Attracting retirees has potential to boost economy


Sunday, September 3, 2017

In pursuit of options to bring jobs and investment to Elizabeth City, local leaders and economic developers may have discovered they’ve been sitting on an untapped opportunity. Now, with the idea of creating a retirement hub for northeastern North Carolina on the table, the question is: Can the city attract enough retirees to generate an economy-boosting effect?

That’s what the development-support group Elizabeth City Area Committee of 100 apparently has been asking, and so far, the answer, they think, is yes. That belief is rooted in some pretty sound mathematics. Committee of 100 numbers-crunchers have being doing their homework on how a retiree-focused strategy would affect the city.  

Plenty of data from organizations such as AARP are available on the impact of retirees on communities. Peter Thomson, chairman of the Committee of 100, and others have been boring into that mine of statistics and data, which show individual retired couples typically inject about $800,000 into their home communities. And if they buy or build a house, the effective impact equates to about two or three more new jobs in the community.

Another potential gain in jobs would arise from additional services, such as health care — and the people to provide it — normally required in areas with a growing retiree population. Retirees also generate tax revenue, but don’t add pressure to school systems, and their disposable income creates other cash flow for businesses. In translation, retirees, when settled in an area, add up to significant job growth — a cornerstone to economic development.

Thomson said the group has set a goal to have 100 retired couples tour the city. If they can get that many, the next objective is to get 30 of those couples to commit to relocating here in six months. Organizers have already been working out the planning details for getting retirees to come take a look. But if that immediate objective works — and it seems a good bet it can and will — other actions will be needed to better ensure success in the crucial phase of selling more retirees on relocating to the city.

Retirees won’t uproot themselves and move to just any community that has homes for sale. A spectrum of organizations, publications, websites, etc., have for years annually ranked the best places to retire. Those communities feature specific attributes that attract retirees. And retirees systematically and thoroughly research the information available about communities where they may be interested in putting down new roots. 

So how does Elizabeth City stack up with other communities hoping to attract retirees?

In many areas, very well. Retirees are interested in many of the area’s attributes as well as specific services and infrastructure. For instance, access to a wide range of medical services is high on the list of needs retirees will be looking for. With a hospital, health department and various forms of specialty care, as well as having an advanced medical center available within an hour’s drive, retirees could view that as a positive for living here.

Other retiree priorities, the crucial ones that may make or break the decision to relocate, are based on quality-of-life issues. Among those are educational opportunities. There, too, with a state university in Elizabeth City State University, an expansive community college in College of The Albemarle, and the faith-based Mid-Atlantic Christian University, Elizabeth City offers a wide range of options to entice retirees’ wanting to further their education.

Retirees also want to live in communities that value cultural exploration and experience. That may include several lines of interest, from venues for the arts and entertainment to historical preservation. Also, retirees are attracted to communities that place a high value on maintaining and enhancing traditional downtowns and neighborhood development policies that respect local history. In these areas, Elizabeth City has something to offer, but much more must be done to compete with communities where cultural development is already well established.

Another quality-of-life factor that retirees cite as important is having a variety of volunteer and giving-back opportunities. Elizabeth City grades well there, too. Elizabeth City’s current and past history is festooned with the good works, projects and success stories of community service. Retirees sense community engagement and want to be part of it.

Cost of living and taxes also make a difference. Because most retirees are living on fixed incomes and may face higher medical expenses in the years ahead, they most definitely assess state and local tax rates to determine if it makes financial sense to move. In fact, many retirees make the decision to move to cut their tax burden and preserve more of their retirement savings. According to several state comparisons, state taxes are comparatively low in North Carolina, and local taxes are also on the lower side.

Retirees, however, also know better than to look only at state tax rates. They realize states may boast low income tax rates but compensate by bumping up sales taxes — which can be burdensome on retirees. Or worse, often low tax rates mean little or no infrastructure support, underfunded services, chronic poverty and other detriments to quality of life. Retirees want to live in areas where governments invest wisely in human services, community revitalization and meaningful quality-of-life projects. No matter how low taxes are, retirees don’t want to live in communities where taxes are low but the quality of life around them is even lower.

Retirees will also consider other factors including environmental conditions — such as air and water quality, crime rates and the general opinion of the community from its residents. Of course, location, such as proximity to the coast and to a major metropolitan area, is one of  Elizabeth City’s best attributes.

Committee of 100 members seem convinced Elizabeth City has a good foundation of qualities that will attract retirees to take a look. We agree, the basics are here and, while not all elements of a great retirement hub are in place, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic they can be. It’s well worth the effort to reach out and make a case. Kudos to the Committee of 100 for taking this on.