By Sue Loughlin, The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE - Vermillion County's 11 percent unemployment rate puts it in the top 10 among Indiana's 92 counties, according to state figures released Tuesday.

"That's terrible," said Tom Milligan, president of the Vermillion County Economic Development Council. "It puts stress on your community when you have people who don't have jobs."

The statewide jobless rate is 8.2 percent. Elkhart County has the highest rate at 15.3 percent.

"My gut feeling is that a lot of this [Vermillion County unemployment] is tied to layoffs at Newport Chemical Depot," Milligan said. "They've been our county's largest employer."

Now that VX has been eliminated, the Newport Chemical Depot's mission "is winding down," Milligan said.

The downside is the loss of jobs.

Mason & Hanger, the depot's operating contractor, released about 187 employees as of Oct. 24. They still have about 154 employees there, said Terry Arthur, the depot's public affairs officer.

Parsons, the systems contractor that destroyed the VX, still has about 460 employees, including subcontractors, working on the dismantling project, Arthur said. That project is set to be complete no later than fall 2010.

"At that time, there will be a substantial reduction in employment for both contractors and we will move toward caretaker status," Arthur said.

Vermillion County officials already are looking to the future. They have formed a local re-use authority and are developing a plan to take possession of the property and use the site for an industrial park, as well as for agricultural and recreational purposes. They're hiring a consultant to develop the plan.

The site has 7,000 acres.

"Hopefully, by the time the economy starts picking up, we'll be ready" to start marketing an industrial park to prospective companies, said Jack Fenoglio, president of the local re-use authority and a member of the Vermillion County Economic Development Council.

"It's the biggest opportunity for economic development in my lifetime," Fenoglio said.

He noted that many Vermillion County residents work in Vigo County as well as Danville, Ill., and are affected by layoffs in those communities as well.

The county, along with several other communities, also is trying to land a new ethanol plant planned by POET LLC, which is based in Sioux Falls, S.D., Milligan said.

"While there's a lot of pain with the unemployment at this point, we're trying to be optimistic about what the future of our county might hold and to ensure people can find jobs here," Milligan said

Vigo County's unemployment rate is 8 percent. Statewide, counties hit the hardest are those dominated by one industry, such as the recreational vehicle industry in Elkhart, said Steve Witt, president of the Terre Haute Economic Development Corp.

"I think our community is fortunate in that we have a pretty diversified economy" that includes manufacturing, universities and health care institutions, he said.

While economic development activity was at a standstill in October and November, "Things picked up quite a bit" in December, Witt said. The agency has followed up on about a half dozen leads, he said. "Hopefully that activity will continue."

Bob Guell, Indiana State University professor of economics, said the steep increase in joblessness statewide in December "is likely a result almost directly of the furloughs in the automotive industry and the automotive parts industry laying off right and left."

He suggests "this is rapidly turning into a situation that not only rivals but could well exceed the 1982 recession in terms of severity."

Guell said he's not optimistic the recession will end this year. "My guess is we're talking the first or second quarter of 2010," he said.

Unemployment rates in other counties are as follows: Parke, 8.5 percent; Clay, 8.9 percent; Sullivan, 8.4 percent; and Putnam, 8.7 percent.

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