Fortunate, diligent and aggressive. Stable and strong. Tremendous success. Ready to pounce.

Those words described what it’s like in the local business trenches during this COVID-19 pandemic. New Castle-Henry County Economic Development Corp. board members heard largely positive, frank and heartfelt updates from officials with manufacturing, real estate, banking and energy sectors of the economy during their May 7 meeting.

Arranged by EDC President Corey Murphy, the reports shined lights on how key parts of the local economy are holding up during an unprecedented time. Here’s a recap.

Boar’s Head

Unlike a Logansport meat processing facility, which had to temporarily close after 146 employees tested positive for COVID-19, the New Castle Boar’s Head plant has largely dodged the virus.

“We’ve been very, very fortunate in our plant in New Castle, Indiana,” Boar’s Head’s Adam Lingle said. “We’ve not had any cases directly affect us at our south plant. We weren’t so lucky over at our north facility that’s under construction. Fortunately all of those employees who were infected are back to work, healthy and safe.”

Lingle said the company, Henry County’s fifth-largest employer, has followed national Center for Disease Control guidelines, added barriers, emphasized social distancing, had its workers wearing face masks, and continued to do temperature checks.

“It’s worked out very, very well,” Lingle said. “We’ve done a great job of protecting this facility. We continue to operate under full steam ahead.”

Meanwhile, Boar’s Head has tried to do its part in helping the community at large. Lingle said more than 10,000 pounds of products have been donated in Henry County to various charitable organizations and causes. Boar’s Head has served lunches to many front-line workers in the battle against COVID-19, including hospital, emergency medical, law enforcement and fire personnel.

Lingle summed up his comments by saying Boar’s Head remains “stable, strong and continuing to move forward.”

New Castle Mayor Greg York praised the company’s efforts.

“I appreciate the way you guys attacked that and got on top of it early, keeping the south facility as clean as you possibly could with the virus staying out of that facility. People don’t have any idea how much trouble, time and effort you guys went to make sure that happened,” Mayor York said.

Crown Equipment

Forrest Plank, materials manager at Crown Equipment, said the lift-truck maker was handling the weight of COVID-19 well.

“We’ve had no cases in New Castle and less than five cases among our U.S. facilities,” Plank said.

He credited the success to social distancing, remote work, rotating schedules, additional cleaning, temperature screens, elimination of clock in and out requirements and keeping doors open at the start of a shift.

“Anything we can do to eliminate high-contact touch points,” Plank said.

Demand for lift trucks remains high.

“In some sectors there is strong growth,” Plank said. “Grocery and warehouse environments are trying to get as many trucks as they can. Business is as normal as it can be while everyone tries to figure out what a new normal looks like.”

Local real estate market

Real estate experts Cara Taylor and Susan Falck-Neal provided an update on the coronavirus impact in their fields.

“We were really lucky in that we had a great first quarter,” Taylor said. “We had a lot in the pipeline before all of this started, so that helped us a lot when this did hit. Unfortunately now those properties have closed. Right now we have 31 active listings on the market, 73 pending. When I first started in real estate, this was extremely different. We had a lot of actives and not very many pendings.”

Taylor said 152 homes had been sold this year, but COVID-19 has impacted the availability of other homes.

“COVID has definitely changed the amount of listings we have,” Taylor emphasized. “Our inventory listings are very down. People are just very fearful. COVID-19 has just caused people to not want anyone in their homes. That’s definitely eased over the last couple of weeks.”

Taylor said local Realtors were putting new protocols in place, such as having sellers sign documents certifying they are OK with people coming through their homes and asking buyers to sign waivers. “Virtual” showings of homes are done whenever possible.

“We are encouraging agents and sellers to sanitize in between showings, crack windows, practice social distancing and limit the number of showings,” Taylor said.

Falck-Neal agreed with Taylor’s assessment, particularly with the available number of homes for sale.

“In 2018 we had 200 listings in this first quarter.” she said. “We’re down to 148 that have entered the market.”

There is good news, however.

“The good news in all of this is we do still have willing buyers,” Falck-Neal said. “Interest rates are fantastic, this is an optimal time to buy. I’ve been doing this for 27 years and never ever could I say the average days on the market for pendings is eight. That’s telling you how quickly things are flying off the shelves. I think all of that is positive. To keep this going, we do have to figure out a way to increase the inventory.

“I think our industry has been fortunate,” she added. “We are able to do a lot of things virtually. We have the benefit of technology. It has slowed us down, but we’ve been able to function. As long as we can keep people employed and things moving along, I’m still very optimistic.

“So many (are) ready to buy,” Taylor said.

“They’re ready to pounce,” Falck-Neal said.

Financial sector

The Henry County area seems to be getting its share of federal COVID-19 relief dollars. Dan Maddox of Citizens State Bank updated the EDC board members on the federal paycheck protection program.

“We’ve seen tremendous success with that,” Maddox said. “To date, we’ve done over 625 payroll protection program loans to businesses, non-profits and churches in our communities for over $61 million.”

Maddox said 75 percent of that money is going to support payroll expenses.

“We hope that will prove to be stability for the communities we serve,” Maddox said. “We think that comes close to affecting 10,000 employees in East Central Indiana.”

Maddox added he’s starting to see a lot of stimulus money flow from the government into client accounts.

“We’re still seeing people who want to build houses, buy cars, and even want to do business-related spending because they see opportunities. So that’s very encouraging,” Maddox said. “It seems like a lot of our employers are able to keep things rolling, which is incredibly encouraging and I hope that trend continues.”

Asked about the impact on new construction, Wright also was optimistic.

“We’re still seeing some development activity happening,” he said. “The construction projects that were slated to go as far as new home construction are still full-steam ahead. What we’re not seeing as much of is ground-up land development that hasn’t started yet. I think maybe those projects have been put on ice until they have a little more clarity. But if infrastructure has already been laid, we’re seeing the home builders continue to build.”

Henry County Zoning Administrator Darrin Jacobs echoed those sentiments.

“It seems that things are starting to get more on track,” Jacobs said. “We’ve had some new homes going up and inquiries about looking at lots.”

Jacobs did say there seems to be a lag with inside home remodeling, however.

Michelle Back of First Merchants agreed most business owners locally are optimistic and positive. She said First Merchants had processed more than 1,900 applications for the payroll protection program and still have others coming in.

“Right now, I think that all of our business owners are very optimistic and we’re heading in the right direction,” Back said. “We just need to play it safe and smart.”

Energy

REMC’s Shannon Thom said, “These are unprecedented times and our standard operating procedures do not apply any longer.

“We’ve taken every precaution that we can to keep our employees safe, including not opening the office or drive-up window yet,” Thom added. “Our second focus has been on our members and their ability to pay their bill. This all hit just as we were coming out of the moratorium for disconnects over the winter.

“We had a number of folks who had received income assistance or energy assistance from ICAP and from the state. There were a few days there we could have chosen to disconnect them for not paying their bills and we chose not to. We are seeing a number of people who cannot pay their bill.”

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