Thomasville: Courting Retirees
Good location, favorable climate and lots of amenities are drawing seniors
For Joe and Terry Emerson it was love at first sight - first sight of Thomasville that is.
The Poughkeepsie, N.Y., residents were in this Southwest Georgia town for a friend's wedding reception early last year. Before the weekend was over the couple had called a real estate agent and begun looking at houses. By Tuesday morning they had made an offer on a newly constructed home, before flying home Wednesday to tell their adult children they were moving South.
"It was both the city and the people," says Joe Emerson of the couple's sudden attraction to the town. As retirees, the Emersons had planned to look at possible new homes in North Florida during their trip. After seeing Thomasville - and being welcomed warmly at the local breakfast spot - there was no need to travel any farther.
They quickly bid farewell to their family and the snow that still covered their driveway in New York and moved to Georgia. Here Emerson can pursue his hobby of restoring classic cars year round rather than for just six months. He was also delighted to find that taxes on his new home were just $1,095 a year compared to more than $6,000 in New York.
For an increasing number of aging Baby Boomers looking for just the right place to pursue an active lifestyle, Thomasville is providing a powerful alternative to Florida. Just half an hour north of Tallahassee, the city has long been a weekend getaway for the rich and famous, among them the late President Dwight Eisenhower, who enjoyed many a golf game here. Beautifully appointed Victorian houses line quiet streets that retain a small town feel.
Today, civic leaders are racing ahead of the rest of Georgia in providing an environment that will draw affluent seniors. As a result, national media like U.S. News & World Report and Consumer Reports have proclaimed the town one of the nation's best places to retire.
"There was reluctance early on when we talked about retiree recruitment," admits Thomasville-Thomas County Chamber of Commerce President Don Sims. "Builders and developers thought there's just not that many retirees in Thomasville. Our answer to that was: What you've seen is not the market at all."
Sims realized retirees weren't already in Thomasville, but would come from the vast baby boomer population that was now beginning to reach retirement age. Over the next two decades more than 78 million of them will be moving to new homes and more than a quarter will be choosing Florida as their destination.
"Our market is going to be below Interstate 10 where 80 percent of the people in Florida live," Sims says. "That [area] has become more congested, and property prices have gone up substantially - especially in the last two years."
In fact, eight of 10 people who move to Thomasville are from Florida, says Mills Herndon, owner/broker at First Thomasville Realty, Ltd. and chairman of the chamber's Industrial Development Committee.
"A lot of them moved down there 10 years ago when they retired and now are taking advantage of increased prices on their real estate to make a significant amount of money and move to a slower, less expensive place," he says.
As the Sunshine State becomes more crowded, home prices soar and crime increases, Thomasville becomes more appealing. The city is riding a national trend drawing seniors to small and medium-sized cities. Towns like Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Naples, Fla., saw the over-65 populations soar by 65 percent during the '90s. Local leaders figure they can jump on the bandwagon as well.
The only obstacle standing in the way of a true retiree boom for Thomasville is marketing.
"Georgia is the only Southern state that doesn't have an active retiree recruitment program," Sims says. "Consequently we're ranked 49th nationally in the percentage of people 65 and over. Florida ranks number one."
If the state wasn't going after affluent seniors then the city could forge ahead on its own. The first step was to commission a study of what Thomasville needed to attract this group. Results showed the town needed a more diverse housing market, good health care and better marketing to let them know just what the city had to offer.
The area's largest employer, John D. Archbold Medical Center, has long been highly regarded for providing quality health care. That care is getting better thanks to expansion of its cardiology department to include angioplasty and stent placement. The new procedures are part of the second phase of the Atlantic Cardiovascular Patient Outcomes Research Team (C-PORT) study going on at 10 community hospitals without open-heart surgery facilities. The three-year study, overseen by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, will test the hospitals' ability to safely perform the procedures to open blocked arteries without having open-heart surgery available onsite in case something goes wrong.
Perhaps the best-kept secret for retirees is legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2003 that makes the first $74,000 of income exempt from income taxes for those 62 and older.
"Largely it's been an effort to educate our builders here and developers in the community about the potential," Sims adds. "We've found that most of the developers are selling the houses before they're finished. There is a market."
A Lively Downtown
This city of nearly 20,000 is inviting and amenity-rich for its size. A revitalized downtown offers a varied mix of shopping and restaurants and will soon have available condo living.
Thomasville has avoided the fate of many small towns that have seen their downtowns become the first casualty of the big box stores and strip malls. Locals feared that would happen here when Wal-Mart decided to locate a Supercenter on the fast growing Highway 19 corridor east of town. They couldn't keep it and other business from springing up there, but downtown not only survived, it prospered, and has become a regional attraction.
"The Downtown Development Authority has been very aggressive in seeking opportunities to get people back in town," Sims says. "When people see a real vital growing downtown area then it gives them a good sense that the leadership in a community and the viability is still there."
These efforts have borne fruit with the revitalization of several large buildings that might otherwise have been abandoned, says Sharlene Celaya, executive director of the Thomasville Downtown Development Authority (DDA). "We've acquired white elephant buildings and then had them retrofitted for different businesses."
The DDA persuaded Flowers Foods to move more than 100 of its employees into the old JCPenney building downtown. With little more than a verbal commitment from the local corporation, the city acquired the empty building and even added a third floor.
The success of this venture has inspired the company to seek more space for other employees. To answer that need, the aging Scott Hotel is now under renovation to accommodate offices for more of the company's support staff.
"We've created 250 jobs in the downtown due to these development projects," Celaya says. "These people are shopping and dining downtown and they're on the streets; and it undergirds downtown to have that many people here every day."
A vacant NationsBank building is now the new home of a state Labor Department Job Service Center. The downtown authority also purchased a five story property on Broad Street that in its heyday was a commercial building for medical professionals. With the upper floors deserted and only ground level retail remaining, the structure had slipped into a state of disrepair.
The DDA found a local couple who were spearheading renovation projects in local neighborhoods. Using a variety of federal tax credits and other incentives to sweeten the deal, they encouraged them to focus their talents downtown.
After the building was purchased for $2.3 million, the DDA brought in new retail to flesh out the ground level while upper floors were converted to offices. The fifth floor ballroom was restored to its circa-1900 elegance and now hosts a variety of functions from parties to the local high school prom.
"Our mission has been to maintain our retail on the ground floor levels and then work to create living [spaces] and offices on the upper floors," Celaya says, noting that most of the buildings have followed this pattern. While new retail and office is creating a critical mass, she acknowledges that the missing piece for a truly revitalized downtown is residential. A few stores have always had living spaces above them, but not many.
That makes the DDA's acquisition of the last of the city's grand old hotels particularly important. The block-long Mitchell House stood since 1898 as one of the hot spots on Broad until it closed a few years ago. Today, you won't recognize that it was ever a grand hotel. Retail shops occupy the ground floor and the upstairs rooms are long closed. A 1950s modernization covered the ornate facades, but the pressed tin ceilings, fireplaces and other period amenities remain.
In coming months the building will take on new life as a developer begins converting it into 35 condos. Creating more living space downtown, Celaya believes, will prompt even more development including the stirrings of a nightlife for the area. Other than a few restaurants and a blues club, the city center is usually deserted once the sun sets.
Saturdays are perhaps the best time to glimpse downtown Thomasville's potential. If you walk the streets and check out the license plates on the parked cars, you'll soon see that many are from out-of-town and even out-of-state. "Thomasville has in the last few years become Tallahassee's downtown," Celaya says.
Many Floridians are taking advantage of the short drive (just 25 miles) and the easy access (Thomasville and Tallahassee are connected by a four-lane highway) and are driving up to check out the eclectic shopping in Thomasville. A prime example is a trendy shop called Firefly. Run by Nan Myers, daughter of a local attorney, the store carries antiques, oriental rugs, eclectic gift items and popular hand made jewelry by Georgia craftsmen. Inviting smells and music welcome customers, making this a popular destination for out-of-towners.
Celaya says property values in the downtown area have risen dramatically. One building that went for just $35,000 a decade ago brings more than $225,000 today.
To encourage growth, the city formed an alliance with Thomas County, creating an Urban Service Area. Thomasville provides all of its enterprise services such as water, garbage pickup, sewer and high-speed cable to businesses and residences in a three-mile ring outside the city limits.
"The benefit for the county is they can direct their residential and commercial growth inside the Urban Service Area and preserve farmland outside of that area," says City Manager Steve Sykes. "For Thomasville, every customer we add provides additional revenue that we can use to help pay for government."
Thomasville's leaders have put great effort over the years into building a diverse array of businesses and avoiding dependence on a single large company, such as the textile mills that once dominated the region.
"Rural South Georgia had what was almost a deathblow in losing the cut and sew industry here," Sims says. "We lost 25,000 jobs in Southwest Georgia alone. It was a major trauma to us, but in the last few years the unemployment rate here has been less than the state of Georgia and less than the United States."
Today, Thomas County has 28 percent of the population in a five-county area, yet has captured 41 percent of all the jobs. These numbers reflect an aggressive recruitment effort to bring in new firms using persuasion, marketing and dollars when needed.
A local non-profit called Team 2000 formed in the early 1990s to help businesses relocate. The group makes loans toward moving expenses, purchasing equipment or other key elements that can lead to expansion. The key is job creation.
"The effort was to raise funds and to use those funds to ?incent' new industry - primarily manufacturing - to make the decision to bring new jobs to our area," explains Tom Callaway, president of the Commercial Bank and chairman of Team 2000's loan committee.
Over the years, the nonprofit has put more than $1 million into local business. One loan helped a pump company relocate from southern Florida; another helped a startup mobile home manufacturer that created 600 jobs. Although the company was later purchased by a larger firm and eventually moved elsewhere, it lasted long enough to pay back the loan and contribute to the local economy. Today, a truss manufacturer occupies the same facility.
"We had one or two that didn't make it, but we've felt like it was worth the price," Callaway says.
While Thomasville may seem a beacon in a rural sea, its location is key to its success. Just a short drive from Florida's capital and other dense population centers, the area also boasts a good transportation network. Its amenities stand up well to even larger communities and that helps account for the brisk pace of home sales. From retirement community to a place for business, Thomasville is fast becoming a place that these disparate groups want to call home.