is taking a countywide view. A new employer for Berne-to be announced soon-will help the total picture in the county, just as one in the county seat will.

About 550 were employed in GE's Decatur plant in October 1987 when it announced its plans to close and move its motor operations to Fort Wayne and Juarez, Mexico. Isch was among those who put in a turn there, working the third trick for several months before entering the Army in 1950.

When the plant closed in fall 1989, only about 85 people were laid off. The others had retired, taken jobs with other companies or jobs with GE in nearby Fort Wayne. But by then GE was already dwarfed by the biggest employer in the city-Fleetwood Enterprises.

The Riverside, Calif.-based recreational products company runs three factories in Decatur, which together employed about 1,000 in mid-fall. The company makes its largest motor homes in an $8 million, 318,000-square-foot plant that opened last year. it makes smaller motor homes and also runs a fiberglass plant in two other locations.

Fleetwood's employment is down, reflecting the slowdown in the recreational-vehicle market. The company noticed a dip in early spring when the market began to soften. But the picture got worse in this energy-sensitive industry late in the summer in the wake of the oil price run-up that followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Also sensitive to surges in energy prices is a neighbor of Fleetwood's largest plant-Thunderbird Products.

The hometown-owned company turns out boats that are rarely seen in Indiana. These large, high-performance vessels are designed for ocean sailing. Although they're tested in nearby Salamonie Reservoir, they're meant for cruising in places such as the Gulf of Mexico or the Mediterranean Sea.

Why are ocean-going vessels made hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean? "This is home," explains Wayne Porter, Thunderbird's vice president of marketing and a member of the family that owns the company. The Porters live and are active in Decatur.

The company has owned plants in other states, but those now are closed. All operations were consolidated at the 345,000-square-foot plant and headquarters when it opened in 1988. The operation employed about 350 in mid-fall of this year. "This is a very, very productive work force that understands quality, that can accomplish a job within time constraints," Porter says.

Keeping its work force intact was the major reason a modular-home builder, All American Homes Inc., erected a new plant in the city last year, says Larry Bultemeier, All American's president. The company is a unit of Coachmen Industries Inc. of Elkhart. This fall, All American Homes, which has been in Decatur for about 20 years, employed 200.

Although a string of auto suppliers lies north of Adams County, the downturn in the recreational-vehicle industry was foremost in the community's mind this fall. Fleetwood first cut its workforce in the spring, and in October laid off 225 more workers, bringing employment to 425 at its two motor home plants. Thunderbird's employment peaked at about 600 in mid-1988. Fierce competition in the pleasure boat industry took its toll, even before Middle East tensions sent fuel prices soaring, Porter says.

Another possible whammy for high-ticket goods also lurks on the horizon as a federal budget package takes effect. A luxury tax could further weaken business, Porter says. Thunderbird's boats carry an average retail price tag of $85,000, and many of its products could fit the definition of luxury.

Decatur does have some things going for it. It can attract companies looking for a rural setting handy to an urban area and its amenities, Bradley points out. It's only about a 20-mile trip along four-lane U.S. 27 from Decatur to Fort Wayne's south side.

Even though federal dollars are growing scarce, this fall the city launched a $2.3 million project to upgrade its waste water treatment plant. Nearly three-quarters of the money is coming from Washington, Isch says.

Decatur companies are old hands at international marketing. Thunderbird has been in the world market for about 12 years. The company now sells about a fourth of its products overseas, primarily to Europe, Porter says. "It sure does help. It's helped us maintain the employment we do have now."

Central Soya Co. Inc., which has a soybean processing operation that's a landmark on the north side of town, is part of an international agribusiness giant. Fort Wayne-based Central Soya is a subsidiary of the Ferruzzi Group, an Italian agribusiness and chemical giant. The plant converts soybeans, which are purchased primarily from area farmers, into oil and meal that fill tank and hopper cars on the railroad siding that runs alongside its towering silos.

Bradley would like to see more land zoned for industrial use. Only about 10 vacant acres are left in the city's industrial park. Most large tracts would have to be rezoned, he says. And the GE property still remains vacant. Prospects have been shown through the two buildings, but so far none has followed through, say Isch and Bradley.

Lumber, metals, fiberglass. The combination of old and new materials reflects the changes in Decatur's industrial base. The motors are gone, but the boats and RVs remain and promise to grow again. "I'm hoping (the recreational companies) expand even more," Isch says. "But I do want to see as much diversification as we can."
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Title Annotation:Regional Report; City Spotlight; Decatur, Indiana
Author:McKenna, Lynne
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Dec 1, 1990
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