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Northern Retirees Moving To Arkansas

March 8, 1987

CHEROKEE VILLAGE, Ark. (AP) _ Northern accents are increasingly heard along with Southern drawls in the Arkansas Ozarks, which has become a retirement haven for thousands because of low taxes, mild weather, pleasant scenery and no big-city stress.

The accelerating exodus by Northerners over 60 to communities like Cherokee Village means more home and land sales, more life savings deposited in local banks, and more tax revenue to support schools and services.

″Our area is much better off because the retirees are here,″ says Larry Nelson, president of a bank in Mountain Home. ″Eventually, within a six- or nine-month period, they have not only enjoyed being around these Southern people, they have become like those people. They have lost the veneer that built up over 40 years of working in the city.″

Arkansas is second only to Florida in percentage of population over 65, says Sandra Auburn, assistant deputy director of the state Office on Aging and Adult Services.

The 1980 U.S. Census found that 13.7 percent of Arkansas’ population was over 65, compared to 17.3 percent for Florida, she says.

Roy Smucker, a former Illinois resident who is assistant state director of the American Association of Retired Persons, says the organization’s state membership has grown more than 88,000 to 229,500 since 1984. A member must be at least 50, says Smucker, 71, ″but I’d say the biggest share are retirees.″

Gladys and Wayne Fry have shared the presidency of Cherokee Village’s Illinois Club, made up of several hundred expatriated Northerners, and a wooden cutout of Illinois is nailed to a post on their porch. ″But we are now Arkansans,″ Mrs. Fry says. ″We consider ourselves old-timers.″

″We don’t speak the Southern language, but we get along really well with these local folks,″ said Mrs. Fry, 69, who moved here in 1980 from Plainfield, Ill.

″You couldn’t pay me to live in Chicago,″ says her 70-year-old husband, a retired school bus driver who plays golf on sunny days and cards when it rains.

The couple’s small house is nestled in woodlands developed in 1954 by John Cooper Sr., whose company has profited by building communities with names like Bella Vista and Hot Springs Village. Cherokee Village has more than 24,000 property owners, some of whom only visit the area once a year.

At Hot Springs Village, which has 24-hour security guards, ″people leave golf carts outside with clubs in them,″ says project director Randy Brucker. ″You couldn’t pull them away to go back to Chicago or Detroit.″

He said property taxes are one-sixth or one-seventh what the retirees paid on their former homes.

Nelson, president of People’s Bank & Trust Co. at Mountain Home, about 50 miles away, estimates that more than half of his customers are retirement-age and that up to 80 percent of the bank’s deposits are retiree dollars. Since 1977, People’s assets have grown from $53.5 million to $126.5 million.

William and Phyllis Liebeknecht, both 63 and formerly of New Jersey, built a house on five acres near Mountain Home two years ago.

″We first came here and stayed three weeks at a fishing motel,″ Mrs. Liebeknecht recalls. ″We knew we wanted to come here. Different people have different needs. I’m not a shopper. I like the outdoors. We call Mountain Home our town.″

Nelson says differences in Northern and Southern backgrounds blur with time, although he has heard of some resentment by locals.

″I think there are some people, a minority, who have retired and feel the need to push for everything they’ve got,″ Nelson says. ″If you have one of those people talking to a small Arkansas farmer, one is going to view the other as either pushy, obnoxious, or brash, while the city boy is going to look at the rural Arkansas guy and say, ‘You talk slow, you think slow, you must be ignorant.’ ″

Mrs. Fry says bluntly, ″I’ve told them to their faces that if we hadn’t come down here, they would still be going to a backhouse,″ referring to tax- financed water and sewer connections.

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