ST. JOSEPH – When developer Ralph Woodard first moved to St. Joseph more than a half-century ago, it didn't take him long to notice that the town, for all its quaint charm, could stand a few more houses.
So he set out to provide what would have to come first – a new subdivision with building lots for sale. And he hasn't stopped since.
To date, Woodard has developed 860 residential lots in and north of St. Joseph, and while the 81-year-old developer – turning 82 later this month – is long past the traditional retirement age, he's far from ready to quit.
He's adding new lots to his Crestlake subdivision on the east side of town and working with the village on a new 40-acre park. He's also planning another new subdivision that will be called Crestview.
"I guess there was a need, and I've been trying to fill it ever since," Woodard said with a smile.
He's adding 40 new home lots – all sold before groundbreaking – to Crestlake in what will be the seventh phase of that subdivision. East of Crestlake, Woodard has purchased 57 more acres and is selling 40 acres to the village for a new park and sports complex. He'll be keeping the other 17 acres for the eighth phase of Crestlake, which will add 35 lots.
Then on with Crestview. Woodard said that subdivision will add 500 new home lots to St. Joseph, and its development will start next year or in 2005.
Woodard said he's keeping up with a fast-growing community. St. Joseph's population rose 46.8 percent between the 1990 and 2000 census counts, and the bulk of that growth can be found in his subdivisions, he said.
St. Joseph's longtime mayor, B.J. Hackler, said the town has three major selling points: good schools; a good location between Champaign-Urbana and Danville; and a safe environment.
Plus, he added, despite the growth, "it's got the same little small-town charm."
Woodard has been a major contributor to the town's growth, said Hackler and village Trustee Peter Maass.
"He has certainly been the engine here," Maass added.
Woodard grew up on a farm in the Newton area, went to the University of Illinois to study industrial administration, served in the Air Force and started his career in the insurance business.
He came to St. Joseph in 1950 as a Country Companies agent and in 1964 started his own insurance agency, which he ran for 38 years. Along the way, he also started selling real estate, which was how he happened to notice the need for new home lots in town, he said.
Woodard first developed Heather Hills, a subdivision north of St. Joseph with 150 lots, in the middle to late 1960s.
Next came a development of duplexes called Chateau Gardens also north of town; the 15-lot Schriber's Addition on the northwest side; Routh Acres, a 37-lot subdivision north of town; and the Southgate subdivision with 90-plus lots on the south side of town.
He developed Northgate, a commercial development in the north part of town, along with Meadow Park, a 27-lot subdivision, in the 1970s, then in 1986 moved on to the first of the three "Crest" subdivisions – Crestwood, which adjoins Crestlake with 210 lots that were all filled by the early 1990s.
Woodard has also branched out a bit with a new subdivision in Tuscola, Forest Glen, which has room for 140 lots. That subdivision is in a good location but has been slower to take off, Woodard said.
"We think it's going to happen, but it's a slower market there," he added.
Woodard was also in the building supply business for a time, operating St. Joseph Supply Co. with his brother, Elmer, from 1969 to 1983. And he still owns and manages farmland in Champaign, Douglas, Coles and Jasper counties, he said.
Woodard said he has always catered to the middle-income market with his housing developments.
Lots in Crestlake are currently selling in the $30,000 range, and houses there are selling from about $150,000 to $200,000, he said.
Woodard marvels at what a midrange house costs these days. He recalls he and his wife, Betty, borrowed for the down payment on their own first house, which at the time cost $4,000.
"Things have changed," he said.
Not everything, though. Woodard has worked out of the same modest offices in downtown St. Joseph since 1970 and has employed the same assistant, Judith Craig, for 34 years.
Woodard said he got involved in the new 40-acre recreational park because St. Joseph needs one so much.
He is selling the land to the village for $184,000 on contract, and the village hopes to cover half that cost with a state grant, Hackler said. - The park complex will include several ball diamonds, a skateboard park, a combination football and soccer field, a basketball court, two pavilions with restrooms, playground equipment and walking and biking trails, the mayor said.
The price tag for development has been roughly estimated at $3.8 million, half of which the village hopes to cover from another state grant, Hackler said.
Maass said it will take some planning and pulling together on fund raising to cover the development costs, and that process is just in preliminary stages.
At least for now, he said, the village has the land, and that's a start.
Hackler said St. Joseph needs the green space and recreational facilities more than ever. There are 740 local youths involved in sports programs this year, and the average age of a St. Joseph resident is 34.
"We've got a young population here," he said.
Woodard, who also provided 10-plus acres in the Crestwood subdivision for a park, will be doing more than carrying the paper on the new park. He'll be furnishing the roads and utilities to the park land, and he's glad to do it, he said.
Woodard and his wife of 54 years have six grown children – five sons and one daughter – and currently none of them is involved in the business.
Who eventually runs the family-owned company, Woodard Development Corp., once Woodard decides to slow down a bit hasn't been determined yet, he said.
Right now, he added, he's still enjoying his work too much to think about retiring.
"I think we've brought a lot of nice young people to the community," he said.
You can reach Debra Pressey at (217) 351-5229 or via e-mail at email@example.com.