Gainesville virtues draw retirees

Oak Hammock resident Mary Kilgor swims a few afternoon laps in the indoor pool at the Gainesville retirement community.

ROB C. WITZEL/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 31, 2008 at 11:12 p.m.

Gainesville may be on the brink of a senior surge.

Retirees are a growing demographic and are increasingly drawn by the town's culture, climate, costs and health care. And they have the time and spending money to enjoy what the city has to offer.

The city is fast gaining a reputation as a retirement destination, thanks in part to high rankings in different publications at a time when the large baby boomer generation is reaching retirement age and people are living longer and healthier lives.

Gainesville also has become one of the most affordable cities in the state after the five-year run-up in home prices, giving the state's already large senior population an affordable choice as they flee congested and costlier South Florida cities even as new retirees in other states look to the Sunshine State.

"People are not exactly moving to South Florida with the traffic and the crowds and the crime, not to mention being pushed out in terms of cost of living and real estate," said Star Bradbury, director of life planning/marketing at Oak Hammock at the University of Florida, a retirement community off Williston Road. "Orlando is not such a great place to live anymore. It's a huge tourist town - urban sprawl at its worst. So where are you going to go after that?"

Alachua County probably will start to pick up some of the "spillover" effect from rapidly growing communities as Florida's population continues to shift northward, according to Stan Smith, director of the UF Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

The real boomer boom, however, may be on hold until the economy and real estate market turns around.

With a 10-month supply of homes on the market nationwide instead of the usual four months, people are less able to sell and move, according to David Denslow, UF economics professor.

And after decades of growth in Florida as the cheap place to retire in the sunshine, migration to the state has slowed as Florida's cost of living has outpaced other Southeastern states, fueled by increasing home values, related property tax increases and post-hurricane insurance rates, according to the Florida Chamber Foundation.

Even Gainesville has seen a 70 percent increase in home values since 2000, not as much as most of Florida and the Northeast, but higher than the increase in other states in the Southeast and Midwest, Denslow said.

Statistically speaking, Alachua County is the youngest county in Florida. The Bureau of Economic and Business Research reported a median age of 29.3 in 2006 compared to 39.9 for the state, likely the influence of the local colleges, even though many students are not counted among the local population.

The average age and percentage of seniors is forecast to rise in Alachua and statewide over the next 20 years as boomers age. The Bureau of Economic and Business Research projects that 26,299 Alachua residents will be 65 or older in 2010, 10.3 percent of the county's total population. By 2030, those numbers will increase to 54,936 ages 65 and older, 17.7 percent of the population, Smith said. He said the projections are based on existing trends.

Gainesville City Commissioner Jack Donovan said he thinks the bureau's projections for Alachua County are conservative considering the area's advantages, including its natural environment and relative insulation from hurricanes.

Growing numbers

Those involved with seniors in Gainesville say they are already seeing an increase in their numbers.

So far, that increase has been incremental. Between 2003 and 2006, the number of Alachua residents ages 55-79 grew from 34,754 to 37,800, from 15 to 15.5 percent of the total population, according to Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

The growth and development of retirement communities is the most tangible evidence of a senior surge.

The Village in northwest Gainesville has 340 apartments and cottages and 66 assisted living units. It is in the process of building 170 more apartments and 60 more assisted living units, with a waiting list for 330 units.

The community has had a waiting list since 1989, which started growing quickly in the last five years as The Village added cottage homes, according to Michele Rist, director of marketing.

Oak Hammock opened in 2004 and has 269 apartments or homes - about half occupied by couples - and 79 assisted living units. It is 99 percent occupied or reserved.

State rules required Oak Hammock to be 70 percent reserved before construction, which took 2 and a half to three years, "very fast by general standards," Bradbury said. The community started a waiting list in January 2007, which is up to 150 units for just independent living, with additional waits for assisted living.

Oak Hammock has room for additional phases, but no current plans to expand.

Bill Yanacek, general manager of The Atrium of Gainesville, would not reveal how many of the 241 senior apartments are occupied, but the retirement home was nearly full in the fall, according to a prior manager. Yanacek said the Atrium has a waiting list of less than a dozen and that movement into the Atrium has been slow because interested residents can't sell their homes to move.

At Oak Hammock, 60 percent of the residents are from outside Alachua County, while at The Village 40 percent are from elsewhere.

For those who can afford them, retirement communities directly appeal to retirees' concerns, with a ready-made social network, constant recreational activities, meals and property maintenance. Oak Hammock and The Village also offer various levels of care as residents become less able to care for themselves.

Retirees also are lured by what Gainesville has to offer outside the retirement communities, according to Bradbury.

"I have the dream job because Oak Hammock sells itself and because Gainesville is a great town," she said.

One selling point is the town's access to health care, with the Shands system, North Florida Regional Medical Center and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, with many seniors having VA benefits.

Seniors from South Florida often ask about access to care because many doctors there - fed up with Medicare reimbursement rates - are going into boutique practices, Bradbury said.

"Access and cost of health care is looming large to retirees and it's going to become a bigger issue," she said.

Leon Weber, 77, a retired chemist, moved from York, Pa., to Oak Hammock with wife, Sylvia, a month ago to be near his son and grandchildren. Aside from family ties, he said their main interest was in Oak Hammock's care services and, for him, its wood-working shop.

"We're getting old and we certainly want to be someplace where we have care instead of relying on our children to take care of us," he said.

'Bucket list'

For healthy, active seniors, Gainesville offers many opportunities to cross off their "bucket list" - the list of things they want to do before they "kick the bucket," made famous by a recent movie of the same name.

Many are drawn to the cultural activities and the lifelong learning programs available in a college town.

Both the University of Florida and Santa Fe Community College offer lifelong learning programs, which include academic and recreational offerings in classrooms and in the field. The programs also include organized visits to theaters, museums, medical facilities and workplaces.

An SFCC PrimeTime Institute program included an archaeological dig, which a lot of people have on their bucket list, according to institute director Shirley Bloodworth.

"There are so many people in town who tell me they wish they were old enough to retire because of all the exciting things we're doing," she said.

The program has "grown like crazy" since starting in December 2005, she said.

Bloodworth said she's seen a definite influx of new retirees, including five who recently joined the institute as a way to meet people.

"The things that are attracting them are the different cultural things here, the fact that there's two colleges here," she said.

SFCC also is looking into employing the recently retired to teach technical fields because of a shortage of teachers, an additional draw to those interested in partial retirement, Bloodworth said. At 78, she said the institute is her third career after retiring from clinical research at UF and Haven Hospice.

Carol Nogy, 66, retired as a professor at Mitchell College in New London, Conn., and moved to Gainesville in October 2006 after visiting cities throughout Florida.

She said she was drawn to Florida by its weather and nature. She was drawn to Gainesville by the people she spoke to for information about the town.

"One of the things that struck me was everybody was absolutely willing to give me the information I needed. They told me the pluses and minuses," she said. "I felt really comfortable right away and wasn't seen as an outsider, even though I'm a Yankee."

She even found that the biggest complaints of locals - traffic and drivers - aren't as bad here as in her previous towns.

After "decompressing" for a year, she started taking classes at the PrimeTime Institute and now has a part-time job as registrar at the Matheson Museum.

"I wanted to still use my brain and learn something new, and I'm absolutely loving it," she said of her new job. "I've been on this earth 66 years, but in my head I'm still 25."

The Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce gets calls from retirees like Nogy every day, according to President Brent Christensen. The chamber gets more calls after Gainesville appears in lists such as last year's No. 1 ranking in the book "Cities Ranked and Rated" and in various retirement publications, and yet more from the Midwest and Northeast after snowstorms, he said.

Bradbury said Oak Hammock's relationship with UF is its No. 1 draw. Residents are given the same campus access as students and staff and can take classes through the Institute for Learning in Retirement. The institute is also available to seniors throughout the community.

A growing retiree base promises to be an important demographic for Gainesville businesses. Retirees who move are the ones with the financial wherewithal to be able to move, Denslow said.

He also provided information showing that people of retirement age have more household income than younger people and those in the upper half of income earners live longer.

"They have more time, more disposable income and can enjoy more readily what Gainesville has to offer," Bradbury said.

Even without an influx of retirees, Gainesville - like everywhere else - would see an aging of its population because of current baby boomer residents aging.

While the retirement communities offer a range of activities for their residents, the Community Coalition of Older Adults is involved in an effort to bring programs to a broader segment of the senior population by establishing senior centers throughout the county.

City Commissioner Donovan, who is involved in the effort, said the changing demographics make the senior centers a timely idea for those who don't have access to retirement communities.

"We would like to have our citizens have the same services generally affordable to everybody," he said.

The coalition hopes to get a one-year, 1-cent sales-tax referendum on the 2009 ballot to raise $40 million, he said. City staff have identified several city parks for a central center, with Northside Park on NW 34th Street near U.S. 441 the most central, Donovan said.

After 150 people showed up for an initial forum on the subject, the coalition, at a follow-up meeting, was able to recruit 70 volunteers to work toward establishing the centers.

Linda Gardner, president of the coalition, said a community involvement process would decide what programs and amenities the centers would have.

"It's not going to be your grandparents' center, where it's just bingo and shuffleboard," she said. "It's really going to cover the spectrum with more appeal to the boomer generation. It'll be a place where very active seniors can volunteer and help others less fortunate."

Anthony Clark can be reached at 352-374-5094 or

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