States Woo Seniors With Savvy Sales Pitches

Sun Belt, Frost Belt compete for 'clean growth industry'

The courtship is on.

As the ranks of retirees grow, so do efforts by states and cities to woo them as new residents. With increasing sophistication, state agencies are using national advertising, glossy brochures, videos, and Web sites to put their best image forward, hoping to attract older migrants.

"For a long time, the choice was, 'Well, I'm going to retire and go to Florida or Arizona,' " says Ken Plonski, director of community relations for Del Webb Corp. in Phoenix. "Now a lot more states are competing for retirees. They see them as an economic engine."

Other experts call retirees "a clean growth industry," says Alan Fox, publisher of Where to Retire magazine. No wonder. Every year, according to the Census Bureau, retirees who move to other states take $6 billion with them.

The first statewide program to attract retirees began in 1989 in Alabama. The governor's office mailed a questionnaire to 428 municipalities, inviting them to be part of the initiative. Seventy towns responded. The state's Department of Economic Affairs produced a brochure and compiled a guide to retiring in Alabama. It also began advertising and set up an 800 number to call.

Those efforts produced "a lot of misconceptions," says Mark Fagan, a professor at Jacksonville (Ala.) State University. "Some residents asked, 'Why do you want these old people?'"

The answers, Dr. Fagan says, are obvious. "They're not committing crimes, they're good citizens, they positively increase your tax base, and they create jobs. They help bring life to the economy."

Some towns find that recruiting retirees brings more economic benefits than similar efforts to recruit industry. Because only 400 or 500 plants relocate each year, Fagan notes, competition among states and towns is intense.

"A town must provide a lot of incentives to be able to say, 'We landed this plant that has 100 jobs,' " he explains. "But it may be several years before those 100 jobs get there. And they don't talk about what those 100 jobs cost them to get, when you look at tax abatements, construction incentives, and utility costs."

By contrast, Fagan says, estimates show that one retiree household relocating to an area has the same economic impact as approximately three factory jobs. In particular, he notes, they increase the tax base without draining social services. They also spend money for goods and services locally, creating jobs in such areas as real estate, recreation, and banking.

In Mississippi, a similar three-year-old program, called Hometown Mississippi Retirement, operates with a $500,000 budget. Since it began, 983 new retiree households have moved to the state.

Last April, Hometown Mississippi Retirement sponsored its third-annual Southeastern Retirement Symposium in Tupelo, Miss. The two-day event helps cities, states, and private developers learn to market to retirees.

"We may have to start calling the symposium 'national' rather than 'Southeastern,' because people now come from Montana, California, Arizona, and Pennsylvania," says Barbara McDonald, director.

Some retirees who relocate form a migration pattern Ms. McDonald calls a "J-curve." Their first retirement move took them from the Northeast to Florida. Now, in a quest for cheaper living costs, less congestion, and lower crime rates, they are heading north again, but only as far as states such as Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and the Carolinas.

Retirees of the future may also have the option of a short-distance move. Next spring Del Webb Corp. hopes to break ground on its first four-season Sun City, in Huntley, Ill., northwest of Chicago. The company's eight other Sun City communities are in the Sun Belt.

"We know that 80 to 90 percent of retirees are going to stay within 200 miles of where they've lived their entire life, because of relationships with family and friends," says Mr. Plonski. "But they still have an interest in this active life style, even if they're in the so-called Frost Belt."

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