Former base draws retirees

Old military installation becomes new community for seniors

Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2001

OSCODA, Mich. -- As Ken and Rose Kuhlman relax on their front porch, birds chirp and trees rustle in the cool breeze -- sounds that a decade ago were often lost in the thunder of B-52s overhead.

Paul B. Wurtsmith Air Force Base closed in 1993, dealing a sharp blow to the economy of rural Iosco County. But these days, the county is becoming a haven for retired people such as the Kuhlmans, offering spiffed-up former military housing for as little as $49,000.

''It's so laid-back here, quiet -- it's home to us,'' 63-year-old Ken Kuhlman says with a chuckle as Rusti, their Brittany spaniel, darts after a golf ball tossed across the lawn.

Already popular with retirees because of its natural beauty and easy pace, northern Michigan experienced a surge in its 65-and-older population during the 1990s.

In Iosco County, on Lake Huron in the northeastern Lower Peninsula, the over-65 demographic jumped from 4,544 to 5,897, an increase of 29.7 percent. At the same time, the county's overall population fell 9.5 percent to 27,339, while Michigan's rose 6.9 percent. Reason: the loss of Wurtsmith, which employed 4,300 military personnel and 700 civilians.

A variety of mostly small businesses have opened at the former base, at one time providing nearly 1,000 jobs between them. But the aircraft maintenance company that was its biggest tenant recently closed, reducing the Wurtsmith work force to 528.

While continuing to recruit light industry, local officials increasingly view tourism and retiree services as the keys to future prosperity, said Carl Sachs, executive director of the Oscoda Township Office for Economic Development.

He expects the senior population to keep growing as the baby boom generation nears retirement. The base closing will only enhance the area's attractiveness, he said.

''The B-52's were loud, they took off at all hours of the day and night, a lot of smoke came out of them -- not exactly what you're looking for when you retire,'' he said.

Oscoda Township hired Aspen Square Management, based in Springfield, Mass., in 1998 to modernize and sell the base housing. Of 1,198 single- and multi-family units on the grounds, 390 have been sold or are under deposit -- nearly half to retirees. An additional 30 percent were bought as vacation homes by people who likely will live there full time after retirement.

For $49,000, buyers will find a 1,254-square-foot, condo-style townhouse with three bedrooms, 1 1/2 baths, a full basement and one-car garage. Prices run as high as $90,000 for a single-family home with a two-car garage.

Most buyers are from the Detroit area and other southern Michigan cities and vacationed ''up north'' during their childhood and working years, property manager Kimberly Lingo said.

''They want to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city, and they know they have nature at their fingertips up here,'' she said.

The Kuhlmans, longtime residents of Monroe, visited the former base out of curiosity last year, toured a renovated model house and quickly made a down payment.

''We knew right away this was what we wanted,'' said Ken Kuhlman, who owns a single-family unit formerly used by Air Force officers. It adjoins the Huron National Forest and is a short walk to the Au Sable River.

The couple are adding a family room with stone fireplace. Ken Kuhlman, former mechanic, keeps busy these days planting trees and doing woodwork in his garage. His wife plays baritone with a community band and sings in choirs.

''I've gotten back to things I'd given up on years ago to raise a family,'' she said. ''There are some great cultural opportunities around here.''

Warren and Joyce Beauman came to Oscoda from Lapeer County, where they began their retirement. Seventy-four-year-old Warren had been a music teacher in Mount Clemens.

They lived in a 3,000-square-foot house in the country and wanted something smaller -- affordable, with low taxes and city services -- and neighbors around to keep an eye on things during the six months a year they spend in Florida.

''You go out on the back deck and before you know it people are coming over,'' Beauman said. ''It's a very friendly place.''

Aspen Square Management is redeveloping housing at several former bases around the country, sales and marketing director Joel Bertuzzi said. Many of the buyers are retirees, although no one has kept track of the number of retirees who took up residence at military installations that were closed over the last decade.

''They want the same things -- good location, reasonable price, a sense of community,'' Bertuzzi said.

While helping rebuild the local economy, the influx of elderly residents is changing the political landscape in ways not everyone appreciates, Sachs said. For instance, it's getting harder to win voter approval of tax increases for services such as police and schools.

''There are people who say, 'I paid my taxes, I raised my kids, why should I have to pay more taxes now,''' he said.

Generational clashes over taxes and government funds could become more common in communities that lose their balance between age groups, University of Michigan demographer William Frey said.

But Mary Alban, executive director of Area Agencies on Aging of Michigan, said such concerns are unjustified.

''Research shows that younger people are glad their mom or grandmother gets Social Security and Medicare,'' Alban said. ''Most older people have children and some have grandchildren. They don't want the schools to fall apart.''

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