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Retiring in a college town

Columbia draws the boomer generation with a multigenerational environment, sporting events and small town charm.
Friday, December 14, 2007 | 5:00 p.m. CST; updated 2:57 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Bob and Mary Lu Parks retired to Columbia frm Brmingham, AL fourteen years ago. They decided to move to Columbia so they could be closer to family.

COLUMBIA — Bob and Mary Lu Parks are, in many ways, a typical Columbia couple.

During the week, they attend lectures on campus. When the weekend arrives, they might go to the symphony or cheer on the women’s gymnastics team at a local meet. On Sundays, they attend worship services at the First Presbyterian Church.

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Like a growing number of newer residents, the Parks, ages 79 and 82, settled in Columbia late in life.

After Bob retired in 1990, the Birmingham-based couple decided to relocate.

“We’d left three daughters in the Midwest,” Mary Lu said. “It [took] two days to do see a soccer game. It was too far.”

To hear Bob tell it, the decision to leave Birmingham came by way of an ultimatum: “She made me a proposition,” he said, laughing.

“She said, ‘I’m going to the Midwest. You can go with me if you want, but if you don’t, I’ll help you look for an apartment.’ I figured I was too old to break in another one, so I came along.”

Demographic shifts are taking place across the United States in towns like Columbia. The trend of migrating retirees, coupled with an aging native population, is set to drive up Columbia’s median age, currently a youthful 26.8 years.

Almost one in five Missourians will be 65 or older by 2020, according to a report published in 2006 by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) and MU’s office of social and economic data analysis.

The DHSS report, “Ahead of the Baby Boom: Missouri Prepares,” estimated that 14.5 percent of the Boone County population will be over the age of 65 by the year 2020, a 5.8 percent increase from 2003.

Blame it on the baby boomers, who currently account for 26 percent of the U.S. population. Like the proverbial snake that ate the rabbit, the 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 have stretched the resources of every institution they’ve passed through since infancy.

Between 2010 and 2030, the bulk of these boomers are expected to hang up their hats. And a growing number, like the Parks before them, may do so in Columbia.

The Parks came amid an earlier wave of transplants in the early 1990s, lured by the Retire to Columbia campaign, a citywide push to attract retirees to Columbia.

“Our original goal was 2,000 by 2000, meaning that we’d get 2,000 more people to retire here than the census predicted,” said Don Laird, current president of the chamber of commerce and a former member of the Retire to Columbia campaign committee.

The city advertised in national publications and managed to generate a strong word-of-mouth movement. Ultimately, the retirement campaign exceeded that original goal. Laird estimates that between 2,600 and 2,800 retirees relocated to Columbia by the turn of the millennium.

For Bob and Mary Lu, choosing Columbia just made sense.

“We have one daughter in Topeka, one in Des Moines, one in Waterloo,” Bob said. “If you look at a map, this is [the center].”

Bob’s work with the Benjamin Moore paint company landed the couple in St. Louis several times during the 1960s, but they were uninterested in spending their retirement years in a bustling city.

“The big towns had too much junk,” Bob explained.

Columbia, on the other hand, offered a host of amenities in a small-town package too irresistible to pass up.

The Retire Columbia committee discovered that, like the Parks, most retirees relocating to Columbia were retracing old ties, Laird said. Many couples were looking to position themselves between children, as the Parks did, while others wanted to spend their golden years close to long-abandoned alma maters.

However, it’s hard to generalize about Columbia’s older demographic, said Betty Tice, an agent with House of Brokers who served on the Retire Columbia campaign.

“Their concerns are as varied as they are,” she said. “There’s just a myriad of reasons.”

Frank and Alice Montagnino are more recent transplants.

Like the Parks, their move brought them closer to family, but choosing to pull up roots after 27 years in New Orleans was also a matter of necessity.

The Montagninos were vacationing in Italy when Hurricane Katrina hit. The disaster diverted them to their son’s house in Columbia.

“We’d spent three weeks in Columbia because we couldn’t get home,” Alice said. “And we decided we liked it here.”

So the Montagninos sold their home and made the move.

“We gutted it, fixed it, sold it to the first lady and moved,” she said.

Shortly after their arrival, Alice discovered the Columbia Newcomers Club. The social group offers a variety of community activities to new and longtime residents of all ages, including book and card-playing clubs, outdoor activities and group meals at local restaurants.

Alice was impressed by the congenial nature of the locals she encountered. “They’re the friendliest people,” she said.

She developed a social network, and her calendar quickly filled.

She was nominated president of the Newcomers Club in 2007, she belongs to the Red Hat Society, and she often meets friends for lunch.

“There’s always something you can attend,” she said. “It’s a neat town.”

Missouri is preparing to adapt to the changing needs of a graying population quite unlike any group of seniors that’s come before them.

In a letter accompanying the Health and Social Services report, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder wrote, “Aging itself is rapidly evolving, forcing us to rethink what it means to grow old.”

Indeed, few boomers will retire in the typical sense, according to Maria Malayter, director of the Center for Positive Aging at National-Louis University outside of Chicago and author of “Boomers: Visions of the New Retirement.”

“It’s not just rest and relaxation, it’s really a second or third life,” Malayter said. “Very few won’t work in retirement.”

When considering retirement, she explained, the boomers are faced with the question of unprecedented longevity, and all of the practical and personal what-ifs that come with it.

“They’re just starting to get a grasp that they may live another 50 years,” Malayter said. “This isn’t aging… It’s a middle-escence.”

Throughout her career, she has interviewed scores of men and women about the transition into retirement. These conversations have helped her to pinpoint what she calls the three secrets of retirement: spending your time with the right people, seeking out intellectually stimulating activities and cultivating a feeling of purpose and spiritual meaning.

In short, boomers want more out of retirement, and they will expect more from the towns they choose to retire in. If the numbers are any indication, Columbia fits the bill just fine.

University towns have a particular appeal to retirees looking for intellectual and education opportunities. “Around college campuses, there’s so much lifelong learning,” Malayter explained.

Bob and Mary Lu Parks agreed. “We like the amenities that universities and colleges offer,” Mary Lu said.

The couple regularly attends courses at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, MU’s learning community for people 50 and older, and have heard lectures on everything from Chinese culture to the historic barns of Missouri.

The variety of cultural and recreational activities that branch out from the universities are a draw, as well. MU’s University Concert Series is popular with retired Columbians, as are various performances put on by Stephens College’s Macklanburg Playhouse and Warehouse Theatre.

Sports are also hugely popular. “We go to the girls’ volleyball games, basketball games, gymnastics,” Mary Lu Parks said.

Columbia’s strong sense of community is another attractive feature for retirees looking to establish a broad network of social support.

“Instead of choosing to live in a 55-and-above community, they’d rather live with a multigenerational environment,” Malayter said. “When it’s a college town, there’s a real connected community.”

But Columbia’s appeal extends beyond the campuses. The city regularly garners praise from national magazines and publications for being healthy and highly livable.

In 1994, just as the Retire Columbia Campaign was gearing up, Successful Retirement magazine named Columbia one of the five best college towns for retirement. In 1996, in “50 Fabulous Places to Retire in America,” Lee and Saralee Rosenberg listed Columbia one of the best retirement destinations in America.

Sperling’s Best Places named Columbia one of the least stressful cities in America in a 2004 study, citing factors including its low crime, alcoholism and unemployment rates and high number of sunny days. In addition, Columbia was one of only 10 U.S. cities dubbed a “Porch-Swing Community” by Forbes magazine in the same year.

High air quality and a low commute time helped Columbia make it onto Money magazine’s 2006 list of the Top 100 Best Places to Live.

Columbia’s affordable, high-quality health care also scores points with retirees.

Missouri’s health care system earned a ranking of sixth place in the country in Expansion Management magazine’s 2005 Health Care Cost Quotient, while Columbia itself boasts seven major hospitals and the second highest doctor-patient ratio in the nation.

“[Columbia’s] medical industry is very attractive,” Bob Parks said.

The reasonably low cost of living is another plus. “[Columbia] has lower property values than the coastal regions,” said Scott Griffin, president of operations at Century 21 Advantage. “They can get some place for a song and have plenty left over.”

And, according to Don Laird, the love affair blossoming between retirees and Columbia is entirely mutual. Older residents are appealing as citizens because they leave a different footprint, Laird explained.

“Most of [the retirees] bring a significant amount of money,” he said. “They aren’t a drain on our system, and they’re big contributors to the community.”

Mary Lu Parks agreed: “We don’t impact the schools, and we pay taxes,” she said. “There’s a benefit in having us old folks.”

An influx of semi-retired boomers would offer additional community benefits. “They’ve always been hardworking and committed, and they have so many different skills, said Malayter. “When it comes to general community development, there’s a benefit.”

Although the Retire Columbia campaign has been scaled back in recent years, Laird predicts that the number of migrating retirees will keep on rising.

For their part, the Parks and the Montagninos don’t plan to pull up roots anytime soon.

Alice has been nominated to serve a second year as Newcomers president, and plans to accept.

And the Parks are just getting comfortable.

“This is the longest we’ve ever lived anyplace,” Mary Lu said. “This is the last move till the nursing home…

“As long as we have each other and we’re in reasonably good mental and physical health, we’ll stay right here, and we’ll try to stay busy.”


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