STROUDSBURG, PA. -- Like many other parts of the Northeast, the Pocono Mountains experienced a surge in sales of new and existing houses in the mid-1980s, followed by a plunge for much of the last two years.
The real estate boom in the Poconos was fueled, in addition to the traditional market for vacation homes, by New York and northern New Jersey commuters willing to drive a car or ride a bus up to two hours a day. With real estate and the general economy slowing to a crawl in those areas since 1988, the Poconos market in Pennsylvania has paused as well.
But in the last month or so, what some real estate professionals call a "Jim Florio fan club" has formed spontaneously in the rocky, wooded hills of the Poconos.
Apparent worry over rising taxes in New Jersey and Gov. James P. Florio's efforts to equalize spending on public education has sparked a mini-boom of home seekers in the Poconos, brokers and builders said.
"Mr. Florio is definitely helping us," said one broker, who requested anonymity.
"People are very concerned about the tax situation in New Jersey," said Barbara G. Samet, president of the Pocono Mountains Board of Realtors and owner of a real estate agency in East Stroudsburg. "People are making inquiries again. For a long time, the phones were not even ringing."
Charles Hannig, president of Spread Eagle Associates of Stroudsburg and the immediate past president of the Poconos Builders Association, said, "There's no question there's been a slowing of construction" in the region over the last two years. "But all indications are that we are seeing an increase in client flow in the past couple of weeks,'' he added.
If the recent increase in home lookers translates into home sales, it could mean the beginning of yet another cycle in the Poconos' history of development as a tourist and getaway destination that stretches back to the late 19th century.
Just as the presence of railroads through the Poconos once brought visitors seeking a cool summertime retreat, the completion of Interstate 80 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Northeastern Extension sparked more recent surges.
Over the last two decades, the region's real estate market has gone through three peaks -- in the early 1970s, late 1970s and mid-1980s -- and valleys in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, with the troughs caused by recessions tied to increases in gasoline prices.
When people are worried about fuel supply and price, as they may soon be if the crisis continues in the Middle East, vacation-home sales suffer.
No previous boom, however, matched the 1983-88 period for growth in sales of first and second homes.
In Monroe County, the population increased 35 percent, from 69,409 in 1980 to 93,500 in 1988. In Pike County, the increase was even greater, 47 percent, from 18,271 in 1980 to 26,800 in 1988. Those counties were the two fastest-growing in Pennsylvania in the 1980s.
The average price of a single-family home sold through the Poconos Multiple Listing Service increased 69 percent between 1983 and 1989 before leveling off in the last 1 1/2 years. The average sales price this year is $104,412, only $300 more than in 1989.
Unlike previous growth periods, the 1980s saw thousands of residents of New York and New Jersey taking advantage of housing prices in the Poconos that were 50 percent or more below what they were moving away from. They bought primary homes and then commuted east to jobs along I-80 or in New York.
In addition to auto commuters, hundreds of Poconos residents ride express buses up to two hours each way daily to New York from Stroudsburg and other communities.
"If we didn't have the New York-New Jersey area ... we would have the typical, stagnant, small-town real estate market here," Samet said.
The relationship between the New York-New Jersey market and the Poconos, including higher taxes in New Jersey, is one factor that brokers and home builders say should keep their business from sinking much more than it has in the last two years.
"You really have two separate Poconos markets, for permanent homes and for vacation homes," said Mike Scovil, general manager of Coldwell Banker-Phyllis Rubin Real Estate, one of the region's largest agencies. "It's in the vacation homes where the real softness is. The number of people able to handle two mortgages in this economy is dwindling."
In the meantime, "The primary home market is still OK," Scovil said.