WAKARUSA — Just days after Forest River inked a deal to buy the sprawling Utilimaster campus on Wakarusa’s east side, Forest River subsidiary Prime Time Manufacturing is already building RVs at the site.
“We’re already into production,” said Jeff Rank, president of Prime Time. “We started moving stuff at the end of the year in preparation,” he said.
The sale, announced last week by Utilimaster, brought some certainty back to the town. When Utilimaster announced 11 months ago that they were moving to Bristol, “that came out of the blue,” said Jeff Troxel, Wakarusa town manager who was a member of the town council at that point.
With the Forest River purchase now finished, “I’m excited about it,” said Troxel. He knew Prime Time was outgrowing its space just down the road from the Utilimaster campus. “I didn’t want to lose Prime Time,” he said.
“Hopefully Forest River uses the facility to its utmost potential,” Troxel said.
Pete Liegl, head of Elkhart-based Forest River, said, “We wanted to stay in that community with Prime Time because Prime Time has done so well and Jeff Rank has done an excellent job down there.”
Liegl continued, “the community is a good community, it has a good work force, things are good. I just think it’s the right place to be, particularly for Prime Time.”
Forest River purchased 13 of the 14 buildings on the campus and just over 91 acres along S.R. 19, according to FM Stone, which brokered the deal.
Prime Time bills itself as North America’s fastest growing RV company, with more than 350 employees.
Liegl wasn’t sure what employment levels in Wakarusa will be like in six months, but said, “I believe we’re going to pick up a lot of the slack. I’m not going to say we’re going to pick it all up, but hopefully, knock on wood, we’ll be able to do OK there.”
Liegl said plans for the campus, which will be vacated by Utilimaster over the next several months, are a little up in the air. The paint facilities in Wakarusa will be used by Forest River’s motorized divisions.
They’ll probably also build a larger building in the back of the campus to house Prime Time’s operations, said Liegl.
“We talked about a couple other minor things there but nothing is nailed own, other than Prime Time has first dibs.”The deal between the two companies allows Utilimaster to move out of the Wakarusa campus in stages as they move into their new Bristol facility, a move Utilimaster officials said is good for them. The deal allows Utilimaster to hang onto three buildings for its truck-body use for a while, giving more flexibility on timing of their move to Bristol. They’re ramping up production capability for walk-in delivery vans this month and next month at their new building.
Liegl said it works well for Forest River, too. “We’re in a rush, but not a super rush,” Liegl said.
“We just need more production space, we desperately need more,” he said.
Prime Time produces a complete line of travel trailers and fifth wheels.
The move means Prime Time and Navistar RV will be the biggest employers in town, and the economy will be even more heavily dependent on the RV industry. Troxel said, “there’s always a concern there about diversity of business,” but he said he’s confident that Prime Time and Forest River — owned by Berkshire Hathaway — would have the resources to weather any future economic downturns.
“They have a need, they’re willing to purchase it, we’re more than glad to have them,” Troxel said.
In the end, Liegl said, “I think it’ll be OK for Wakarusa.”