Maine rolls out welcome for retirees

Sunday, October 7, 2001

AUGUSTA, Maine -- When Ted and Toby Sanders started talking about where to retire, they considered the Caribbean. They both enjoy being near the ocean and had spent vacations on the islands before.

Then, in 1995, the couple traveled to Maine from their home outside Philadelphia to visit a son. On a brilliant October morning, they went to Reid State Park and watched the waves crash against the shore.

"We can stop looking," Sanders recalls saying to his wife, who agreed they had indeed found their place to call home. They haven't regretted the decision for a minute.

State officials are looking for more people like the Sanderses, seeing them as a potential boon for the economy and a human asset for communities where they settle.

"Retirees can be a very significant economic force," Gov. Angus King said.

Maine has a reputation for high taxes and long, cold winters. Notions like those have nourished an assumption that retirees leaving the state vastly outnumber those who choose to stay.

Doubling intake

But state officials, after examining income tax records of more affluent retirees, discovered quite the opposite: Twice as many retirees are moving in as are moving out.

A separate study by John Donahue and Herman Leonard of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government concluded that tax concerns are not a big a factor for seniors when they decide whether to retire in Maine.

Sanders, a 68-year-old retired physician who practiced behavioral medicine in downtown Philadelphia hospitals, said taxes were just one of the factors he and his wife considered. Finding a home within relatively easy reach of their six children was a major interest.

The Sanderses were also drawn by the small-town, seaside atmosphere of Brunswick, and to their delight they are still within an easy shot of the state theater and symphony in Portland. And they like Maine people.

Maine is, after all, a state of older people. Census figures show the median age increased by nearly five years to 38.6 during the decade leading up to 2000. That makes Maine's population the fourth-oldest in the nation.

Maine residents who are 65 and older represent 14.4 percent of the state's population, the census showed, and by the year 2020 the senior bloc is expected to balloon to nearly 20 percent.

King called for a study of the retirement industry when he presented his economic strategy for Maine in 1996. The following year, a report called "Golden Opportunity" listed benefits of making Maine attractive to retirees.

A "Golden Opportunity II" report, a follow-up to the 1997 version, put it this way: "The Baby Boomers have long been in the driver's seat of the U.S. economy and are surely not planning to turn over the wheel in their retirement."

The report cites ripple effects of having retirees settle in Maine, pointing to figures showing that every retiree's household has the equivalent economic effect of 3.7 factory jobs.

On top of that, retirees have no children in school, saving the state and local governments in education costs. And, as the "Golden Opportunity" report points out, retirees don't just sit in rockers and knit booties.

With people now living 63 percent longer than their grandparents, retirees provide a rich source of life experience and knowledge for schools and civic groups, offer a myriad of volunteer services and fill local government posts.

Dave Reinke, a Michigan native who came here in 1984 to direct the Maine Education Association, retired in 1993 and decided to stay. He now finds himself behind a desk again as interim president of Patriot Mutual Insurance Co. in Portland. In Hallowell, where he lives, Reinke serves on the Tree Board.

Like Sanders, Reinke found Maine's people to be a big attraction, but he was also drawn by the opportunities for boating, fishing and other outdoor activities.

Given those and other pluses, the "Golden Opportunity" study recommends a marketing effort, starting at a cost of $100,000 per year, to attract and retain retirees in Maine. Any promotional material, it says, should stress Maine's low crime rate.

John Wasileski, owner-developer of retirement communities in Falmouth, Topsham and Augusta-Hallowell, salutes the state's effort to attract retirees but believes the older population will be drawn to Maine if it offers quality health care, housing and transportation.

Retirees from more crowded places to the south "are looking for cleaner places that offer a simpler lifestyle," he said, "but also a certain level of services."

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