Wide Open Spaces: Rural America awaits a surge of retirees.

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If you thought the dream of life on Golden Pond died in the '80s, think again. Boomers are making retirement plans and, based the results of a Gallup poll of the over-50 set, a majority of them would like to settle down in a small town or rural area.

By 2005, Americans aged 50 to 59 will number 35 million - an increase of 140 percent in just ten years. No one can say for certain what the percentage of moving boomers will be; conservative estimates put the number at 4.5 percent, consistent with mobility rates of previously retired generations. But some researchers suggest the number may be as high as 38 percent. Richard Reeder, an economist with the Economic Research Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), says such predictions aren't outlandish, considering the fact that today's retirees have more income, independence, and motivation for migrating than those of the past.

But even if 77 million boomers don't pick up and go at unprecedented rates, the total retirement pie is still so large that even a small slice of movers could be quite filling.

And hundreds of rural counties out there stand a good chance of getting a seat at the table.Increasingly, retirees moving out of state are going from large metro areas to smaller-size communities or rural regions, a trend that is expected to continue. Retirees most likely to move tend to be younger, since mobility is highest in the early years of retirement. Most interstate migrants today are in their mid-60s, but with more and more workers choosing early retirement, the median age could drop slightly in coming years. The rural-bound are also likely to be highly educated, experts say. At least 30.2 percent of Americans aged 60 to 64 in 2010 will have a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 19.7 percent of those 60 to 64 today, according to the Census Bureau. Movers are also likely to be married and white.

But above all, the boomer movers will be wealthy. The first wave to retire will show an increase in the number of dual-career couples. As a result, their retirement income will come from a multitude of sources. They'll also have benefited from the real estate boom of the '70s and '80s and a surging '90s economy. Boomers with money to spend today are already having an impact on rural communities by purchasing vacation homes that can be converted into retirement homes 10 to 15 years down the road.

Back to the land

So just where in the boonies can we expect to see a growing population of wealthy, married, educated, young-ish retirees? William Frey, demographer for the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, California, says that states in the "new" West will lead the nation in elderly migrants to rural areas, beginning en masse around 2010. Topping Frey's list of states with the highest percentage growth of people 65 and older from 2000 to 2025 are Utah, Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado - states with relatively small populations, lots of rural space, mild climates, and natural beauty. Southern states are predicted to grow as well, but slower than in the West: Georgia, the highest-ranking Southern state, is trailed by Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida.

Boomers won't mind leaving Metropolis for Main Street, Reeder says, because they've identified with rural areas ever since their hippie days, when many grew fond of hiking, mountain biking, skiing, and camping - activities they still participate in in large numbers. In addition, this generation has traveled more for work and education in their lifetime than previous generations, which means they've been exposed to more places. Rarely do people move to a place that was previously unknown to them.

While states like Florida and Arizona will continue to draw hordes of seniors in the coming years, many movers will be looking off the beaten path for that undiscovered oasis, and counties like Skagit, Washington, are counting on it. Skagit is one of 190 rural counties labeled a Retirement Destination County by the USDA. These counties, located mainly in the South and West, experienced a 15 percent or more in-migration rate of persons 60 and older from 1980 to 1990. Total population in those counties also grew more than 16 percent, outpacing both the metro and non-metro averages, according to Reeder. Of course, seniors did not account for all of the increase. But the oldest cohort, those 65 and older, did experience the highest percentage of growth - 31.5 percent. The younger population grew as well: The cohort of 18-to-34-year-olds grew by 7 percent; 35-to-64-year-olds by 27.8 percent.

The young and the old rely heavily upon one another in such communities. The elderly residents are consumers of goods and services, including housing, food, entertainment, and health services, and the young are the workers servicing those needs. An influx of retirees to an area creates a mix of jobs, from a few highly skilled medical jobs to the more abundant, unskilled retail jobs.

Still, those unskilled jobs can help to increase the income of the unemployed or underemployed. Skagit County outpaced both the nation and Washington state in percent increase of new jobs in the service sector from 1993 to 1996 (up 116 percent). It also added a greater percentage of retail establishments (nearly 106 percent growth) than either the state or the nation during the same time. In addition to bringing new jobs and businesses to town, retirement counties are also able to keep existing businesses open. This is due in part to retirees' declining mobility, which increases the likelihood of spending locally.

Most boomers will have to settle for dreams of quiet nights with fireflies and cicadas for at least another ten years. But rural counties should plan to be ready when the retirees come knocking.

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