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Making NM a retiree destination a golden strategy

For decades, Sunbelt states like Arizona and Florida have helped their economies grow by targeting an oft-overlooked population: retirees.

Despite its abundant sunshine and other draws, New Mexico has yet to fully take advantage of the same trend. But a new group, Retire New Mexico, has set out to change that, citing the economic benefits that go along with attracting older adults.

“It’s not the sexiest thing to say, but it really is a real deliberate economic strategy,” said John Garcia, one of the founders of Retire New Mexico.

Retire New Mexico is the brain-child of a trio of New Mexico economic development leaders, and has been in the works for more than half a decade. Garcia and his colleagues penned a report in July 2015, laying out the strengths and weaknesses of attracting retirees as an economic strategy.

John Garcia

“With a focused and deliberate approach to attracting active adults to our state, we can benefit by increasing our population and adding millions of dollars of discretionary spending to parts of our state that need it most,” the report said.

Bob Grassberger, another co-founder of Retire New Mexico, said retirees function like “turbo-tourists,” as they bring many of the same spending boosts that tourists do, just on a year-round basis.

“You can kind of consider them as permanent tourists, in terms of how their spending is,” Grassberger said.

Those permanent tourists also act as a magnet, bringing friends and family to visit from out of state, Grassberger said. Some even start their own companies or continue working remotely on a part-time basis.

Bob Grassberger

New Mexico still has a ways to go to catch up with its Sunbelt neighbors. A study from SmartAsset examining the states where retirees are moving ranked Florida first and Arizona second. New Mexico was nowhere to be found in the top 10.

Still, Grassberger said the state does have some key advantages. In a survey put together by Retire New Mexico, good weather topped the list of desirable attributes among retirees, with cost of living also ranking highly. Grassberger said New Mexico fares well according to that combination.

“Even with our housing prices escalating, we still are a bargain compared to a lot of the rest of the country,” he said.

So why hasn’t the state become more of a hit? Garcia noted that New Mexico is one of only 13 states that taxes retirement income. As with many economic development projects, New Mexico’s high crime rate works against it when attracting retirees. Grassberger added that the state also lacks the name recognition with retirees enjoyed by more established destinations.

While Retire New Mexico is still working to make this a priority at the state level, individual communities have already seen the benefits of catering to retired people.

David Wilson, managing partner of Wilson Binkley Advertising & Marketing in Las Cruces, said the firm ran an advertising campaign targeting retirees in 2015 and 2016, when the city was still struggling to shake off the effects of the Great Recession.

Since then, Wilson said the number of new housing starts each year in the city has more than doubled, and retirees from the Midwest, Colorado and West Texas settling in the southern New Mexico city are a key reason why. Wilson said Las Cruces’ affordability, warm winters and reputation as a college town helped attract older adults and reinvigorate the economy.

Nancy Shepherd

“We realize that this is a big part of our economic recovery,” he said.

Likewise, Farmington propped up its own campaign – Retire Northwest New Mexico – last year, according to Nancy Shepherd, chair of the Farmington Chamber of Commerce’s retirement committee. Shepherd said the community has seen a handful of new retirees, coming from Texas, Colorado and Arizona. If the program can grow, Shepherd said it could dovetail with efforts to boost outdoor recreation in the region.

“We’re trying very hard to diversify, so we certainly see it as a piece of the puzzle,” she said.

Stephen Hamway covers economic development, healthcare and tourism for the Journal. He can be reached at shamway@abqjournal.com.

 

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