Julien Patterson and his wife Terri Wesselman spent two decades building their Chantilly-based company, Omniplex World Services, into a security and investigative services firm employing more than 3,500 and generating annual revenue of more than $100 million. After selling the company in 2012, they “retired,” dividing their time between Florida and Virginia’s Northern Neck.
But it wasn’t in their temperament to spend their free time playing golf or mahjongg. According to Virginia Business magazine, the couple has started four small businesses in the Northern Neck: an art gallery, a home decor store, a coffee shop, and a clothing boutique.
“For me, I think retirement is the change in venue that allows you to do the things you want to do that benefit others and brings you satisfaction and a sense of well being,” says Patterson, now 65.
As Virginia Business notes, Virginia, like the United States as a whole, is on the verge of a retirement wave. Virginia is home to 1.4 million people who are over the age of 65. By 2030, the over-60 crowd will reach 2.3 million. Thousands of them will be successful corporate executives, entrepreneurs and professionals. And, like the Pattersons, many might be ready to slow down, but they’re not prepared to drop out.
Rural economic development has been a recurring theme of Bacon’s Rebellion. It’s clear to most people that the traditional strategy of clinging to Virginia’s mill-town roots has done little to reverse the decline in jobs and opportunity in Virginia’s rural economy. There’s nothing wrong with recruiting light manufacturing, but economic developers need to look at other strategies as well. One such strategy is exploiting the retirement boom.
Retirement represents a stage of life when people are more willing to consider relocating to a rural community than when they were pursuing career and raising families. Quality of life matters more than career opportunities or good schools. Retirees are drawn to scenery — waterfronts, rolling hills and mountains — all of which Virginia has in abundance.
But wealthier retirees can’t live on scenery alone. They also want amenities — precisely the kind of amenities that the Pattersons were providing in their Northern Neck community. (Virginia Business did not identify the specific town where they live.) Coffee shops and art galleries don’t create a lot of jobs, or even especially high-paying jobs, but they do provide employment that didn’t exist before. Affluent retirees also create a market for personal services such as handyman repairs, landscaping and the like, which locals can turn into business opportunities. Equally important, retirees and small businesses bolster the tax base of local jurisdictions — without adding to the burden of local school districts.
One nice thing about the retiree market is that you don’t have to bribe newcomers with subsidies and tax breaks. What a retiree-focused economic development strategy does require is a sharp focus on place making — creating the kinds of places where affluent people like to hang out. It gets old staring at the mountains or sailboats all day long. People crave places to go and interact with others. More specifically, they want charming, walkable/bikable places — not roads lined with gas stations and fast food joints where there aren’t any sidewalks and cars whiz past at 40 miles per hour.
The good news is that it doesn’t take a lot of money to create charming, walkable/bikable places — sidewalks and bicycle trails are not expensive — but it does require zoning codes and comprehensive plans that don’t mandate rural sprawl. In my profile of Aspen, Colo., last year, I described the virtuous cycle that can take place when small towns invest in walkable/bikable places, attract visitors and second homes, stimulate the restaurants-and-boutiques economy, and boost property values and the tax base. Virginia communities really need to give this strategy a look.There are currently no comments highlighted.