Flynn's Harp: Country-bound boomers may enhance rural economy (9/2/09)
Posted on 9/2/2009 by Mike Flynn
Baby boomers retiring over the next decade will migrate to the countryside in record numbers, a phenomenon that will impact rural economies for years to come and change the way rural-development policy efforts unfold.
That’s the forecast of a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which projects a shift in migration among those 55 to 75 “toward more isolated settings, especially those with high natural and urban amenities and lower housing costs.”
As rural communities in Washington State, the West and other parts of the country struggle for some ray of sunshine in the midst of this dark economy, the possibility of attracting a healthy share of those boomers may bring enthusiasm in the gloom and stir new development strategies.
Quality of life is drawing people with innovative ideas and jobs to rural areas. In some cases, it is corporate executives who want to more time in their favorite vacation spot while for others it's a chance to come home to a place where they have roots, either personal or family.
And ironically, the current economic challenges impacting the nation may increase the opportunity for rural areas to attract boomers since inexpensive small towns can offer real estate values as well as lifestyle appeal.
The USDA report notes that “selling homes in suburbs for only 70 percent of their appraised value of two years ago still works economically for those willing to consider quiet towns in quiet counties where homes sell for 30-to-40 percent of their suburban equivalents.”
One strategic shift might be for rural communities to move away from their long-time focus on trying to attract companies to relocate to those rural areas and instead develop strategies to focus on attracting influencers and the affluent.
Some parts of the West have already been focused on attracting the affluent as part of economic-development strategies, particularly several communities in Montana where the appeal of “The Big Sky” has lured enough angel-investor types that several groups of angels have formed. While those affluent aren’t necessarily boomers seeking post-retirement strategies, they may well serve as magnets for entrepreneurial boomers.
Dave McFadden, who heads the Yakima County Development Association in Central Washington, says his organization is “working to grow an entrepreneurs association in our Valley and feel that this support for emerging companies is a solid approach to economic development.”
The Yakima area is blessed by being the center of Washington’s wine industry, which is attracting a growing number of retired business people and entrepreneurs, making wine and economic development intertwined in Yakima and communities dotting the length of the Yakima Valley.
“Boomers know they are going to be living longer and they are more than willing to take new ‘encore’ jobs and careers to feed the part of their heart that loves being productive,” says Bill Morton, founder and president of Second Half Strategies, LLC. His Bellevue, WA-based consulting business assists companies in leveraging what he refers to as “the coming Age Avalanche.”
“Thoughtful rural and small town economic development councils will be wise to anticipate the coming move and position themselves to fully leverage this economic opportunity,” adds Morton.
“By understanding what are the essential components of a rural area that make it attractive to second halfers, these economic development leaders can score big dividends for the businesses in their areas,” says Morton, who also coaches CEOs and senior leaders in planning sessions he calls “Your Next Chapter.”
The USDA report predicts that the population of boomers living in rural areas in the West grow by 31.8 percent and notes that “new baby boom residents of rural areas are likely to have a positive impact on income and employment levels of their migration destinations.”
But the report cautions that those boomer newcomers won’t just be incorporated into the smaller communities, but rather “may increase infrastructure and social-service costs for local governments and require surrounding areas to make investments in health care and related services.”
Monica Babine, coordinator of e-work programs for the Center to Bridge the Digital Divide for the Washington State University extension, who has developed affinity recruitment programs for rural communities, says those towns will miss the wave if they don’t begin planning.
“Instead of trying to focus on attracting some sort of industry, attract individuals,” she says. “Communities should work more closely with local tourism and recreation people, as well as realtors. Focus on people who had to move away for education or employment but might be open to moving back as boomers looking to retire but remain active.”
Jack Schultz, who literally wrote the book on economic success stories in rural America with his “Boomtown U.S.A.,” says some towns are already actively seeking to recruit the boomers.
Schultz, founder and CEO of Effingham, IL-based Agracel, Inc., an industrial development firm focused on rural America, and generally regarded as the national expert on economic development in rural areas, says “towns with natural resources like lakes and mountains, or a university” are going to be obvious beneficiaries.
That is, if they understand the opportunity and create the right campaigns to be among the winners among rural communities.