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Carbondale courts retirees as housing market lags
Dec 08

The Southern Illinoisan

CARBONDALE, Ill. (AP) _ Three years ago, Dick and Pam Matthews began thinking about leaving their small town in Maine.

The retired couple was ready for an easier life. No more hauling thousands of pounds of wood to heat their home, or driving half an hour to reach the nearest grocery store or restaurant, or shoveling their way out the front door after a snowstorm.

It wasn't an urgent or certain plan. The couple moved their house on and back off the market several times, as they debated where to go. Then, last winter, they got 8 feet of snow.

``We realized we didn't want to die with snow shovels in our hands,'' Pam said.

And it dawned on them: ``Why not Carbondale?''

Dick had gotten his undergrad and graduate degrees at Southern Illinois University, and fell in love with the Shawnee National Forest.

Pam had visited several times and was already ``adopted'' by Dick's college friend group, he said, several of whom remain in town.

And when he checked the annual snowfall data, he was overjoyed.

``Just 11 or 12 inches a year,'' he laughed. ``That's one snowfall in Maine.''

Practically, the town checked all their boxes, the couple said: Proximity to culture, entertainment, food and healthcare, including the VA Hospital in Marion for Dick, a veteran.

Being in the middle of the country made them feel close enough to their kids on both coasts, without breathing down anyone's neck.

Good weather and hiking trails that encourage them to stay in shape. Transportation of all kinds nearby. Diversity coupled with the small town feel they've always preferred.

``We seem to keep making connections with people who know people we know, and they're friendly and welcoming. All of that kind of grew on us as we came back here for visits,'' Pam said. ``This is going to be probably the last place we live and we think we've chosen a good place.''

They closed on their house, a ranch-style home on Rod Lane, in early October.

Shortly after, they were approached in their yard by a man named Darrell Bryant, who bore a welcome bag.

By day, Bryant is the chief operating officer of Southern Illinois Healthcare, the region's largest private employer.

He's also the chairman of the Carbondale of Chamber of Commerce's Attracting & Retaining Residents Subcommittee, which is taking a personal approach to promoting Carbondale.

Bryant and his committee members keep track of the houses for sale in town. And when one is sold, they stop by, repeatedly if necessary, to offer a personal welcome.

Their welcome bags are full of coupons, things to do in Southern Illinois, and even a hand-signed personal note from Mayor Mike Henry, welcoming each new resident.

Since April, when the initiative began, the subcommittee has visited about 120 homeowners in Carbondale, Bryant said.

The Matthews were charmed by the welcome bag, they said. Through it, they learned about continuing education opportunities for retirees through SIU Carbondale, and attended their first meeting this week.

The couple's realtor, Janet McCready, of Realty Central, said she's seen a considerable influx in retirees lately

``From 2018 to 2019, we've had a lot of baby boomers,'' she said. ``I have people coming in from Maine, Colorado, Chicago, St. Louis and other areas all wanting to retire here.''

Her other clients echo the Matthews' feelings about the region, she added, smitten with its natural beauty, diversity, good medical care, mild winters and affordability.

``A lot are previous graduates and alumni from SIU, who remember their good times here,'' agreed Realtor Rolf Schilling. ``I don't think you can find a whole lot better place to live.''

And local realtors aren't the only ones seeing momentum.

In April, USA Today ranked the Carbondale-Marion metro area as one of the ``30 Best Cities for Older Americans in Retirement,'' noting the high average income of local retirees and another somewhat inscrutable, but exciting statistic.

``Seniors in Carbondale also have more opportunities to be social than those almost anywhere else, as the area has 18.2 social associations per 10,000 people _ more than double the national concentration and the fifth highest concentration in the country,'' the ranking states.

Bryant and his committee have their sights set on attracting younger residents too, touting pronounced recent improvements in Carbondale District 95 elementary schools, the growing health care sector, the forthcoming multimodal transportation center and the planned dog park.

But data shows they have a tall task before them.

Illinois has lost residents every year since 2014, particularly young and working-age people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's population estimate program.

And while Williamson County's population is believed to have grown by about 1% since the last census, Jackson County is estimated to have lost nearly 5% of its residents over the same period.

In terms of recent home sales, Carbondale in particular trails its neighbors, and lags far behind real estate industry benchmarks for a healthy market.

Realtors measure markets through absorption reports, which track the number of properties on the market versus the number that realtors sell over a given period, often six months (properties for sale by owner are not included).

That comparison gives homeowners an idea of how long it might take their home to sell, depending on their town and price point.

Selling a $50,000 to $75,000 home in Williamson County? You're in luck: Absorption numbers for the six-month period ending Oct. 1 show demand is high.

Selling the same home in Jackson County? Knock down the price or be prepared to wait twice as long, on average.

In a healthy market, homes sell within about six months of listing, on average, within each price range, explained Century 21 broker Rich Davis, who provided local absorption reports to The Southern. In a struggling market, it takes longer.

And every town is unique, Davis said.

``The first thing we tell our clients is, `Everything sells,''' he said. ``It's all a matter of pricing. If a person has to get out of Carbondale fairly quickly, for example, they may be in a position where they have to hit some hard numbers.''

In rural areas where comparatively few homes are bought and sold, small sample sizes can make the data finicky. But recent numbers appear to tell a clear story: In Southern Illinois, Williamson County is the place to be.

Between April and October, homes sold faster in Williamson County than in Jackson County at every price point below $350,000, except for homes in the $150,000 to $175,000 range, where Jackson's market was slightly better.

In many market segments, the differences were pronounced.

Properties at all price points below $150,000 sold within or near the ``healthy'' six-month average time frame in Williamson County. In Jackson, only a small subset of parcels in that range, those selling for less than $25,000 met the ``healthy'' benchmark.

Zooming in on particular cities shows even bigger disparities.

The Carterville and Cambria area is clearly the most desirable in the region, the reports show, with homes selling within or very near the ``healthy'' average time frame at every price point below $350,000.

Eighty-seven homes sold in Carterville and Cambria from April to October, leaving just 76 on the market as of Oct. 1. The area is the only major market in Jackson and Williamson counties where recent sales have outpaced inventory.

Davis credits Williamson County job opportunities and the new Carterville High School with attracting residents.

``Look at all the new houses around the new high school. People want to live in that school district.'' Davis said. ``Then you've got Aisin Manufacturing. General Dynamics, the prison system, the interstate, the airport. The sources of quality of living are there.''

The Carbondale-Makanda area is a different story. Between April and October, it registered a higher ratio of unsold to sold properties than any other area in Jackson and Williamson counties, the absorption data shows.

Every realtor interviewed by The Southern connected that stagnancy to enrollment struggles at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, which has lost more than half of its student population since 1991, including declines of 7.5%, 9.8%, 13.6% and 8.75% in the last four years.

``Students are not coming in, but you still have the inventory there to sell,'' Davis said. ``Either people are not putting houses on the market, or they're just sitting there, or they're selling them at a loss.''

The highest value homes have been especially stagnant. As of Oct. 1, there were 50 properties listed in the Carbondale-Makanda area for $250,000 or more. Over the six months prior, just 12 sold.

Davis got his start in real estate in 1996, after a career in newspaper marketing (including as an employee of The Southern Illinoisan).

In 2006, he purchased a Century 21 brokerage that includes Williamson and Johnson counties, plus portions of Franklin, Jackson, and Saline.

The current housing market is not an aberration, he said. Carbondale has lagged for at least the last five years, hobbled by the 2015-2017 state budget crisis, which sapped money from the public agencies that provide a substantial share of Southern Illinois jobs, including more than $70 million from SIUC, which was never repaid.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker's first budget sought to reverse the decline, giving all public universities a 5% operating budget bump, plus significant increases to grant and scholarship funding, and promised money for future facilities improvements.

``We are seeing increased cash flow to the region with more businesses reporting the state paying on its backlog of bills,'' McCready said. ``And there's a lot getting sold right now.''

To McCready, efforts like the Chamber's welcoming committee are key to rebuilding Carbondale's desirableness.

``We need to be proactive about the story we tell about Carbondale, and encourage people to see what is here,'' she said. ``From whatever perspective you see the proverbial glass, Carbondale has a lot to offer, and there are so many people who want to return here and say there's no place like it.''

To look at the glass half full: The slow housing market that plagues Carbondale helped bring the Matthews here, McCready acknowledged.

``Our kids all said, `Oh you should come near us,' but if you look at real estate in all those areas, it's just way too expensive,'' Pam Matthews said. ```In Carbondale, we can actually still buy a house, instead of living in some little senior living apartment somewhere. That was very appealing to us.''

A month after moving in, the couple, both published authors, are settled and enjoying time to read and write. Dick Matthews has just submitted his latest book to the Southern Illinois University Press.

McCready, meanwhile, continues to hear from former Carbondale residents who remember its charms. Another recent client is relocating from Colorado, more than 50 years after leaving town.

``He said he never found a community he felt as comfortable retiring in as Carbondale,'' McCready said.


Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan, https://washex.am/2NY4o2C


Information from: Southern Illinoisan, http://www.southernillinoisan.com

This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan.


Information from: Southern Illinoisan, http://www.southernillinoisan.com

By The Associated Press, Copyright 2019