In Utah, a boom town for retiring boomers
St. George is the fastest-growing metro area in America largely due to an influx of senior citizens.
St. George, Utah
Tom Wheeler is the kind of guy communities across America are fighting over. He's a baby boomer who cashed out of his Washington, D.C., home, moved to St. George, and now dabbles in several home businesses.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Wheeler points with pride to his neighborhood, where new earth-toned homes spill across the red rock of Snow Canyon like a flash flood, filling up every crag and mesa.
Developments like Entrada, which cater to active seniors and preretirees, have made St. George the fastest-growing metro area in America. Tucked away in southwestern Utah, St. George and the surrounding Washington County reached 126,000 people last year, up 40 percent from 2000.
Large businesses haven't been the driver. Three-quarters of the companies here have fewer than 10 people. These jobs are in construction, restaurants, and retail, which service the influx of seniors, or in some cases, are started by them.
Across the country, the first boomer-aging wave is beginning to hit, with the oldest boomers now entering their 60s. Most are expected to age in place, but some states and locales are working to entice those who will move and bring with them a portion of the boomers' estimated $3 trillion in assets.
"Many boomers are not going to move, but to the extent they do move, college towns, places with a lot of attractive amenities like St. George, and smaller communities might be the place for them," says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. "There are a lot of places that would like to become those communities."
The marketing campaigns have begun:
• Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas have set up certification programs for retirement cities; those that qualify will get marketing help.
• Alabama, Florida, West Virginia, and Wyoming have websites, guidebooks, and tax breaks to attract seniors.
• Age-restricted developments – particularly 55-plus – are popping up across the country.
The ranks of 55- to 64-year-olds are projected to grow the fastest in the Mountain West, with New Hampshire, Vermont, and Florida also standing out, according to a May analysis of census data by Mr. Frey titled "Mapping the Growth of Older America."
Why the West is a draw for seniors
The West is a big gainer largely because of its long streak of economic growth and an attractive set of smaller, less-expensive cities in beautiful settings. St. George epitomizes the trend, posting the fastest national gain in seniors between 1990 and 2005.
"There's pretty much everything here for whatever you want to do if you are an outdoorsy kind of guy," says Wheeler.
Boomers are healthier and more active than their predecessors. A recent survey by Del Webb, a retirement community developer, found that a growing number of people over age 55 rank adventure pursuits as very important, with 26 percent citing canoeing/kayaking, 18 percent denoting hiking, and 9 percent naming downhill skiing.
They also want to keep working, and Wheeler is no exception. "I realized that there was more to life than just hitting a golf ball," he says.
Wheeler used his skills in the printing industry to put together a golf self-help book. He's distributed some 40,000 copies and sold advertising against it.