Life After Layoffs: A City's Struggle to Survive

The City Council this fall passed a new law limiting residents to one garage sale a month. For many residents it was the only source of income, but they also became a nuisance.

Crime is also on the rise. The 7-Eleven on Main Street has been hit seven times so far this year. And just last week a downtown school was locked down as police searched for two men who robbed a nearby bar.

Haircuts on Sale

The ultimate sign of hard times can be seen on the heads of many men who are delaying haircuts to save a few bucks.

In response, a group of barbershops last week started offering discounts to the unemployed.

"I've been a barber for 41 years in Elkhart," said Lowell Thomas, owner of Lowell's Barber Shop. "After all those years, those people have helped me enough and kept me in business that it's time for me to give something back to them when they need it."

Haircuts at his shop normally cost $13. Now, on Wednesdays anybody who lost a job can get one for $8.

But he too is feeling the squeeze. Residents have stretched out the time between haircuts from about three weeks to more than five, and Thomas said his business is down 20 percent.

"A lot of people are embarrassed to ask. So when they call up and ask how much my haircuts are, I ask them if they are unemployed," Thomas said. "It's not much but it might give a family a little bit extra for Christmas. Five bucks is five bucks anyway you look at it."

Job Losses 'An Emotional Issue'

There has been some recent bright news.

Last week the Mad Anthony Old State Ale House started interviewing people for jobs as cooks, busboys and servers at a new 1940s-style theater opening soon -- the jobs pay up to $10 an hour.

"It was snowing outside. We probably had 60 to 70 people standing in the snow waiting for a couple of hours ahead of time," said Jeff Neels, partner of the Mad Anthony Brewing Co. "We were just overwhelmed with the turnout. It was really a sight. I was just touched by the amount of people."

By the end of two days 650 people had applied for 140 openings.

Typically he sees college students applying for jobs. This time, Neels said there were a lot more out-of-work, blue-collar workers seeking a job.

Jean E. Perrin, who heads the work force and economic development program at Ivy Tech Community College, says that since September more than 800 people have met with her academic advising team, looking for ways to learn new skill sets.

They are taking advantage of $13 million in job-training grants given to the region. Some are trying to go into health care and others are learning more advanced manufacturing skills.

"It's not only an economic issue. It's also an emotional issue for people," Perrin said. "A lot of these people have worked in the RV industry for a number of years. I've been really impressed by people's spirit in a really adverse situation."

Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County, said that the RV industry had been devastated by high gas prices and then a tightening of credit to buy the large vehicles. "It's discretionary income being spent on larger-priced items," she said.

More than 480 companies in the area have let go one or more employee, she said.

But ultimately, thanks to the county's location near a major interstate highway and the highly entrepreneurial sprit of the residents, she thinks there will be a strong recovery.

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