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Rural Retreat: Why Retirees Are Moving Mountain South

For our Rural Retreat issue, The HillVille caught up with Meghan Dorsett, who publishes The Community Planner, a practical ‘how-to’ planning guide, to find out what trends she’s encountering in Appalachia’s small towns and communities. She wasn’t surprised a bit when recently listed Boone, N.C., as one of the fastest growing small towns in America. Change is here for some areas, she says, and it’s all about the baby boomers.

By Meghan Dorsett

In 2009, the United States Department of Agriculture  published an article called “Baby Boom Migration Tilts Toward Rural America,” which said America’s largest generation will increase migration in certain rural areas from 18 percent to 25 to 30 percent. Those are big numbers for small communities.

There’s been a shift in retirement age population across the country, but it has been a shift to very specific areas–namely those places with scenic and outdoor recreational value (mountains, national parks and forests, vistas, streams and lakes, etc); high quality of life, including a variety of cultural activities; relatively moderate costs of living and decent weather.

It is not surprising then that places like Asheville, N. C., Blacksburg, Va., and Knoxville, Tenn., and their surrounding areas are seeing a substantial increase in retiree populations.

Ten years ago, popular retirement destinations saw a real boom in large second homes; in the last few years, the emphasis has shifted to senior housing developments designed to accommodate the aging process (“age in place” housing).

For example, a few years ago, I was working on the comprehensive plan for Greenbrier County, West Virginia. The county, which is bisected by Interstate 64, has seven golf courses (many of them connected to the Greenbrier Resort), national forest land, a couple of rivers, the artsy town of Lewisburg, and a major medical facility- the West Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine. Since the late 1990s, Greenbrier had seen a real building boom, although the county’s population has remained flat since 1960. Most of the new construction was for second homes and most of the new part-time residents were from three urban areas: Washington D.C./Baltimore, Richmond and Charlottesville, Va. A number of the new residents participated in the comprehensive planning process. When asked why they had chosen Greenbrier, they cited four key reasons: 1) quality of life 2) cost of living 3) proximity to medical facilities and services; and 4) direct access to major metropolitan areas. There is a CSX passenger rail station that gives the Greenbrier resort direct access to the Washington D.C. to Boston urban corridor.

What areas specifically will likely see more in-migration, especially from urban escapees?

The reality is that the retirement boom is likely to be in a very narrow corridor, north to south, along the Alleghenies, Blue Ridge and Smokies, primarily in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Places like Eastern Kentucky and the majority of West Virginia (I-64 corridor excepted), aren’t likely to see a high influx of retirees because of a lack of community infrastructure and relative isolation.

What kind of impact is this influx having? How does it translate to small town main street? Is it reinvigorating some local economies?

Retirees do bring additional disposable income with them. They are more likely to go out to eat, spend money in local shops, frequent cultural venues and join local organizations- all positive. Unfortunately, they are less likely to support increased funding of local schools and other services they don’t use.

They can have a dramatic impact on local voting, precisely because they are in the age group that is most likely to vote. For example, Christiansburg, Va., has roughly doubled in size in the last 15 years as retirees and young professionals have been priced out of the housing market of nearby Blacksburg. Until the growth spurt, Christiansburg paid little or no attention to planning, stormwater management or to recreation venues. When the issues weren’t addressed, the resulting pressure cost the town manager and longtime council members their seats.

If jurisdictions are looking to cash in on the retirement boom brought about by the aging population they need to:

–        Invest in their quality of life infrastructure: bikeways/walkways, recreational facilities, libraries, museums, arts facilities, nifty shopping areas, historic preservation, health care facilities, and perhaps most importantly, environmental and scenic quality.

–        Consider potential changes within the local economy. Typically, retirement destinations are heavily geared towards service and retail sector jobs, which are not particularly high on the salary scale. While there may be increased opportunities for local craftsman, over the long haul, construction opportunities are generally short term and will vanish.

–        Guard against pricing their workers out of town. As retirees move in, the cost of living goes up, especially in housing. This has been especially true in areas where there is a prevalence of large second homes.

–        Have a “when the boom ends” plan. The boom might last a generation or two, but it will come to an end as the next generation, which is much smaller, reaches their retirement years. From a long range planning perspective, the worst thing a jurisdiction can do is place their hopes on one slice of the population. Fortunately, retirement destinations also work well for tourism and the development of community resources will support both.

Meghan H. Dorsett, AICP, is the owner of Dorsett Publications and the publisher of The Community Plannera quarterly how-to journal for citizens and planners alike. Before taking over the family publishing company, Meghan worked as a county planner and as a planning consultant for small towns and rural counties in Virginia, West Virginia, Missouri and Arkansas. While she is originally from Montana, she has lived in southwestern Virginia, on and off, since 1969 (although she does admit that she has never quite mastered the pronunciation of “ya’ll” and is still prone to saying “ja, you betcha”). When she is not writing about planning, she is giving tours and selling toys from her 144-year-old train depot in Cambria, Va.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Errol Hess #

    Rural Retreat happens to be a town on Virginia’s Cumberland Plateau, about halfway between Abingdon and Blacksburg.

    January 26, 2012
    • It is! I’ve driven by it. Hopefully, they won’t mind us using their town name as turn of phrase.

      January 26, 2012

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