Does Buffalo Have a Future as a Retirement Destination?

This post was written by Randy Reade. It originally appeared on Buffalo Rising and was reprinted with the author’s permission.

Buffalo has a unique opportunity to recapture a share of the middle class and become a thriving city once again.  It’s not terribly difficult, it’s happening already, and the benefits could be enormous.  It just needs to market itself to the retiring baby boomers as a place to retire.

Yes, I know that everyone’s grandparents couldn’t wait to leave the ice and snow for sunny Florida. But there are certain demographic tides that even the most cynical of people cannot ignore. According to the LA Times, “This year, the oldest of the 78 million people born from 1946 to 1964 are turning 65 and becoming senior citizens. Because of the immense size of this baby boom generation, the number of senior citizens will more than double between now and 2050, from 40 million to 89 million. And older folks will make up an ever-larger share of the population, increasing from 13% now to 20% in 2050.”

If Buffalo can capture just a small fraction of those retirees, it could greatly increase it’s population and regain a share of the nation’s wealth. As Boomers retire, they will sell their suburban house because it’s too big for the empty nesters, too much upkeep, and they have a lot of equity in it. They will sell it and buy something downsized, and put the remaining funds in more liquid investments. Where will their move to?

Contrary to popular belief, baby boomers are not planning to retire in huge numbers to Florida, Arizona or other traditional retirement places. There are various reasons why they won’t. Of course, those areas have been hit hard by the mortgage crisis, making people skittish about sinking their retirement investment there. But the bigger reasons are less obvious and are in many ways unique to the baby boomers.

Boomers are always rebelling against their parents. Whatever the parents did, the Boomers have to do something else. Retiring to Phoenix is something that their parents did, but it certainly won’t be for them. Florida and Arizona are places where old people go to retire. Boomers will never admit they are old, and so want to avoid any implications that they are aging.

In addition, this is the most highly educated workforce in American history. Most went to college and grew up in an idealistic era. They will want to continue their education at quality universities, or they will want to take up painting, music playing, take classes in poetry or obtain a degree in medieval Welch law. They will want to attend theater, opera, ballet, symphony and visit museums. They want to hear their own music that they grew up with in bars and restaurants that have a rock band.

Boomers have been successful in business. They gained skills in organization, leadership, company building, and community outreach. Once they retire, they still have those skills, and won’t want to let them go to waste. They will want to give back to the community by heading up or advising non-profits. Few want to fill their days just playing golf, and the traditional retirement cities in the south are lacking in universities and culturals to satisfy their desires.

Some will want to start their own business. Even more, Boomers value their independence. They want to live in a place that they can walk to the store, take public transportation or share rides easily, just in case they ever become so debilitated that they can’t use a car. They won’t give up the car unless they have to, of course, but they want the option that IF they have to give it up, they still won’t be a burden on anyone to drive them around town.

They want an inexpensive place to live so that they can stretch their dollars on a fixed income. They want a safe, affordable condo or apartment, or small house that hey can take care of easily, and sell easily if they need to move to a full care facility. They want to be near doctors, hospitals and medical care that understands their needs, and they don’t want to have to shovel snow anymore.

If you haven’t realized that Buffalo is an ideal place to capture at least a share of the Boomers, then you haven’t really been thinking very hard. Our city has in abundance all the elements that the Boomers are looking for, and there is no reason why Buffalo can’t compete with any other city for retirees. We have the system of public transport, density, culturals, colleges and universities, sports teams, and a thriving nonprofit sector. There is more than enough activities for any retiree to keep busy. Frankly, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, if you get tired of what Buffalo has to offer, you are tired of life.

Some will scoff — what about the weather? Yes, of course, the weather is a turn off for many people. But it’s only a few months out of the year, and the real problem is just shoveling snow on your driveway. But if you live in a condo or apartment, you don’t have to do that. Let’s build residential buildings that cater to retirees, that have kitchens designed for walkers and wheelchairs. We going to have to do it anyway to accommodate the millions of elderly soon, so we might as well do it in a way that is proactive.

What about crime? The two major reasons people moved to the suburbs in the 60s and 70s is crime and schools. Retirees don’t care about schools, since their children are already grown up. Therefore, if you take care of the crime, you can attract the very people who left.

So what does Buffalo have to do to attract to retirees? Already, real estate agents find that retirees want to be in the city, closer to the fun restaurants and nightlife. They are already leaving the grassy lawns and leaky roofs to live in a condos and historic houses. The cost of living is fine. But we can do more.

First, we should have a plan that identifies which parts of the city are most friendly to retirees. They would also be the parts that are walkable, have good bus lines, are close to the sorts of activities they want, and are safe. We should encourage developers to build condos and apartments that would cater to their needs. Such buildings must be fully handicapped accessible so that even wheelchair bound people can live independently. A full time nurse should be available on the premises or close by.

Second, our local institutions should develop programs that will attract retirees. Our schools and day care facilities should have an outreach program. Afterall, children and old people go together like peas and carrots, and both benefit from interaction. The culturals should have programs that not only offer creative arts developments for people, but also push ahead in the area of music and art therapy. These are not just fun things, but have a demonstrated ability to improve ailing patients.

Third, our city should develop a marketing program in retirement newsletters letting people know that they should consider us for retirement. And we should do everything to convince the local population in the suburbs that the time to move back is now.

If Buffalo can attract just 1% of the Boomers to move to Buffalo, it will more than double the current population. I live part of the year in Washington, DC, and I was surprised by a couple that I know. They will soon be contemplating retirement, and the wife went to a website to find out where they might consider living.

The website asked all sorts of questions of what type of community they want, what type of lifestyle they would like to pursue, and their budgets. After they plugged that all in, they were shocked to find that Buffalo, NY, came up as their No. 1 place to retire. She was so surprised, she called to tell me. Since they had never been to Buffalo before, I offered to give them a tour any time they want to visit, and they really think they will take me up on the offer.

It was a real eye opener to those lifelong Washingtonians that Buffalo actually has everything that would like in a retirement city. It wasn’t to me, of course, but I think it’s time to let the rest of the world know.

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