Living in Fernley, Moe Royels recalls a more bustling time years ago when retirees poured in to enjoy the warm desert climate, nearby casinos and quiet community. But soon boom turned to bust, and years after the recession ended, Royels still wonders if things will ever fully turn around in small towns like his.
Across the U.S., rural counties are losing population for the first time ever because of waning interest among baby boomers in moving to far-flung locations for retirement and recreation, according to new census estimates released Thursday.
Long weighed down by dwindling populations in farming and coal communities and the movement of young people to cities, rural America is now being hit by sputtering growth in retirement and recreation areas, once residential hot spots for baby boomers.
The census estimates, as of July 2012, show that would-be retirees are opting to stay put in urban areas near jobs.
Recent weakness in the economy means some boomers have less savings than a decade ago to buy a vacation home in the countryside, which often becomes a full-time residence after retirement. Cities are also boosting urban living, a potential draw for boomers who may prefer to age closer to accessible health care.
For instance, in Royels’ Lyon County, small towns prospered during the housing boom. Spillover residents from California’s expensive Bay Area flocked to the area, drawn to the affordable housing, temperate weather and lack of a state income tax.
But after the housing bubble burst, the retirees stopped coming. On Main Street in Fernley, the Wigwam, one of the town’s oldest restaurants, now does half the business it used to, according to Royels, who opened the diner in 1961 and sold it five years ago.
“People moved out of town,” Royels said from his seat at the restaurant, where he returns every afternoon for a cup of coffee. “Some of these subdivisions are still sitting vacant, with the curb and the gutter in but nothing else.”
It’s not just happening in his county. Analysts say the rural decline spreads far and wide, and could be long-term.
“This period may simply be an interruption in suburbanization, or it could turn out to be the end of a major demographic regime that has transformed small towns and rural areas,” said John Cromartie, a geographer at the Agriculture Department who analyzed the data.
In Lyon County, growth boomed from 2000 to 2007, quickly lifting the population from 35,000 to 52,000. By 2007, however, growth began to wane amid recession and rising gasoline costs. Since then, the county has posted one of the nation’s worst population turnabouts: from 6.9 percent annual growth from 2000 to 2007, to a 0.7 percent annual loss between 2007 and 2012.
Retirees were “coming out of California, selling the house for a lot of money and coming up here and getting something nicer,” said Fernley Mayor LeRoy Goodman, 71, citing his town’s prime location near an interstate highway with easy driving access to Reno’s casinos. “People can also walk out their back door and go hiking in the desert. The climate is pretty good; we don’t have a lot of snow or rain.”
Due to changing baby boomer migration, rural retirement counties grew 0.4 percent annually from 2007-2012, down from 1.6 percent annually from 2000-2007. During the housing boom, these retirement destinations were growing faster than the rate of the nation as a whole but are now increasing more slowly. The overall U.S. population is now growing by about 0.8 percent each year.
In Florida, almost all counties experienced slower growth or a reversal of boomer population growth since 2010, said Mark Mather, an associate vice president for the Population Reference Bureau who analyzed the numbers.
Other counties showing sharp drop-offs in the boomer population include Forest County, Pa.; Trinity County, Texas; Middlesex County, Va.; and Banks County, Ga.
“The recent decline in migration rates among baby boomers is significant because boomers were expected to jump-start economic growth in rural America,” said Mather, noting that parts of the rural Midwest and Appalachia had been losing population for decades. “But since the recession, we’ve seen more boomers aging in place. This is bad news because as baby boomers get older, they are less likely to move.”
Other census findings:
—The 65-and-older population grew 4.3 percent between 2011 and 2012, to 43.1 million, or 13.7 percent of the U.S. population.
—Florida had the highest share of residents 65 and older, at 18.2 percent, followed by Maine and West Virginia. Alaska had the lowest share of older residents, at 8.5 percent, followed by Utah and Texas. By county, Florida’s Sumter County was tops in the share of the 65-plus age group, at 49.3 percent.
—The 85-and-older population increased by about 3 percent from 2011 to 2012, to almost 5.9 million. The number of centenarians rose to almost 62,000.
—The nation’s median age rose to 37.5, up from 37.3 in 2011.