Communities hoping to cash in on retirees

Posted: Thursday, September 25, 2003

SENECA, S.C. Town leaders no longer are counting on factories and mills to fuel the economy of Seneca, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians.

Instead, they are targeting retirees, hoping an ad campaign will lure them to play golf and build million-dollar homes on the shores of Lake Keowee.

Seneca's effort started earlier this year when a regional retirement magazine named it the top small town in the Carolinas in which to retire. That got town officials thinking that baby boomers with lots of disposable income might be looking for a sunny, warm place to go to when work was done for good.

''I don't see anybody else out there doing it,'' said town manager Greg Dietterick. ''Every small town is looking for some kind of niche.''

Seneca leaders agreed to spend about $5,000 on a slick 24-page publication highlighting the area's year-round golf, renovated downtown and looming mountains.

The publication has been sent to 40,000 people who have responded to an ad about moving to the Carolinas within the next year or two.

The town says it's too early to know what effect the ads are having, but the initial feedback has been positive.

''It sounds like a novel idea,'' said University of South Carolina economist Doug Woodward, who has done a study on how retirees affect local economies. ''Recruit-ing retirees and recruiting industry should be compared the same way.''

Overall, Woodward believes communities across the nation will begin to market themselves based on amenities such as lakes or small-town living instead of fighting for factories and plants.

''The road to economic development is now turning away from industrial economic development,'' he said.

For Seneca, the focus on seniors reflects economic reality and the area's changing demographics.

Seneca, a town of 8,000 tucked in the northwest corner of the state, once hitched its fortunes to textiles. It tripled in size from 1940 to 1970 as mills located to the town, taking advantage of the rivers and streams flowing down from the mountains. But then textile jobs started going overseas, eventually leaving the cavernous plants abandoned, their smokestacks looming over rows of vacant mill houses.

The town actually lost population from 1990 to 2000, making it even more important to find another way to get Seneca growing.

Dietterick said that the town considered trying to attract new industry, but when tax breaks and other incentives were figured in, a new plant might provide only $1 for each dollar spent, and workers' paychecks often end up being spent in a bigger county.

He figures Seneca gets back about $3 for each dollar it spends on trying to attract retirees, who are likely to spend a good part of their income nearby.

Ray Stamm, a former office supply executive, moved to the area from Chicago more than 10 years ago after seeing a newspaper ad about South Carolina.

It didn't hurt when Stamm found out he could pay the same he did for his home in Chicago and get a much nicer house and slash his property tax bill to boot.

''And the weather is beautiful,'' said the 69-year-old retiree. ''You get the changing seasons here. You get the long spring and fall, a short summer and winter and maybe only about 40 bad days when you can't go out and play golf.''

Dietterick said most of the people he's talked to move to the South for the slower pace.

''A lot of people are trying to keep the Northerners out,'' the city manager said. ''We're out there saying, 'C'mon.'''

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