While having Mount Airy labeled as a “retirement community” would offer both positives and negatives, a newly appointed group believes the idea is worth exploring further.
“A lot of people get into the argument of ‘do we want retirees, and what kind?’” Surry County economic-development official Todd Tucker, a member of the Retirement Community Designation Committee, said during its first meeting Wednesday.
“To me, there’s pros and there’s cons.”
The committee was assembled on June 21 to explore whether Mount Airy should apply to the N.C. Department of Commerce to become state-certified as a retirement community under a new program. So far, the cities of Asheboro and Lumberton have gained certification since it was launched in 2010.
Mount Airy’s inclusion was proposed by Burke Robertson, a Mount Airy businessman who presently chairs the governing board of the Surry County Economic Development Partnership.
Tucker, who presides over the partnership, said Robertson is concerned about its efforts to enhance other facets of the local economy in addition to the traditional function of trying to recruit new industries to the county.
“This is not going to cure all our ills — this is just another avenue,” Robertson, who is also a member of the new committee, said during its Wednesday meeting concerning the boost the retirement designation could give the community.
The certification could take local tourism efforts to a new level, by actively encouraging people with disposableincome to move here, said Robertson, who sees this as part of an evolution that began several years ago with tour buses visiting Mount Airy. “Instead of a day trip,” he added, visitors would be urged “to come spend your life here.”
The main target group is those who are 50 to 65, with active lifestyles and a strong interest in community amenities. Scenic beauty is the No. 1 quality of a desirable community, with climate running second, according to Wednesday’s discussion.
Such folks would not only put dollars into the economy through various purchases, but also bring an “entrepreneurial mentality” that could lead to the launching of new businesses, Robertson said. He mentioned that the Springthorpe family who has been responsible for such development locally moved here from Pennsylvania many years ago because of visits to the former White Sulphur Springs resort.
“It seems to me that this would enhance economic development,” Jim Reeves, another committee member, said of the retirement community idea. “I just think this is a part of the puzzle.”
Mount Airy already is home to many older residents, with nearly 23 percent of its population found to be 65 or older during the 2010 U.S. Census, compared to 13 percent for North Carolina as a whole.
“Some people would say Mount Airy is a retirement town already,” Tucker said.
There are 77 million baby-boomers in the U.S., those born in the post-World War II years who are reaching retirement age, and the population is only getting older, he added.
For persons wanting to relocate, such as a retiree desiring to leave the Northeast, North Carolina is the top moving destination — ahead of South Carolina and Florida, statistics show.
Becoming certified as a retirement community would involve completing an application and paying a $10,000 fee about every five years or so.
An in-depth assessment of available resources in Mount Airy must be completed, to show that it meets guidelines for such communities. And much effort and planning would have to be devoted to maintain the city’s retirement status, which Tucker sees as a major challenge.
He said some of the demographic and other information that must be presented to the state through the application process already has been assembled for other uses.
Committee members said Wednesday they believe the city possesses the basic elements to qualify.
Upon being certified, the state Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development would help market and promote Mount Airy to retirees in numerous ways. This would include its mention on various Internet and social media sites, as well as during events such as national AARP conventions geared toward the senior audience.
There also would be opportunities to advertise Mount Airy in publications such as Southern Living magazine at co-op, or reduced, prices.
Although luring retirees would offer economic benefits, there is also a downside to the plan, committee members pointed out Wednesday.
One possible drawback would be limiting the attractiveness of Mount Airy to the outside world, with the discussion including the fact that many towns don’t want to be known as retirement communities.
Tucker said there is also great interest in luring persons in the 18-35 age group and young professionals in general to Surry County.
“We want it all,” City Manager Barbara Jones, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said of the municipality’s desire to appeal to persons of all age groups.
Another possible problem with recruiting retirees also would involve making sure the “right” ones are targeted, and not the “wrong” ones, Tucker said. The latter would include those coming here simply to take advantage of subsidized housing or cheaper medical care, he explained.
Allen Burton, another member of the committee, said Wednesday that he was afraid of Mount Airy getting lost in the shuffle by becoming just one of many retirement communities around the state.
However, Reeves noted that other cities could find it difficult to qualify, given the guidelines involved. “Every community might not be able to meet that criteria.”
Another potential repercussion could involve people coming in whose new ideas might ruffle feathers of longtime residents, Robertson said. “Someone will come in and say ‘why don’t you do this?’ — and many of us who have lived here won’t like it.”
At the end of Wednesday’s session, the committee said further efforts will include another meeting next month, which members hope will feature a visit by an official of the state program who can elaborate on its benefits. There is also interest in having someone come from one of the cities already certified to discuss how it has helped.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.