baby booming business
Second Quarter 2012
story by DEREK HELMS
photos by STEVEN HERTZOG

According to the American Medical News, in 2010 America’s 78 million baby boomers began turning 65 at a rate of one every 10 seconds. The city of Lawrence is considering taking dramatic steps to recruit retirees to town, banking on the potential economic impact an influx of new retirees could have on the local economy. By marketing what Lawrence has for seniors, local leaders think the River City could become a retirement hotspot.

New Lawrence TheaterIf anyone in Lawrence would know what retirees and seniors are looking for, it would be Rick and Judy Garner. The couple work as Rental Managers at Meadowlark Estates. Having lived in Lawrence for nearly a year, Rick and Judy are consistently impressed with the community.

“We moved here from a property in Southern Pines, North Carolina,” Rick explains. “You would think, with the availability of first-rate golf (Pinehurst) and the moderate weather, that the community would be a great destination for seniors. But the community doesn’t do the simple things that older people really look for. I mean, the town doesn’t have sidewalks or streetlights. Those simple things go a long way.”

The Garners typically live in a community for 10-18 months, helping establish new properties. The job has taken them across the country and to England. Judy says she and Rick were “instantly impressed” with Lawrence, despite early reservations.

“Because of our job, we move to a new community every year or so,” Judy says. “To be honest, we didn’t really know what to expect when we learned we were moving to Lawrence. Unfortunately the perception of Kansas is flat and dry. Obviously Lawrence is not like that at all. Rick and I were both surprised with how wonderful Lawrence is.”

Rick and Judy site the cultural opportunities in Lawrence as a major draw for seniors. The communities’ efforts to support the arts, and of course, Jayhawk athletics, help keep citizens engaged and active.

“The new Lawrence Community Theater being built next door is absolutely fabulous,” Rick says with a smile. “Our residents are very excited about being able to walk to the theater.”

Lawrence’s location, Rick says, is also a major draw.

“This community is great because it has nearly everything you could want or need,” Rick says. “But being so close to a major metropolitan area is really invaluable. Most of our residents aren’t comfortable living a day-to-day life in a major city, but being able to visit for an afternoon or evening is perfect.”

Meadowlark Estate’s average resident is 83 years-old.  According to Rick, that shouldn’t affect a communities’ perception of their activity.

“Seniors in general are more active than they’ve ever been,” Rick says. “Increasingly, people who move into retirement homes are not doing so because they are unable to live on their own. They are choosing to live closer to family and friends.  Maybe they just don’t want to maintain their house anymore and are choosing to use that time to enjoy their communities more. People are living longer, more productive lives. Any community should embrace seniors as an absolutely boost to both the economic and cultural aspects of their town. And I think Lawrence is doing a great job of that.”

Dennis Domer is passionate about retirement. Or, more accurately, he is passionate about the changing idea of retirement. The director of graduate studies at the University of Kansas Department of American Studies and former associate dean at the School of Architecture wants people to rethink their thoughts on baby boomers. Children of the Greatest Generation are not working to 65 and moving to the beach, he says.

“The entire idea and perception of traditional retirement is being completely turned on its head,” Domer says. “Boomers do not want the same thing as their parents. For the most part, they don’t want to move to Boca Raton, Florida and drive around a golf cart community with people they don’t know in a town thousands of miles from their families and friends. The cities that understand that, and make a genuine effort to give them what they want, stand to be incredibly successful.”

Domer cites studies of Baby Boomers that rank weather, the #1 reason Arizona and Florida are traditional retirement destinations, far down on the list of what they want. Proximity to family, cultural stimulation and the opportunity for an encore career top the list.

“People want to be close to their kids and grandkids,” Domer says. “They don’t want to move to a new city and start over. Where they are starting over, is in the work force. In increasing numbers, Boomers are choosing to work past 65, and then begin an encore career. Those careers might be mowing grass at the golf course or starting a new business. Either way, America is seeing a revolution in our cultural conception of what aging and the last quarter of life can be.”

Domer and City Commissioner Hugh Carter agree that the University of Kansas is in a position to create a community of alumni that are looking to retire, but aren’t looking to settle down. They cite Oak Hammock, a retirement development in Gainesville, Florida, as an example of what is possible in Lawrence.
Oak Hammock, while not owned by the University of Florida, is fully integrated with the university through a series of affiliation agreements with various colleges within the university. Oak Hammock members have campus privileges similar to those of university faculty and alumni – including access to libraries, athletic facilities and cultural activities. They also have the opportunity to interact with, mentor and offer advice to UF students, many of whom work part-time for Oak Hammock or come to Oak Hammock to complete their clinical, internships, research projects or rotations.*
University of Florida officials estimate their endowment has increased nearly $20 million from contributions of Oak Hammock residents alone.
“That’s just money to the University of Florida,” Carter says. “I can’t imagine the money pumped into Gainesville’s economy.”
Domer doesn’t understand why Lawrence isn’t already building its own Oak Hammock.
“This isn’t a flash-in-the-pan idea,” he says. “Maybe 40 or 50 other universities across the county have very similar properties, and I haven’t heard of any of them failing. When you combine the access to continued learning at the university, the community of like-minded people, the integration of different age groups and cultural diversities, I think it becomes a no-brainer for Lawrence. KU has more than 400,00 alumni, if 1% of those had an interest in the developed community, it would be an economic windfall for Lawrence.”

Commissioner Carter is spearheading the city’s Retiree Attraction & Retention Task Force. The task force was established by joint City and County Resolution in July 2011 and charged with developing recommendations which will assist in retaining and attracting retirees to Lawrence.
“When I was thinking about running for city commission, I identified retiree attraction as a campaign issue,” Carter says. “I met with Aron Cromwell, who has also campaigned on the idea, and we agreed to make it a priority. I read a study that found that for every 2 retirees in a community 1.2 jobs are created. Considering that economic impact, and the immeasurable about of time and effort retirees donate to local charities, it is absolutely a no-brainer for Lawrence do to all it can to recruit and retain folks 65 and older.”

Carter says Lawrence has the infrastructure, cultural attractions and steady economy needed to become a destination for seniors and recent retirees. All efforts to be more senior friendly should be made.

“Everything we can do to be more senior friendly should be done,” Carter says. “All of the things we can do to make Lawrence even more attractive to seniors will make Lawrence better for everyone. Safer streets, better transportation, increased cultural and neighborhood options will all make Lawrence better for all demographics.”

Carter says the task force recommends creating a centralized portal for seniors to find relevant information.

“Information is crucial in any situation,” Carter says. “When you’re dealing with all the different city and county agencies that deal with seniors, we really need to find a way to streamline the available information.”

The biggest obstacle for Lawrence to become a premier destination for retirees is housing. Carter and Domer agree that the Oak Hammock model would work well in Lawrence.

“Lawrence has everything boomers are looking for,” Domer insists. “Well almost everything. Where are they going to live? Most boomers are still wary of aretirement home, but they don’t want to move to Lawrence and buy a 2500 square foot home. Leaders in Lawrence need to work together to get a housing area created.”

“We need to look at all options,” Carter says. “If we need to address zoning issues, let’s get it done. If we need to work with private contractors to take an interest, we can address that. I think this is idea of a retirement community tied with the university is an absolute homerun. The longer we wait to get to work on it the more potential revenue we miss.”

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