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Retirees boost population of Lincoln, Calif., but not its commerce

A big retirement community has helped make the town California's fastest-growing city, but its businesses have not seen much benefit from the mature and thrifty populace.

April 28, 2011|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Lincoln, Calif. — The Sun City community here has just about anything active seniors could want: a fitness center, swimming pools and an array of classes including dance, aerobics, personal finance and computer skills.

Outside, residents play pickleball in the warm air, near the amphitheater where a Jimmy Buffett tribute band will kick off the summer season. Golf carts hum on the streets, and in the main lodge's parking lot, spaces for the handicapped stretch toward the horizon. In the neat neighborhoods, there's nary a basketball hoop or spare toy in sight.

"It's like a cruise ship that doesn't sail," said Sheila Safley, 64, a perky divorcee with a full social calendar who moved here in October, from nearby El Dorado Hills. "It's like a four-star resort."

Sun City Lincoln Hills is one reason Lincoln was the fastest-growing city in California in the 2010 census, with a population of 42,819. That's up from 11,205 a decade earlier, and more than a third of those new residents live in this 6,800-home retirement community, completed in 2005.

But Lincoln is a town without commerce — or much of it, anyway. Vacancy signs scream from empty storefronts up and down the quaint Main Street, with its old-time movie theater and historical plaques. A sign shilling bankruptcy services leans against an empty retail complex built during the housing boom.

Its mature population is one challenge — and one that cities across California might face as the state's baby boomers age. More than 10% of the state's population is 65 and older, according to census data.

Older people tend not to splurge as much on apparel, entertainment and food as their younger counterparts, and they don't have the same demands on a pocketbook as families with children. People 65 and older spend $38,000 a year on household and other expenses, on average, compared with $59,000 a year spent by people 45 to 64, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Lincoln City Manager Jim Estep, who is trying to close a $2-million hole in the city's $13-million budget, said Sun City Lincoln Hills was a fine addition to the city. But it's not a cash cow.

"Most retirement communities aren't big spenders," he noted. "We didn't get a lot of additional revenue from there."

Estep also blamed the limited ways his city can raise money. Sales tax growth is one of the few ways cities can boost their revenue in the wake of 1978's Proposition 13, which limited property tax increases. And his town doesn't currently rake in much sales tax.

"Our biggest problem is Proposition 13," Estep said. "You end up desperately trying to get big-box retailers to come in."

Lincoln gets about $50 per resident in sales tax revenue a year, compared with $276 a head in nearby Roseville, which has a giant shopping center and an auto mall.

Of course, even if Sun City Lincoln Hills was filled with free-spending seniors, the city would face a challenge trying to lure more stores to town.

Retail growth is sluggish across the state, and it's not clear when it will come back. Americans overall are saving more — about 6% of their income now, up from 2% five years ago — and local sales tax receipts have also been hurt by increased online shopping.

The economic downturn can be seen in the streets of downtown Lincoln, dotted with empty storefronts and restaurants long abandoned.

The commerce that does exist isn't exactly big box. There's an antiques shop (open 10 to 4), a hardware store ("best prices on ammo!") and Fashion Fo Paws, which sells canine dolls and doggie bowls. On the corner is Dillian's, a dinky bar that is one of the city's top 20 sources of sales tax revenue.

Some residents blame the town's woes on those cheerful retirees up on the hill.

"Up there, they have big golf courses, but they don't return any money back to the community," said Cody Vent, 30, who moved here from Riverside in 2005 and was sitting with a laptop in the sandwich shop Beach Hut Deli. "They don't like to be a part of anything."

Beach Hut Deli, in the Twelve Crossings development, is surrounded by vacant space. Hollywood Video, Wendy's and Applebee's have all recently gone out of business, as have family-owned sushi and Thai restaurants.

Buonarroti Ristorante, in the center of town, has tried to attract seniors by offering two-for-one specials. But the restaurant hasn't seen much of a bump from the development, said manager Sheamus O'Rork.

"We get some business, but they have their own restaurants up there," he said. "They built it so people would never have to leave."

Larry Whitaker, a Sun City resident who has become involved in straightening out the town's budget issues, said seniors do shop. In fact, he bought two Apple computers the other day. But he bought them in Roseville, at the nearest Apple store.

"People over 65 eat out a lot; we're always out to dinner. These are not a bunch of people running around in walkers," he said. "We're spending money; we're just spending it in Roseville."

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