In the empty factories and laid-off workers in this struggling section of the Rust Belt, entrepreneur Wil Cashen sees "unimaginable potential.”
Seeking to capitalize on the trend toward more-energy-efficient vehicles, Cashen has a plan to retrofit pickup trucks with electric motors at several of Elkhart County’s large, dormant manufacturing facilities and sell them to utility companies.
A native of neighboring St. Joseph County, Cashen would like to see this hard-hit area — which touts itself as “the RV capital of the World” — become the country’s capital for electric vehicles.
"There's a real opportunity," Cashen said while walking through his field of dreams — a quarter-mile stretch of dormant industrial buildings around the monster Monaco motorhome factory in Wakarusa that closed last fall.
Opportunity, yes, but no guarantees.
Across the country, state and local officials, entrepreneurs like Cashen and even some of the nation’s biggest companies see dollar signs when they look at so-called “green” industries.
Add in an estimated $85 billion in federal stimulus funds earmarked for clean energy and transportation projects, and you have a mad dash of sorts to gain a competitive edge.
“There’s no question that a growing number of states, cities and companies are jockeying to expand their share of America’s clean energy economy, and they see the stimulus monies as pivotal to that goal,” said Lori Grange, deputy director at the Pew Center on the States, a research group.
In a recent study, Grange’s organization found that the number of “clean energy” jobs — which range from weatherizing homes to building 300-foot-tall wind turbines — increased more than twice as fast as all other jobs from 1998-2007.
Now, with so much federal money flowing into these sectors, Grange expects to see “explosive growth.”
That’s certainly the hope in Elkhart County, where Cashen is seeking federal funds along with others. Among them: a startup that wants to assemble huge wind turbines here and across the Rust Belt; and a company that wants to put electricity-producing turbines in large water pipelines across the country.
An early beneficiary of the clean-energy stimulus funds are efforts to weatherize buildings, saving money and energy. The city of Elkhart got $500,000 to bundle up its 100-year-old City Hall and assess needs at other city sites, while La Casa, a nonprofit serving low-income residents, is going after similar grants after obtaining some funding to remove lead-based paint from homes.
Cashen thinks the time is right for his company, Electric Motors Corp., —based in Malibu, Calif. — to dip into the electric vehicle sector, but his vision to transform the Elkhart region into the Detroit of the 21st century faces lots of competition.
For example, auto heavyweights Ford and Nissan and electric car startup Tesla in late June got $8 billion in loans from the U.S. Department of Energy to launch new hybrid and electric vehicles.
Also, Chrysler has made a pitch for $224 million in matching federal grants to produce a demonstration fleet of hybrid minivans and pickup trucks. Up to 165 vehicles would go to the U.S. Postal Service to test whether they are suitable for mail delivery.
In neighboring Michigan, Gov. Jennifer Granholm has vowed to make the state "the renewable energy hub of North America and the advanced-battery capital of the world." She's also built a "No Worker Left Behind" program that provides a $5,000 tuition voucher to retrain workers for "emerging" jobs like those in clean energy.
"Green is not the only sector we're going after, but it's really such a big deal," she told business executives who gathered for a National Summit in Detroit in June. "We intend to lead the nation into energy independence."
Ohio, another Indiana neighbor, also has “green” ambitions. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown is pushing for a $30 billion fund to help small auto parts companies, many of which are located in Ohio, borrow money to retool. His goal? To turn the state into “the Silicon Valley of clean energy manufacturing.”
With so much activity on this front, even some proponents urge caution when it comes to embracing still-small industries, such as hybrid vehicle production, as the key to an economic turnaround.
“It is a smart move if we don’t push it too fast,” said Dave Cole, chairman of the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “It has to have a strong economic foundation and that will take a few years.”
He added: “There’s a tendency for people to underestimate the cost and the competition involved.”
Even in the greater Elkhart area, Cashen’s initiative faces significant competition. A Canadian company, Azure Dynamics, has quietly been contracting with Utilimaster to assemble dozens of hybrid delivery vans in Wakarusa.
"We actually build them," said Jay Sandler, Azure’s vice president of sales. "They" — referring to Cashen’s company — "talk about them."
Like Electric Motors Corp., Azure is seeking stimulus money to further develop hybrid systems, according to chief operating officer Curt Huston. Hybrid RVs? "That's very interesting to us," he said.
Fast cars a path to hybrids
Cashen, for his part, took a roundabout path to the hybrid field.
He graduated from Penn High in Mishawaka, then spent much of his career around cars, usually fast ones: servicing, racing and selling Porsches in Germany and the United States. He later founded — and eventually sold — an automotive software company before semi-retiring in Malibu, where he builds replica Porsche 550 Spyders and became a Porsche guru to celebrities like Jay Leno and Kevin Dillon.
His vision for northern Indiana came into focus more than a year ago when he recalled his early days working at Holiday Rambler, an RV manufacturer that was later acquired by Monaco, where he says he saw firsthand the area’s strong work ethic.
With so many RV manufacturers scaling back or shutting down, Cashen realized he could find plenty of able-bodied workers and empty factories to help implement his unusual plan to transform Ford F-150 pickups into hybrids by replacing their engines.
Cashen hopes to sell the vehicles to utility companies, which would take advantage of the battery packs on the hybrids to supply line crews with on-the-spot electricity in areas where power is out, without noisy generators.
Cashen won’t talk about his conversations with specific potential customers, but Dave Meisel, director of transportation services at Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in California, believes the plug-in hybrid idea has some merit.
“We think the technology has real potential,” said Meisel, who manages a fleet of 8,900 vehicles.
PG&E has 350 hybrid or all-electric vehicles in place or on order as part of an alternative vehicle fleet nearly 1,500 strong, Meisel added, and that should grow to become “a significant portion” of the overall fleet. But how big, he said, is still a big unknown given that the technology is still being tested.
In May, Cashen lined up a critical partner: Gulf Stream Coach Inc., a major motorhome manufacturer in Elkhart, which has agreed to spend $10 million to retrofit a massive, shuttered building for the assembly line.
Cashen and Gulf Stream estimate that the enterprise could create 1,600 new jobs by 2011 — making it by far the biggest potential new employer in an area where unemployment is near 20 percent.
Jerry Conover, director of the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University, likes the electric vehicle idea but adds that "it shouldn't be the only job growth in the area," since demand is dependent on government incentives and high gas prices — both of which aren’t guaranteed to last.
One key to Cashen’s venture is obtaining tens of millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds from the Energy Department to develop electric motors for the drivetrains and, not insignificantly, money from the Labor Department to train workers in handling high-voltage systems.
Cashen’s strategy for dealing with uncertain federal funding is to ramp up his project slowly. But that also means there is little to show so far: No properties had been acquired through early July, and Gulf Stream does not yet have any F-150 plug-in hybrid prototypes available for viewing.
Still, many laid-off workers are hopeful that Cashen’s project will bring new jobs to RV-centered towns like Wakarusa, where many industrial parks look like cemeteries, replete with well-kept lawns but not a soul or a sound around.
Marv Burns, a Vietnam vet with 32 years in the RV industry, is among the 2,000 people who've applied for a spot with Electric Motors Corp. — even though he's not really sure how the hybrid technology works.
That doesn’t matter, he said, "I do know that it's brought hope."