Electric car boom in Ind. city goes bust

(CBS News) ELKHART, Ind. - Elkhart, Indiana lost jobs faster than any other city in the country in 2009. Both Democrats and Republicans promised to re-energize manufacturing in the city, backing a new electric car plant. But as CBS News investigated, instead of a boom, things went bust.

With unemployment peaking above 20 percent, Elkhart, Indiana was at the white-hot center of the economic meltdown, and a natural launch point for President Obama's electric vehicle initiative.

" So that's why I'm here today," the president said three years ago. "To announce $2.4 billion in highly competitive grants."

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels was also on board in convincing Norwegian company Think Global to open a plant in Elkhart to build Think City electric cars with a sticker price of about $42,000.

As incentive, the federal government offered Think City $17 million in stimulus tax credits.

Dorinda Heiden-Guss heads up the local economic development effort. "We were excited," she said. "We were invigorated at a very devastating time."

But it turns out the company had a checkered track record, including three previous bankruptcies. We recently visited Think City's Indiana plant, and here's what we found: a largely empty warehouse.

Everybody hoped that by this time there would be more than 400 workers inside a bustling plant. Instead, today, there are just two workers at Think City. Rodney and Josh are slowly finishing assembly on a few dozen 2011 models shipped in from Norway.

We were able to drive a Think City car around the empty space where investors once envisioned an assembly line churning out 20,000 vehicles a year.

Now in its fourth bankruptcy, Think Global has been bought by a Russian investor who didn't return our calls.

Think's woes caused one of its investors, Ener1, to file for bankruptcy in January. Ener1 spent a $55 million federal grant to make batteries at this factory in Indianapolis for Think City cars.

So what happened? "The market has not been what everybody anticipated it to be with electric vehicles," said Heiden-Guss.

Indiana had hoped to become the electric car capital. What would Heiden-Guss say about that today? "You can hope for a lot of things, she said. "What reality is is something different oftentimes."

On the bright side, Elkhart's jobless rate is less than half what it was before Think City came to town. But that's due to an uptick in other manufacturing after electric cars ran out of juice.

  • Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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