Canyons of the ancients? Retiree influx altering Four Corners’ demographics

They’re coming. Montezuma County is expecting about 3,000 new residents during the next few years, an increase of more than 10 percent in its population. Who are these newcomers?

One thing is certain: It won’t be the stork delivering these people. More than half of them will be over 50. Historically, Colorado has been a “young” state with a median age of 34.3 years (one year less than the national median). Montezuma County is a relatively mature community with a median age of 38 and rising.

Despite all the jokes about senior moments and cotton-tops behind the wheel, this shift in demographics will have significant impacts on local communities and economies. But those impacts often are more positive than people realize.

Who are they?

The major demographic trend driving population growth in Montezuma County is “amenity migration.” This term refers to the migration of people to Southwest Colorado because of amenities such as natural beauty and rural lifestyle. Some of these people are second-home owners, telecommuters, and/or retirees. This type of migration is usually considered desirable for local economies because these people bring money from outside the area and spend it locally.

Pat Kantor and her husband moved to the Dolores River Valley from Sedona, Ariz. They lived in Sedona for 20 years and watched it change from a small, unknown, rural community into a hip destination for travelers and New Age aficionados.

The reality of moving to a small town or rural area can prove quite a shock for some newcomers. Relative remoteness means traveling unimproved county roads and living without many urban amenities.

The Kantors witnessed that phenomenon, the paradox of amenity migration, in Sedona. Outsiders were drawn there by its natural beauty and rural lifestyle, but they didn’t want to give up the urban amenities they were used to. Now, Sedona has traffic congestion and urban sprawl.

Will a similar fate befall Southwest Colorado? That remains to be seen. Some old-timers already are aghast at the traffic in Cortez in the summer, not to mention Durango during tourist season.

The retiree influx also has sparked some concern about its effect on local schools. When newcomers are older, with their children already grown, will they be willing to pass school bonds for others’ kids? Will the changing demographics lead to a decline in enrollment that will cause school funding to shrink?

So far, that doesn’t seem to be a major problem. Of the total of 3,000 folks moving into the area by 2010, more than half will be under 50 as well, and many will have school-age children.

They have income

What is allowing so many retirees to move to the area is portable income. Social Security and retirement payments as well as savings can be collected anywhere. You don’t even need a post-office box, just an on-line bank and an ATM. Retirees aren’t limited by job opportunities or schools; they can live wherever they choose. And they are choosing to be near the amenities of Southwest Colorado.

The strategy for retirement in a small town is summed up by Nancy Schaufele: “Come with your own money and your own partner.” Schaufele and her husband moved to Montezuma County after visiting the area regularly for 20 years and saving up for their retirement.

Others, like Chuck and M.B. McAfee, moved back home after spending years raising their family in other parts of Colorado. The McAfees grew up in Montezuma County and “were drawn back by the landscape.”

Total personal income and the share of income from retirees in Montezuma County have been steadily increasing. Non-labor income has been the fastestgrowing part of personal income in Montezuma County for the past 30 years. In 2002, retirement benefits amounted to more than $128 million, comprising nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of total personal income in Montezuma County. This is up from $90 million and 16 percent just two years before.

Retirement income has helped to stabilize fluctuations in employment income and to raise per-capita personal income from $19,680 in 2000 to $23,572 in 2002.

How are newcomers spending all this income? New-home construction is certainly one place. However, most of these new houses are not second homes. Despite all the talk of snowbirds and part-time residents, a recent analysis by Region 9 found that Montezuma County has not experienced as much of a second-home boom as other parts of Colorado. Only 5 percent of all homes in Montezuma County were classified as “seasonal.” In neighboring La Plata County, 12 percent of houses are second homes.

This points to a phenomenon that may be called “value retirement.”

Montezuma County holds the scenic landscape and rural lifestyle that many retirees are seeking, at relatively affordable prices. In 2001, the median price for a home in Dolores, Mancos, or Cortez was about $100,000. In rural Montezuma County the median price was about $220,000. In comparison, the median price for a home in Durango in 2001 was about $240,000 and in rural La Plata County about $270,000.

All of the prices have increased significantly since 2001 — partly as a result of the influx of people seeking to buy land or homes in the Four Corners. Soaring home prices can be hard on locals and working-class folks.

But to a family that owns a home in California or on the Front Range of Colorado, housing in Montezuma County is still a bargain. Some of these families can sell their existing home, move to Montezuma County, build a new house on 35 acres and still have cash left over.

They use services

Anybody who uses the Cortez Recreation Center regularly has noticed that the morning and mid-day crowd is mostly retirement-age. These folks use the pool and the library. They have the income and voting power to affect the amount and types of services that will be offered in our community.

The new recreation center and libraries in Montezuma County show their potential impacts. Why after 10 years, did the Cortez recreation center finally get built? New income and demand for services from retirees certainly helped get the sales tax passed to fund the center.

One of the major concerns of an aging community is the availability of health services. In our market economy, the types of health services offered in a location are determined in part by whether the provider can make money on them. You might expect that an affluent, aging society would have excellent geriatric health services.

However, that is not always the case, because of Medicare. People aged 65 and older are automatically covered by Medicare, the federal program for senior-citizen health care. The payment schedule for Medicare generally covers only a portion of the “normal and expected” costs of a particular procedure or service. The remainder must be paid by the patient out-of-pocket or with supplemental insurance.

Medicare creates a situation where there is little incentive for providers to upgrade or add new services to meet the needs of patients who can pay only a minimal fee with Medicare. This trend could create a service gap in place like Montezuma County where retirees are relying solely on Medicare for health-insurance coverage.

They contribute

Like the rest of the United States, Montezuma County was populated through immigration. The first settlers came here to take advantage of the lush native grasses for livestock-grazing.

Subsequent waves of immigrants were drawn by employment opportunities in hard-rock mining and archaeology for the Dolores Project.

Immigrants bring with them ideas and information from outside. They have new ways of doing things. This wave is no different. Many retirees have extensive business and management experience. It may be difficult to accept their suggestions about how things need to change here, but many of them are willing to roll up their sleeves and make the changes happen.

Because these newcomers were drawn to the area because of its natural beauty and rural lifestyle, many hold a strong ethic to conserve and protect these values. The McAfees have one of the largest conservation easements in Montezuma County, which will protect their family’s land from development in perpetuity.

Kantor has been active in protecting the Dolores River Valley from uncontrolled development. She leads Citizens for Accountability and Responsibility (CFAR) and participated in the Dolores River Valley Planning Group.

Through churches, non-profit organizations, and clubs, people of all ages are working to make Montezuma County a better place to live. Retirees represent a pool of new talent; they have time and money to contribute.

They are us

If you haven’t looked in the mirror lately, you aren’t getting any younger.

By 2014, all of the Baby Boomers will be over 50. Just by staying in Montezuma County for the next five years, you will move into an older age group of the population.

Presently, there are more seniors in Montezuma County than ever before. It will be up to us to create the opportunities and services that our mature society will need to stay healthy and vibrant.

From March 2006.