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Retiree ambassador prefers hurricanes to blizzards

Hurricane Katrina may have put a kink in programs to attract retirees to relocate to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But one such retiree who relocated from Minnesota to Diamondhead in 2000 says he and his wife are staying — despite having received five-and-a-half feet of water in their home.

“I think for many of us, life just goes on,” says Kenneth Cardinal, who along with his wife, Cheryl, decided on the Mississippi Gulf Coast as their retirement home. “So many of our families back home automatically thought we would be coming back the day after Katrina hit. They said, ‘How can you possibly live down there with the threat of a hurricane coming?” I have a cartoon on my desk that shows a husband and wife trudging to a farmhouse in a blizzard. The man says to his wife: ‘Repeat after me, At least we don’t get hurricanes.’ I don’t think I care to trade a blizzard for a hurricane.”

Cardinal said no matter where you live in the U.S., there are risks. The North has snow storms. Kansas has tornadoes. California and other states have earthquakes, mud slides and forest fires.

“No matter where you are, there are certain things that are a fact of life,” said Cardinal, who is a volunteer ambassador for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Retiree Partnership Program.

One of the “facts of life” that the Cardinals find alluring about their new home is friendly people.

“We came down purely for a winter vacation and fell in love with the people,” Cardinal said. “We have never experienced such genuine hospitality from everyone. What we found about the South is that people are so genuine and down to earth. Here when you meet people you are likely to get a big hug, not a cold handshake. I tell people I am a Minnesotan by birth, and a Mississippian by choice. To me, the people here are genuine. When Katrina hit and drove us from our home temporarily, the biggest concern we had was not for our house or property, but the people we knew from church, the retirement association and other organizations we belong to. How did they fare?”

Other factors that the Cardinals like, and that they discuss when talking with retirees considering relocating to the area, include no state income taxes on retirement income, property tax breaks for retirees, a low cost of living and a more casual atmosphere.

“Here you can walk around in short pants and t-shirts and still be accepted in most restaurants,” he said. “And the cost of living at the time we relocated was considerably less than what we were used to up in Minnesota. We didn’t have winter heating bills. The summer cooling bill is still much lower than winter bills used to be in Minnesota.”

Cardinal says his son has asked, “Aren’t you fed up with the heat and humidity down South?”

“I tell him the day I have to shovel humidity is when I will leave,” Cardinal said. “I will take humidity to the snow.”
Cardinal said while some people have left Diamondhead and other communities on the Coast since Katrina, others have stayed and made the best of things. He has neighbors who bought Katrina-damaged homes, fixed them up and sold them at a profit.

He sees his role as a retirement ambassador not to recruit, but inform.

“People are curious about the South, and ask questions about things like how they are going to be accepted being considered a ‘Yankee’ versus being a Southerner,” Cardinal said. “They want to know, ‘Are we completely demolished down here? Are we still eating MREs and living in tents?’ We tell it like it is. We tell them our experience, what we encountered, and why we like it. I always tell them at the end, no matter where you go, you will probably find happiness. I found it in Mississippi.
“We tell them about our people, food, entertainment, golf courses and a way of life that is considerably slower than up North. I tell them how I enjoy sitting on the deck under the umbrella having lunch, and listening to the bird songs. We talk about traffic down here, but compared to Minneapolis or Chicago, this is no traffic.”

When faced with rebuilding after their home flooded, the Cardinals did wonder if they should relocate.

“But we thought, ‘Where do we go?’,” Cardinal said. “This is our home. We rebuilt our home, are back in it now and are loving it.”

Marcia Crawford, director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Retiree Partnership, said they are extremely fortunate to have such inspiring, motivating, upbeat and positive ambassadors as Ken and Cheryl Cardinal.

“There are currently 15 active ambassadors who volunteer their time to promote the Mississippi Gulf Coast as a wonderful place to live,” Crawford said. “The ambassadors follow-up on leads through phone calls, notes and provide complimentary tours to retirees wanting to relocate here. It is an honor working with these optimistic individuals who understand the challenges yet are excited to be part of the rebuilding process and remain optimistic about the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s future.”

Katrina has made it more difficult to sell South Mississippi as a retirement location in the short term because the Coast is still in the recovery/rebuilding phase.

“However, tremendous progress has already been made and we are extremely optimistic for the future,” Crawford said.
The retirement partnership has received 651 retiree inquiries from April 1 through June 30, 2006, more than received during the comparable period 2005. The top five states from which these inquiries originated were Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, New York and Florida.

“People are doing their homework on the area,” Crawford said. “Most will not be ready to retire and relocate for one-plus years, but want to explore opportunities now. We will continue to market our area as a highly desirable place to live through trade shows, local events, national advertising and partnering with the Harrison County Tourism Commission and the state’s Hometown Mississippi Retirement program. Finally, we are also confident that the winter of 2007 will see the return of snowbirds.”

While a lot of retirees may have left when their homes were damaged or destroyed, Crawford said many are expected to return as insurance issues are resolved, community services are restored and homes are repaired or rebuilt.

Farther north off the Coast, some towns are experiencing net population gains as a result of the storm. Hattiesburg, which has been selected as one of the 100 Best Retirement Towns in America by Where to Retire magazine, continues to attract relocating retirees, says Susan Walker, vice president, Chamber of Commerce. Walker said retirees from around the country have asked about Hattiesburg’s proximity to the coastal areas. She said many have heard from news reports about the damage in Mississippi as far north as Jackson. But the majority of damage in Hattiesburg was to trees and roofs.

“Believe it or not, there are still people who want to move down here,” Walker said. “I was really surprised by a lovely letter the other day from a couple who have spent many vacations down here. The thing that really surprised me is they plan on moving here in a couple months, and made no mention of Hurricane Katrina.”

Walker said the hurricane affected Hattiesburg in two ways: More retirees — and other residents — from the coastal areas are moving to Hattiesburg to get a few more miles inland. That has increased the costs of housing.

“Homes are at a premium here,” Walker said. “More than 10,000 new homes are currently being built in the area to accommodate the influx of new residents.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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