Originally created 09/15/03

Town in S.C. foothills looks to profit from retirees, not factories

SENECA, S.C. -- Leaders of this town nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians see gold in gray.

They have given up spending a lot of money to recruit factories and mills. Instead, they are writing checks to advertisers in hopes of luring retirees to play golf and build million-dollar homes on the pristine shores of Lake Keowee.

"I don't see anybody else out there doing it," said town manager Greg Dietterick. "Every small town is looking for some kind of niche."

Seneca's effort started earlier this year when a regional retirement magazine named it the top small town in the Carolinas in which to retire.

That got town officials thinking that baby boomers with lots of disposable income might be looking for a sunny, warm place to spend their golden years.

Seneca leaders agreed to spend about $5,000 on a slick 24-page publication highlighting the area's year-round golf, renovated downtown and looming mountains.

The publication has been sent to 40,000 people planning to retire in the next year or two who have responded to an ad about moving to the Carolinas.

"It sounds like a novel idea," said University of South Carolina economist Doug Woodward, who has done a study on how retirees affect local economies. "Recruiting retirees and recruiting industry should be compared the same way."

Dietterick figures Seneca gets back about $3 for each dollar it spends on trying to attract retirees, who are likely to spend a good part of their income nearby.

When tax breaks and other incentives are figured in, a new plant might provide only $1 for each dollar spent, and workers' paychecks often end up being spent in a bigger county, Dietterick said.

Overall, Woodward believes communities across the nation will begin to market themselves based on amenities such as lakes or small-town living instead of fighting for factories and plants.

"The road to economic development is now turning away from industrial economic development," he said.

Seneca, a town of 8,000 tucked in the northwest corner of the state, once hitched its fortunes to textiles. It tripled in size from 1940 to 1970 as mills located to the town, taking advantage of the rivers and streams flowing down from the mountains. But then textile jobs started going overseas, eventually leaving the cavernous plants abandoned, their smokestacks looming over rows of vacant mill houses.

The town actually lost population from 1990 to 2000, making it even more important to find another way to get Seneca growing again.

Seneca's retiree push makes sense to Ray Stamm. The former office supply executive moved to the area from Chicago more than 10 years ago.

What brought him south was an advertisement he saw in The Wall Street Journal every Friday showing a picture of a drab old home beside a vibrant, lakefront mansion.

"I remember the ad said: 'Trade your home for one in the Golden Corner of South Carolina,"' he said.

It didn't hurt when Stamm found out he could pay the same he did for his home in Chicago and get a much nicer house and slash his property tax bill to boot.

"And the weather is beautiful," said the 69-year-old retiree who still sells real estate on the side. "You get the changing seasons here. You get the long spring and fall, a short summer and winter and maybe only about 40 bad days when you can't go out and play golf."

USC's Woodward doesn't see too many drawbacks to Seneca's decision although, he says, retirees might be "a burden on the budget and a disruption to the community because their needs might not match with others."

More than a quarter of the 8,700 people who moved to Oconee County between 1990 and 2000 were 65 or older, helping to push the population above 66,000, according to Census data.

And they have money, too. The median home price in the county is $97,500, 10th highest in the state and outpaced only by more urban counties surrounding Columbia and Greenville and several counties along the coast.

Oconee County also is helped by its location, about 15 minutes from Clemson, 45 minutes from Greenville and about two hours from Charlotte, N.C., or Atlanta.

Dietterick said he would like to see Seneca grow from 8,000 to about 20,000 people during the next 25 years or so. But he also said that growth in surrounding Oconee County usually helps his town, too.

That's because Seneca owns its own water utility, which serves about 60 percent of the county. If recruiting retirees works the way Dietterick hopes, the utility could get 2,500 new customers in the next five years, which would cover the cost of promoting the town.

The ads already may be paying off.

Just flip though the residential directory of Keowee Key, an upscale subdivision and country club with about 1,300 homes. One section of the directory lists residents by the state they moved from; Michigan and Illinois take up nearly a page, New York takes up more than two columns, and South Carolina itself barely musters one column.

But don't look for the hectic pace of life indigenous to Northern cities to filter down to Seneca and the surrounding area. Dietterick said most of the people he's talked to move to the South for the slower pace.

"A lot of people are trying to keep the Northerners out," the city manager said. "We're out there saying, 'C'mon."'

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