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Arizona Makes Itself Attractive to Seniors

Lifestyle: After years of being a magnet for older Americans, the state has launched an organized campaign to promote its retirement industry.


PHOENIX — If you're a wealthy senior citizen tired of snowy northern climes or an affluent baby boomer approaching retirement, Arizona wants you--to consider moving to the Grand Canyon State.

With its balmy winters, countless manicured golf courses and splendid sunsets over long-armed saguaros, Arizona has been a magnet for senior citizens for decades. But the state only recently began an organized campaign to entice well-to-do retirees and aging boomers to further diversify its thriving economy.

"We think this has a major economic impact for Arizona into the 21st century," said Cindy Willey, director of the Arizona Office of Senior Living. The Commerce Department agency was created last summer to promote the retirement industry.

It's easy to see why Arizona covets seniors and aging baby boomers, the 76 million people born between World War II and 1964 and the oldest of whom will turn 55 in 2001.

Those 55 and older constitute a $900-billion market, controlling half of all discretionary income and 75% of the nation's financial assets. And retirees who relocate from other areas are usually wealthier types with an average estate value of more than $300,000 and average annual income exceeding $30,000.

Another attractive factor is that incomes of wealthy retirees are virtually recession-proof.

People 55 and older already have a big impact on Arizona's economy, spending $13.6 billion in the state last year, according to the Arizona State University Center for Business Research. And according to Census figures, Arizona is one of seven states whose retirement population is expected to double, to 1.1 million, by 2020 with or without a recruitment program.

Other studies have shown that each new retiree who relocates to Arizona generates almost two jobs as a result. And an influx of retirees also will attract and expand the core services they require, including real estate, financial, legal and investment planning, and above all, health care, officials said.

The affluent retiree Arizona seeks to lure won't be a drain on the state's social service agencies, Willey said. She points to a North Carolina study that found only 5% of migrating retirees ever use a social service in their new community.

"At this point of their lives they have the financial wherewithal to pay their own way when it does come time to need those kinds of services," Willey said.

And retirees offer more than just economic value to the state, officials say. For example, in Sun City, the planned retirement community that bills itself as the "City of Volunteers," citizens help tutor schoolchildren in neighboring towns and raise funds for a variety of charities.

"Retirees have a wealth of experience and knowledge in many areas and many are wanting to give back. They influence public and private boards, they influence schoolchildren," said Sharon Harper, general partner of a planned retirement and medical community in suburban Phoenix and a member of the Office of Senior Living's marketing and communications committee.

Affluent retirees are also viewed as a boon to rural communities that have a hard time attracting industry. Small towns that aren't far from major cities, like Cottonwood, Sedona, Payson and Globe, could see a large influx of retirees in the next couple decades, Willey said.

Cottonwood, population 6,500, is attractive to retirees because it offers good medical care, mild weather, clean air, affordable housing, low property taxes and varied activities for seniors, said Pete Sesow, executive director of the Cottonwood-Verde Valley Chamber of Commerce. The city is working with the Office of Senior Living to devise a strategy to attract more retirees.

"It's new money coming in and seniors don't demand the services, like schools, that younger families do," Sesow said. "Plus, there's a job factor in that some of the retirees want to work part time. It's a labor source."

Arizona ranks third in retiree relocation behind California and No. 1 Florida, gaining 125,000 retirees from 1985 to 1990. North Carolina and South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama also are actively courting affluent seniors and graying baby boomers.

"It's competitive without a doubt and we need to be poised to get our share of the pie, especially when the boomers retire," Willey said.

As part of a marketing plan it's developing, the Office of Senior Living plans to distribute retiree relocation guides to hotels, chambers of commerce, golf courses and tourist attractions in Arizona. The agency also will include its brochures in the 700,000 travel information kits the state tourism department distributes annually, 60% of which go to people 60 and older.

But the best advertising of all may be the word-of-mouth variety spread by those who have retired to Arizona.

"They love it and tell their neighbors back in Chicago," Willey said.

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