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Ahead of Obama visit, glimmer of hope in one Indiana city

President Barack Obama will visit one of several auto plants which make transmissions for all of Chrysler's vehicles in Kokomo, Ind., where some residents say the federal bailout saved the local economy.
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Gary Rhinebarger remembers the days before the auto bailout.

Walking through the Chrysler transmission plant where he works, he saw faces of despair. Now, he sees people who are happy and secure -- newly optimistic that their employer is healthy and growing again.

"Kokomo, we're doing good," said Rhinebarger, the recording secretary for United Auto Workers Local 685. "We're headed in the right direction."

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden today will visit one of several Kokomo auto plants which make transmissions for all of Chrysler's vehicles. The White House said they plan to highlight the benefit federal government action -- including billions of dollars in federal aid to Chrysler -- has had in places like Kokomo.

Similar to Elkhart County (a place Obama has visited twice as president), Kokomo and Howard County have fallen on hard times, but the administration hopes the area will be among its chief success stories.

There's no doubt in Rhinebarger's mind that federal assistance to his employer helped save thousands of local jobs.

Obama had the guts, he said, to do what needed to be done. If not for the government, Kokomo would be a ghost town.

"I think he's going to get a very good reception here," he said. "I'm happy with what he's done."

The struggle
As in Elkhart, weathering the economic hardship of the last two years hasn't been easy. At times, the situation was downright dire.

"We were on the edge of a cliff in Kokomo," said U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly, D-2nd. "Where we are now is a position where the Chrysler plant is growing, people who were laid off are back to work and they've added jobs."

Donnelly, whose district includes Elkhart and a northern portion of Howard County surrounding Kokomo, said Chrysler's struggles in early 2009 had him very worried. More than 5,000 people work for auto manufacturers or suppliers in and around the central Indiana city.

As Elkhart County has long relied on recreational vehicle manufacturing, Howard County has been supported by domestic auto companies Chrysler, General Motors and Delphi Automotive Systems. In the good times, it wasn't hard to graduate from high school and get a good-paying job at a local factory, according to Pastor Jeff Newton, executive director of Kokomo Urban Outreach.

But that also means that when the primary local breadwinner isn't doing well, no one is doing well. Wages have fallen, he said, which means working families can't spend as much elsewhere.

The low point came in May 2009, when Chrysler and General Motors shut down plants nationwide as they worked with the federal government on implementation of a rescue plan. In a two-month span, Howard County's unemployment jumped from 13 percent to 20.1 percent.

The facilities reopened a month later, quickly driving unemployment back down to 14 percent (in September it sat at 11.4 percent), but life still hasn't returned to normal.

Kim Motuliak, development director of a Tippecanoe County-based food bank that serves Howard County, said the situation in the area remains "heartbreaking."

The food bank has given out 600,000 pounds of food through the end of October, nearly double what it distributed in all of 2008.

Many residents have been laid off for a year or more, she said, and are struggling to stay afloat in a sea of debt.

"We just don't see any relief at this point," she said. "Quite frankly, we're concerned that 2011 will be a tough year because businesses are nervous and not as generous."

The help
Though both Elkhart and Howard counties each faced 20 percent unemployment rates in 2009, Donnelly said he saw a different, more encouraging similarity in the two manufacturing hubs.

"You didn't hear anyone saying 'woe is me,'" he said. "In both places, you heard people saying 'What are we going to do to get things turned around?' There's been almost a laser-like focus in both places."

The president's visit will call attention to the impact made by $7.1 billion in federal aid and $4 million in stimulus to Chrysler and an $89 million grant to Delphi Automotive Systems.

Residents can't deny that the assistance helped, Newton said, but they're not entirely happy about it either -- mostly out of concern for the growing national debt.

"Everybody knows if the government didn't help us, we'd be in really bad shape," he said. "But there are people who aren't excited about the government help."

Locals point to the impact of federal economic stimulus, too, as a needed boost. Those funds helped launch a public transportation system, pay for a new park pavilion and improve the city's downtown.

In Elkhart, Mayor Dick Moore has frequently lauded the impact stimulus dollars made. From a new airport runway to street paving to making buildings energy-efficient, he said, the money did good work.

Others, though, remain skeptical of the benefit it had in Elkhart and elsewhere. Kyle Hannon, vice president of public policy at the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce, said the stimulus didn't create the jobs or opportunities many imagined it would.

It was "definitely not as effective as it could have been," he said, in part due to the tangle of federal bureaucracy involved and delays in the states apportioning funds.

The recovery
Though life is far from perfect in Elkhart and Kokomo, officials said it's impressive how much has changed in the last 18 months.

Kokomo's recovery may outpace Elkhart's somewhat, Donnelly said. But one was bound to move faster than the other, he said, based on how fast the areas' main industries recovered.

"Both are in much better positions than we were," he said. "We have a long way to go and a lot of work to do. But both cities have made significant strides -- it's just a different economic mix for both places."

Despite recent struggles, Kokomo residents said, their story is about more than disturbing economic numbers.

Their story, like Elkhart's, has been about the resolve of an area building a path to stability -- together.

"It's a great community," Chrysler worker Rhinebarger said. "It has great people."

This story originally appeared in The Elkhart Truth.