State of the Union 2011: Economy on the Forefront in One of Nation's Hardest Hit Towns

VIDEO: State of the Union: What Are 3 Words You Want To Hear?
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In Elkhart County, Ind., which has become the poster child for the nation's economic woes, residents will be closely watching President Obama's State of the Union address tonight for signs of hope on the economy.

The president has visited the recession-hit county twice since he assumed office, after visiting twice as a candidate.

At the height of the recession, unemployment in Elkhart County peaked at 20 percent. It has since dropped to 13.3 percent, thanks to an improvement in the recreational vehicle manufacturing industry, which forms the backbone of the area. But the figure is still well above the national average of 9.4 percent.

When ABC News visited Elkhart in 2010 during Obama's first State of the Union address, the mood was positive, even though residents were struggling with the recession.

This year, the mood is one of cautious optimism. Many of those who gathered to view ABC's broadcast of the president's address have now found work but say that the overall mood of the community is far from positive.

"I think that its very very slowly starting to come up but it's so slow that it's not noticeable," said Susan Christophel, who was unemployed for two consecutive years unemployed before she found a job at Keystone RV after attending the ABC News event last year. "Majority of people I know are unemployed and they're not seeing a difference."

Stan Rupnow, who has owned a flower shop in downtown Elkhart for 25 years, echoed a similar sentiment.

"I think that people that are getting some work are cautious that it's going to continue and they're not going to get laid off," said Stan Rupnow, who has owned a flower shop in downtown Elkhart for 25 years. But "until they get that debt taken care of and until the big checks start rolling in from factory work, they're not going to be in a big mood to spend a lot of money," he added.

Other businesses, though, see a more positive outlook in 2011, and a higher level of consumer confidence that could translate into a better economic landscape.

Watch ABC News' live coverage of the State of the Union tonight, starting at 9 p.m. EST, with exclusive reporting from the ground in Elkhart county.

"The field has gotten much better over the last year and for the overall economy, the RV is the main instrument, and most manufacturers have had a better year," said Bob Martin, president of Keystone RV.

The company has seen a surge in sales in the past year that has put its employment figures at close to pre-recession levels. The company cut its staff down from 3,000 to 2,000 at the end of 2009, and was forced to shutter some plants, but since then, employment has surged back up to 3,100, thanks to increased demand and retail sales.

"It's gotten steadily just a little better every month," Martin said.

With the economy and jobs expected to be at the forefront of the State of the Union address tonight, those in Elkhart and around the country will be watching the president closely.

"For me it will be interesting to hear his plans for the future and hopefully it's something that can unify the company, and make everyone feel a little bit better and give them more consumer confidence leading into the future," Martin said.

Others, like Rupnow, are more wary.

Rupnow, who has half as many employees as he did three years ago, says he wants to see more action and less rhetoric from Washington when it comes to fixing the economy.

"I think that Congress is just as much to blame. They have been leading in the direction nobody wants to go and nobody feels is the place to go," he said. "What I'd like to see Obama (do) is to be a leader and say what he's going to do is what's best for the country, not what he thinks people want to hear."

Until 2007, Elkhart was a prosperous county with an unemployment figure of 4.8 percent. But when the recession hit, companies -- mainly RV manufacturers and retailers -- slashed jobs, leading to an upswing in unemployment.

Obama first visited Elkhart County as commander-in-chief in February 2009, to build support for his stimulus program. He revisited the recession-battered county again in August of that year to focus more broadly on the jobs situation and to announce $2.4 billion in grants for development of batteries and electric vehicles, of which Indiana was the biggest recipient.

"We've got to set our sights higher, not lower," the president said at the time. "We've got to imagine a future in which new American cars are powered by new American innovation, a future in which cities that led the global economy before are leading it again, a brighter future for Elkhart, a brighter future for Indiana and for the United States of America."

Elkhart County received a total of $13.4 million in contracts and grants as part of the Economic Recovery Act.

As county residents closely watch the president's address tonight, they say they will look for signs of hope but also of concrete steps Obama plans to take.

"Even though I'm employed, I still remember how it was," Christophel said. "He [Obama] can talk all day long about what he is going to do but what has he actually put into action. I'd like him to pinpoint that."

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