Revival of a Midwestern town. Planned community seen as hope for area's depressed economy

There are no beaches in Carillon, Ill. In fact, there's not much of anything there yet, except two plowed fields and a blacktop road. But none of this seems to bother Bob Seldomridge. ``See that high ground over by the farmhouse? That's where the clubhouse is going to be,'' says the south Florida developer. He shows off plans for houses, town houses, condominiums, and even a man-made lake.

Snow removal? ``[It] is new to us, but we'll do it.''

Carillon, in fact, represents something of a culture shock for this agricultural and industrial area southwest of Chicago. It marks the first attempt by Cenvill Development Corporation to build one of its adults-only, self-contained communities outside of south Florida. And with Carillon, it will be trying to lure middle- and upper-middle income home buyers - the golf-and-tennis set - to a patch of Midwest farm ground just a few miles from a state penitentiary and a virtually empty steel plant.

``This is the first time you will see anything like this'' in the Midwest, says Mr. Seldomridge, operations director for the huge, 3-square-mile project.

When finished, Carillon would house 14,000 or more people, most at or near retirement. (No one 18 or under can live here permanently.) The community would have its own live-in celebrities, who would promote the place, as well as its own security force, bus service, closed-circuit television, and shopping area.

Carillon's major selling point: It's in a rural setting but only a 35-minute drive from downtown Chicago, Seldomridge says.

If this concept sells to mature Chicagoans, the community would be a major boost to the area's economy, which is just beginning to recover from a steep downturn in the early and mid-1980s.

``This is an opportunity,'' says Ruth Calvert Fitzgerald, executive director of the Joliet/Will County Center for Economic Development. ``It opens up a new door for Will County.''

Up to now, Will County has been the poor boy of Chicago's suburban development. Western suburbs with names like Naperville and Hoffman Estates have boomed, thanks to an influx of new service and high-technology jobs. Some communities have grown so much that they are putting in measures to limit new development or stop it entirely, says Maurice Sanderman of the Home Builders Association of Greater Chicago.

But farther south, Joliet and surrounding communities remain hungry for development.

``That stuff didn't filter down south because the employment wasn't there,'' says Deborah Brett, vice-president of Real Estate Research, a national real estate appraisal and consulting firm based in Chicago.

In fact, during the first half of the 1980s, employment shrank as the nation's industrial economy soured. The region's largest employer, Caterpillar Inc., cut its work force from 7,000 to 3,000. Other businesses closed up entirely or fled to the Sunbelt. According to one study, the county lost nearly 8,700 manufacturing jobs between 1980 and 1984.

``This whole area was down,'' recalls Joe Burla, a general contractor based in Joliet. Sales of his new condominiums dried up and building stopped. ``It was virtually a five-year period before things picked up.''

The recovery of manufacturing nationwide has spurred the turnaround here, but Ms. Fitzgerald's economic development group has also helped. The group has recruited nearly 50 new businesses, several from overseas, and it has brought in 3,000 new jobs.

``Our objective here,'' Fitzgerald says, ``is to be so economically healthy that we are recession-proof.''

The Carillon project, if completed, would bring another $1 billion or so in investment to the area, Seldomridge estimates.

Several Chicago developers and real-estate analysts say privately that the project is probably too ambitious.

Cenvill Development Corporation, however, is banking on its experience in Florida, where it has four similar developments, to lure what it calls the ``active adult.''

``Every feedback that we have gotten has been better than we anticipated,'' Seldomridge says. ``This type of community in the Chicagoland area is highly desirable.''

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