Initially, Adams County, just south of Allen County, took a big hit when COVID-19 shut down most of the country in spring 2020. The county’s unemployment rate shot up to 20.7% in April.
But by November it was back down to 3.1%, which was “almost too good,” according to Colton Bickel, executive director of Adams County Economic Development Corp.
The county’s unemployment rate averaged 2.7% in 2019, which points to perhaps its biggest economic barrier: finding enough people to fill the workforce.
Adams County’s biggest employer, REV Group, employs 1,200 and makes recreational vehicles. Bickel said their biggest challenge is finding enough people to work in general production.
“The RV industry’s going really strong right now,” he said.
It was one of the industries that actually may have benefitted from the pandemic. As Bickel explained, the pandemic “scared a lot of people away from airplanes and highly populated areas.”
They wanted to be able to socially distance but still travel. The solution, for some, was to invest in an RV so they could travel in safety to wide-open spaces throughout the country.
Bickel said 50-70% of RV sales have been to first-time buyers since the pandemic began.
But small businesses in Adams County fared well, too, Bickel said. For example, restaurants “were really able to pivot well to drive-up, delivery, curbside arrangements.” Well-known buffet-style restaurant the Back 40 Junction took a hiatus for awhile, but reopened with a new way of serving food that was safer, Bickel said.
The Adams County Community Foundation and Economic Development Office came up with $50,000 to help businesses during the pandemic. They gave $1,000 grants and $4,000 loans to smaller, self-employed businesses like hairdressers and massage therapists who didn’t fit well into the PPP program for small businesses.
One of Adams County’s iconic companies, Bunge, ranks in the top 10 for number of employees, but its most impressive feature is its sheer size. Anyone who has ever driven into Decatur on U.S. 33 from the north has seen the many silos towering over train tracks. As an ag-related business, “they fit into our economy very well,” Bickel said. The company condenses down seeds such as soybeans into oils at its Decatur plant. The oil is then transported across the country via rail or truck.
Despite its low unemployment rate, there’s always room for improvement. The Economic Development Board just went through a strategic planning process and determined expanding broadband was something they need to look at, especially with more people working remotely. They also have a few buildings and sites they’d like to see occupied, and they are striving for over $10 million in expansion a year.
The county is seeing an expanding population growth, but Bickel noted you have to figure the Amish into that. “They are a workforce for us,” he said.
To expand its workforce even more, the county needs to promote its features, including its two largest cities, Berne and Decatur. Berne is known for its Swiss heritage and has families with deep ties to the community, Bickel said.
Decatur is a little more progressive, with an artist’s type of feel, he said. Its sculpture tour is popular, and it is redoing the Madison Street Plaza, which will be closed off for special events.
He also mentioned Pine Lake Water Park down by Berne, which has been in business since 1922. It has slides and other attractions, as well as a beach for those less adventurous types.