By: Ted Dabrowski and John Klingner

When Paul Serwatka, the reform-oriented mayor of the small Village of Lakewood called it quits on Illinois more than a year ago, he and his family picked out the area of Huntsville, Alabama, for their new home. 

“Alabama?” a couple of his Illinois neighbors asked. But Sertwatka isn’t alone in heading for Alabama. It’s attracting many Illinoisans because parts of the state are booming in jobs, investment and population. And it costs a lot less to live there. Serwatka says “we’re not looking back.”

More than 29,000 Illinoisans have moved to Alabama since 2010, according to U.S. Census data. In contrast, just 15,000 Alabamians moved to Illinois over that same time period. 

Illinois was the 2nd-highest net supplier of residents to Alabama over the period.

Like most states in the country, Alabama is beating Illinois in the competition for people and their incomes. It’s going to take a lot of structural changes in Illinois to reverse those numbers. 

Unfortunately, the only ideas politicians have for Illinois are higher taxes, including property taxes and progressive income tax hikes. Not only will they make it more expensive to live in Illinois, but they’ll drive more people out and depress home values even more. Wirepoints has covered both trends in detail in our out-migration series and property tax research.

Picking Alabama

Serwatka’s flight from Illinois is all the more interesting because he did what few other local politicians in Illinois could manage: He passed major fiscal reforms in his community. 

During his time in office, Serwatka lowered Lakewood’s city property taxes by 10 percent without service cuts. He also scrapped a previously approved $66 million TIF before it could break ground, resulting in a tax refund for some residents.

Wirepoints covered Serwatka’s efforts here, here and here

But his successes as mayor were overrun by the failures coming from state politicians. Higher property taxes and income tax hikes were their only answers to the pension mess. And top-down controls were creating more economic havoc for small cities.

Serwatka worried about his young family and their future. So he did what so many families have done in the last two decades. They did the math and decided to flee.

In all, Illinois has lost people, on net, to 39 other states over the past decade according to state-to-state migration data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Loses to its neighbors have been particularly large, with Indiana and Wisconsin netting more than 100,000 Illinoisans each. The number of people Illinois gained from the remaining 10 states is small in comparison.

Serwatka originally focused his search in Tennessee, but he quickly found that property values and taxes had already crept up as a result of the flight to the Nashville area. He felt he’d already missed the boat.

But Alabama, especially northern Alabama, still looked good. 

“Never mind the stigma,” Serwatka told Wirepoints. He did his homework and was confident about the move. He now has a bigger house on several acres and pays a fraction of the property taxes he used to – just $2,200 a year now vs. the $15,400 he paid on his home in Illinois.

We have no doubts we made the right decision for our family, and our bank account is already up more than $20K just in tax savings,” Serwatka said.

On top of all that, the area where he lives is flourishing. 

Huntsville, Alabama, nicknamed the Rocket City and home to the ASA/Marshall Space Flight Center, is experiencing rapid growth. It’s booming in investment, jobs and population to the point where the city is facing growth-related problems.

Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA is moving forward with 4,000 new jobs and a $1.6 billion investment for a new plant. Facebook is building a $750 million data center in Huntsville.

And the FBI is adding 1,350 positions at the Redstone Arsenal.

“Who knows,” said Serwatka, “my property value could double in the next five years.” With AAA-rated Huntsville on track to become the largest city in Alabama within six years, that just might be possible. 

Left behind

Funny enough, while some Illinoisans made fun of Serwatka for moving to Alabama, the stigma of being an Illinoisan followed him down south. His new neighbors were worried Serwatka would bring “Illinois politics and policies” to Alabama.

Luckily, Serwatka could point to his reforms as an Illinois mayor to overcome their concerns. But Alabamians are right to be worried about Illinois’ politics and policies. 

Politicians’ poor decisions are why Illinois has lost more population than any other state in the nation. Illinois is one of just three states to lose population since 2010.

What’s amazing is that state politicians seem to think Illinoisans won’t leave no matter how bad finances get or how high taxes go. That’s the theory pushed by many proponents of the progressive tax.

But the data clearly shows otherwise. Illinoisans are already leaving in record numbers and going just about everywhere else in the country. Even Alabama.

Read more about Illinois’ out-migration problems:

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Poor Taxpayer
1 year ago

The best day of your life is the day you move out of Illinois. A U-Haul will solve the problem. Call a mover today and start a better life for you and your family. Illinois is DOA, no hope. Even the cops, firemen and teachers with the HUGE PENSIONS are running out of Illinois.
Last man standing will be a dead man. 83 Degrees and Sunny in South Florida, NO state income taxes. Freeze you a$$ of in poverty or start a great new life.

1 year ago

Let’s look at it even more rationally with regard to the Deep South. If I still need a job and need to work, Alabama, SC, NC, Tennesse and Georgia offer opportunity. Virginia seems like it could go to the wrong fiscally conservative tax friendly track. Mississippi is 0% for retirees and of course there is Florida. Louisiana isn’t attractive compared to the others, and there isn’t much in Arkansas outside of Little Rock and Bentonville. With the aggressive way both Auburn and Alabama have been recruiting students from Illinois, no surprise they wind up there. Also, one of the best… Read more »

1 year ago

The Crimson Tide has been increasingly poaching Chicagoland high school kids for awhile now.

People think of the South as podunk country, but the fact of the matter is Illinois is mostly podunk country. Springfield is over 3 hours away from Chicago. You can get from Birmingham to Atlanta or Nashville in less time.

1 year ago
Reply to  nixit

They sure have been recruiting aggressively at IL high schools. I haven’t seen that quantified, but I have heard of lots of instances of very good kids heading there.

1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Glennon

The University of Alabama has a simple transparent formula for out of State merit scholoarships.

1 year ago
Reply to  nixit

The University of Alabama is in Tuscaloosa, about 1 hour southwest of Birmingham.

Birmingham is the most populous city in Alabama with a 2018 estimate of 209,880.

Huntsville is in northern Alabama.

Per Google Maps:

Tuscaloosa to Atlanta, 3 hours.

Tuscaloosa to Nashville, 3.5 hours.

Birmingham to Atlanta, 2.25 hours.

Birmingham to Nashville, 3 hours.

Huntsville to Atlanta, 3.25 hours.

Huntsville to Nashville, 2 hours.

University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign to Chicago, 2.25 hours.

Springfield to Chicago, 3.5 hours.

1 year ago
Reply to  nixit

Another thing I have heard anecdotally is that one of the draws to Alabama has been an emphasis on classics. That is, for liberal arts, an alternative to the leftist propaganda dominant on most campuses. I’ve heard the same about programs at Notre Dame and Pepperdine. Don’t know if it’s true, but I’d be interested if there is growing interest in schools or particular programs that offer an alternative the prevailing whack-jobs.

cass andra
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Glennon

Hillsdale College in Michigan is on board with this approach. Grove City College in PA but it takes a more religious approach. (Not necessarily bad.) I follow Jordan Peterson and he projects dismay about Canadian public universities and doesn’t have that much good to say about Big Name U.S. universities. He has a recent negative posting on Brown. But if one looks at employment opportunities one finds quite a bit of left-leaning conformity for those employers situated in left-leaning states. Faculty unionization together with tenure and left-leaning judges limit my hope for a quick turn-a-round in how the younger generation… Read more »

1 year ago
Reply to  cass andra

Wow. Is that second paragraph about a place in IL?

Cass Andra
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Glennon

Alas, no. Suburban Seattle. Upscale community where the median gross income for households is $94,638 a year. Where else would you put this public health center [] if you had the worst urban homeless problem in the nation? Where besides a place with free parking for government employees and an hour or more by bus from where the “clients” live. Out where government employees prefer to live with the good schools, clean parks, $3000 dogs and the Microsoft wizards.

1 year ago

The question isn’t why would someone leave Illinois, it’s why would anyone stay. This article shows one aspect of being a good father. He chose not to let liberal Illinois destroy his kids future. It does sort of makes me wonder what you remaining Illinois parents are valuing more than your kids. There must be something extremely important in Illinois that you value above your children. I’m just curious what that would be because I can’t think of one thing that qualifies.

Bob Out of Here
1 year ago
Reply to  DantheMan

Maybe they stay because Illinois has bathrooms for transvestites in the local high schools but Alabama does not?

1 year ago

Hahahah and thanks to gov bon-bon, all single stall bathrooms must be open to all genders. No more gender specific single bathrooms. Which my wife says is disgusting because now in shared bathrooms she finds pee all over the seats. Women can’t even have a safe, pee free space anymore. I guess men peeing all over the toilet seat is ‘gender inclusive’ now. “All single-occupancy public restrooms in Illinois must be designated as gender-neutral beginning Jan. 1 under a law Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed Friday. The legislation, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Melinda Bush of Grayslake, prohibits signs outside… Read more »