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.
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.
Another newcomer to town, Bill Ostler, retired from Silicon Valley in 2004 and now splits his time working as a consultant, teaching college courses, and biking three days a week around St. George. For him, the airport and the local universities were a big draw.
"I've got a friend who is a doctor and at 50 he retired and that was it. I thought what a waste of experience and knowledge," he says.
Mr. Ostler and Wheeler exemplify two new trends emerging as the boomers age, says author Joel Kotkin. They are both "equity refugees," selling homes in an expensive market and moving to a cheaper locale. And they are extending their careers with the help of airports and the Internet.
"You are seeing a kind of person who is essentially carrying their skill sets and their computer address with them," says Mr. Kotkin. That's driving growth in smaller, once remote locales like Bellingham, Wash., Rapid City, S.D., Jackson Hole, Wyo., and San Luis Obispo, Calif. "Places that used to be thought of as second-home, recreation places are now increasingly viable as main residences," he says. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the location of Rapid City, S.D.]
However, most seniors still want to be near their grandkids – and a good hospital, says Thomas Wetzel, president of the Retirement Living Information Center in Redding, Conn.
"That's a key thing that some retirees will overlook. They say 'Let's go off to the mountains or some place like that,' " he says. The trend toward retiring in university towns is partly driven by the quality of their healthcare, he adds.
St. George's main college, hospital, schools, and airport have all been forced to expand, and the growth has strained the landscape. Managed growth plans are now under debate.
"I think the city, in looking back, wishes it had plans to protect some of the mesas, some of the vistas here," says Russ Behrmann, head of the St. George Chamber of Commerce.
But as the national slowdown in housing begins to show some signs here, the county is also working to diversify the economy from construction and has added light manufacturing.
"If there aren't jobs for these [young] people beyond service related jobs, your tax base is going to hurt when Johnny and Jane grow up, and they will have to leave," Mr. Behrmann says.
Concerns about an unbalanced economy are shared by Peter Francese, a demographer based in New Hampshire, where many towns are building 55-plus housing to attract child-free taxpayers.
"What we are really doing in many ways is ghettoizing the elderly in these places," says Mr. Francese.
Slowest growth of seniors: New York
But no matter what states and towns do, their populations will be graying dramatically in the coming decades. "The state with the slowest projected growth in 55- to 64-year-olds is New York, where their numbers will still increase by 33 percent from 2000 to 2010," notes the Brookings report.
That's because, historically, the majority of seniors do not relocate large distances for retirement. The report projects just over 1 million boomers over 55 moving each year.
This means that many will age in place in the suburbs. A survey by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging found that only 46 percent of American communities have begun to address the needs of a rapidly aging population.