Why retirees heading for Florida stay in Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill, which was a university town almost before it was any kind of town at all, has developed a new ''cottage industry'' - retirement.

Its retirement community is estimated at some 3,000 to 4,000, with much of the influx coming in the past 10 years. That's not large in absolute numbers, but definitely noticeable in a town of some 50,000, of whom 20,000 are university students.

''We're on somebody's list of good places to retire,'' says Nanette Fields, a real estate counselor with Southland Associates here. She estimates retirees are 30 to 40 percent of her business.

At a time when national recession has slowed the flow of corporate people into the area, retirees looking to buy houses in Chapel Hill ''have been our saving grace,'' says Mel Rashkis, another broker.

You might call retirement the ultimate clean industry. People move into an area and bring their own incomes -- pensions, investments, and social security. This money then turns over in the local economy, just like the earnings from manufactured goods exported from an area. Yet there's no pollution, no noise -- and retirees don't even take up a place in the job market.

It's probably an ideal way for an economy like Chapel Hill's to expand; it may be the only way.

University pay scales have skewed the cost of living upward so that low-income workers have trouble affording Chapel Hill -- hence there's no labor pool for industry.

And although North Carolina as a whole has become an important retirement area, Chapel Hill caters to the upscale end of the 65-plus crowd -- corporate executives, government officials, and academics.

It's an ''industry'' the local chamber of commerce is actively recruiting. The town of Chapel Hill is not, however, perhaps mindful of the challenges of having a large population on fixed incomes -- even big fixed incomes -- at a time of generally rising prices. Ultimately this could lead to retirees straining local services. ''Not everyone rises with the tide,'' Mayor Joe Nassif observes.

Housing prices here are higher than in other parts of the Research Triangle, and higher than in the South generally (though still lower than the Northeast). Ms. Fields estimates the average house in Chapel Hill to be in the $60,000 to $ 70,000 bracket.

But Chapel Hillians insist, ''The difference in quality of life makes it worth it.''

For these elite retirees, quality of life means not only proximity to the university and having no snow to shovel, but companionship of people like themselves and like the friends they have had in New York, Washington, or Boston.

Chapel Hill may be described as a retirement community for people who don't like retirement communities. Its ''three seasons'' also make it attractive for people who want more variety than Florida offers. Stories are told of people en route to Florida who stop in Chapel Hill and end up staying.

Retirees here are an activist bunch, too -- eager to volunteer in the schools , sign up for university courses, or counsel small businesses through the local SCORE -- Service Corps of Retired Executives.

''Their contributions are immense,'' says Lee Hauser, chamber of commerce president. ''That's one of the reasons they want to retire here, because they want to stay involved, as opposed to buying a beach house somewhere and just reading books.''

There is also provision for those retirees who become less active, though, in the form of the Carol Woods community. Residents who give up their own homes to move in are in effect buying a share in a cooperative. They have their own apartments or ''town-homes'' on the periphery of the grounds until and unless need dictates closer supervision, at which point they move into a ''dormitory,'' or a nursing wing at the center of the community.

This is not your basic rocking-chairs-on-the-verandah sort of retirement home , though. A spokeswoman frankly describes it as aimed for the affluent Chapel Hill executive retiree. Residents must have a minimum monthly income of $1,800. Houses go for $24,400 to $67,550 (payable in one lump sum), and the monthly maintenance fees -- covering meals, maid service, transportation, and so on - range from $751 to $1,295.

Expensive though it may be, the Carol Woods ''life-care'' concept is highly regarded, and Chapel Hillians feel it meets an important need in the community.

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