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Retirees may be more attractive than factories

Dr. Mark Fagan has spent a good portion of the past two decades building the case for why economic development groups ought to regard retirees as a profitable industry and helping them understand how to recruit that industry.

Now he is shifting gears and working on a book showing retirees places where they might want to live.

Fagan, who is head of the Department of Sociology and Social Work at Jacksonville State University, is a nationally known researcher on retirement. He developed an interest in the topic in the early 1980s when he was part of an interdisciplinary team the university’s Center for Economic Development put together to help smaller counties in East Alabama with economic development.

The team found that the counties they studied were not well positioned to compete for smokestacks – there are a lot more communities looking for projects than there are companies looking for new facilities.

Many of those communities, though, had the kinds of things tourists and retirees were looking for. Not much information was available on the economic impact of retirees in a community, and Fagan began doing research.

Both Fagan and the university developed a niche. From 1988 to 1992 the university was host to an annual conference on the retirement industry. Gov. Guy Hunt created a state agency to try to recruit retirees to Alabama (other states have since adopted that strategy and devoted more resources to it) and Fagan wrote the first guide to retirement in Alabama. The university became home to the American Association of Retirement Communities, which is devoted to promoting economic development through retiree attraction.

In a presentation at the University of California at Santa Barbara recently, Fagan gave some reasons why communities should view retirement as an industry.

Research indicates that average in-migrant retiree households bring with them $370,000 in assets and $41,000 in annual income. They do 85 percent of their spending locally and pay more in taxes than they cost in services.

Other researches have found that 2.75 jobs are created for each new in-migrant household and that the economic impact of an in-migrant household is the same as 3.7 factory jobs.

And the number of retiree households will swell as the 78 million members of the Baby Boom generation age. The oldest of that group will begin turning 60 next year. It is estimated that in less than 15 years, infrastructure (housing, health care, commerce and services) to support them will have to more than double.

In the same presentation, Fagan noted that older interstate migrants increasingly are going from metro areas to smaller communities and rural areas. They are going to states with mild climates, natural beauty, yet easy access to urban services.

In an interview last week, Fagan amplified on the last point. Retirees want to be near the services – transportation, health care, cultural attractions – but they’d rather not live in the middle of all that congestion, he said. “They want to have easy access to it, so if they can be 20-25 minutes from those services, they’d rather be in a safer, quieter place.”

That brings us to Fagan’s latest project. “I was writing for economic developers,” he said. “I’ve sort of been there, done that. I’m interested in writing more for the consumers now.”

So he began working on a book that will be called Small town Retirement in the Warmer States: A Picture Guide.

Since last October he has visited 16 states and driven more than 23,000 miles.

Most retirement guides are dense with minutiae about, or ratings of, an area, Fagan said.

He wanted his book to be different, he said, so his book’s emphasis will be showing what a place looks like. It will be rich with links to other information. He will not assign ratings to communities, cognizant of retirement writer Peter Dickinson’s observation that one man’s heaven is another man’s hell. Instead, he said, he will say “If you like this type of stuff, you might like this area.”

One common denominator Fagan looked for in his travel was a community’s character. “When I would get to a town, I would get to an historic area, and in a matter of minutes I developed a feel whether or not that town was progressing or regressing, and if it was progressing, was it progressing to where retirees could find the amenities they want.”

Among the things retirees want, he said, are restaurants and specialty shops. “They like buildings that have been refurbished.”

There are many small communities in Alabama that could have a better chance of luring new retiree households than they have of landing a new factory if they looked honestly at themselves and decided where their real economic future lies.

Bill Brown can be contacted at 377 Quail Hollow Drive, Dadeville AL 36853 or by e-mail at williambrown1@charter.net

(c)2005 William B. Brown