Mark Sadd: WV should work to attract retirees (Opinion) | Columnists


The Baby Boomers, mostly in their 60s and 70s, are still crashing through the American economy. The U.S. Census Bureau now ranks a Florida city that exists almost exclusively as the final refuge for well-provisioned retirees as having the highest population growth rate for the current decade.

In less than 10 years, the number of people living in The Villages, a Florida retirement community, has grown to nearly 130,000, a 38 percent increase. As one might rightly guess, nearly all of the growth of The Villages is because of migration. The Villages is swelling with legions of senior internees from the frigid climes of New England and the Midwestern hinterlands.

The Villages is a city that was sprung from the pro forma business plans of real estate developers to capitalize on the declining years of the Baby Boomers. It is a place entirely concocted for that sole purpose, constructed as a paradise for playing out its aging citizens’ winters of content.

The website for The Villages highlights the amenities of community living that lure pallid seniors into the sun-kissed realms of top-brand shopping, better dining and, of course, health and wellness, all stitched together by a vast network of golf cart paths.

There are few babies in The Villages. The only obstetricians are the ones who have retired from their active medical practices in Toledo, Ohio, and who now have active practices in pickle ball and par 3 golf leagues.

The Villages is sanitized of social ills. I could not find a reference to a single methadone clinic.

What’s not to like, except perhaps all of it?

I myself do not grasp it. For me, I can imagine only that I will expire early on a chilled day in a dimly lit house after choking on a meal of warm applesauce as the battery for my personal life-support robot will have gone dead because of a computer software glitch.

Although at the tail end of the Baby Boomers, I am not the one to estimate the aspirations of our generation of attention-hogs. For many of us, The Villages is the apex of retirement living.

Another of the Census Bureau’s astounding demographic statistics is that nearly half of the 3,142 counties in the United States lost population. All but a few West Virginia counties lost population. No surprises there. West Virginia’s population is smaller in 2019 than it was in 1950.

Perhaps to the surprise of some, the U.S. metro area that has experienced the greatest rate of population loss is Charleston, a decrease of 1.6 percent. The Huntington, Parkersburg and Beckley metro areas weren’t far behind.

Our retirees are headed to places like Fort Myers and Orlando, Florida, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. These joined The Villages among the metro areas with the country’s highest population growth rates.

Bob Childers, a somewhat retired Huntington developer, has a fertile mind. He was pitching to anyone who would listen the idea that West Virginia’s cities should organize their efforts around attracting people from other states to retire here. In our metro areas, we have good, in some instances excellent, health care institutions. Our metro areas have an authentic and extensive fabric of civic, cultural and social institutions.

Real estate tax rates and utility costs are among the lowest in the nation. The West Virginia Legislature voted to eliminate state income tax on Social Security benefits.

Most alluring is that our housing prices are low, very low.

“Its cost of living is so low that half of all houses there are valued under $100,000, and the majority of homeowners don’t have a mortgage,” the article reported.

The writer glows about the close-knit, small-town life in the Beckley region, with lots of history and a strong “connection with nature.”

But what about our weather? Even still, weather isn’t all that some crack it up to be. Consider growth hot spots such as Boise, Idaho, and South Dakota. I wonder whether ours, comparatively, is all that unseasonable. If I were in charge, I would compile average temperatures, snow fall and the numbers of days of sun and rain and relate the statistics to other places.

Childers’ instincts are right. The Villages has an entire department dedicated to helping people relocate there. Local enterprise, with the participation of local government, should take the lead and staff up with the single-minded mission of helping people of all sorts, including retirees, immigrants and anyone else who might have an interest, to move, live and work here.

Who should do this? Local banks, real estate brokerages and chambers of commerce would have the most to gain. They should get together to address this age-old — or is it old-age — opportunity. It’s time for them to step up to the plate.

Mark Sadd, a Charleston attorney, is a Gazette-Mail contributing columnist.

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