For Jim and Nancy Duffy, the decision to move from northern New Jersey to Columbia County came after a handful of visits to reconnect with an old friend – and lunch at Rhinehart’s.
About 12 years ago, the couple tracked down a friend with whom they had lost touch, and discovered she lived in Columbia County.
“They invited us down for a week, they showed us all around, and we just said, ‘Oh, we love it down here,’” Jim said. “We asked them about the taxes and the cost of living and the seasons, and it seemed like everything we wanted.”
After yet another cold Jersey winter that aggravated their health problems, the couple retired at age 58 and made the move to Amberly, a neighborhood in Riverwood.
“We fell in love with this end of Columbia County,” Jim said. “It’s beautiful here.”
County officials believe the Duffys are among a wave of active retirees that soon will begin flooding Columbia County. That’s the gist of a recently completed survey and study conducted by the county’s Planning and Engineering Department.
The county’s fastest-growing population segment during the past two decades is in the 55-64-year-old group, more than doubling in that period. Combined with 45-54-year-olds, who represent the county’s largest population segment, there is a growing need to cater to “active adults” as they retire in or move to Columbia County, said Tatiana Gonzalez, a contract employee who oversaw the study.
Growing from a previous review of apartment housing, the study first compiled available information on retirees in the county and included an opinion survey, Gonzalez said.
“It all started piecing together from all these different sources, and we started seeing we were lacking in this new active adult market,” she said.
The area already is attractive because of its low cost of living, recently ranking in the top 10 most affordable places to live in the country by U.S. News and World Report.
Taxes alone are a bargain, Duffy said; a home similar to his Amberly residence back in New Jersey would come with a tax bill nearly 10 times higher.
He agrees that the county currently provides adequate services, such as senior centers and transit, to older, less-active residents. But Gonzalez said the county falls behind in providing the kind of amenities preferred by active, affluent adults who are able to retire early.
“The big one is they really want to have walkable communities,” Gonzalez said. “They want to be active. In order to provide them that, you have to give them sidewalks, pathways, trails, parks, bicycle paths.
“If they can see that’s available then they want to move into these types of communities,” she said. “That’s one of the areas where we’re lacking right now.”
Richard Harmon, Columbia County’s Development Services director, said his own informal discussions with local builders and developers indicate about a quarter of new home sales are to older buyers.
“They’re buying homes in subdivisions because there is no other place for them to buy in the community that we’d call for active adults,” he said.
Addressing that demand is a planned $20 million apartment facility for seniors in Marshall Square.
Resort Lifestyle Communities received zoning approval March 5 from Columbia County commissioners for the project, and plans to start construction within the next two months on a 130-unit complex restricted to residents age 55-older.
Such a project is nice, but it isn’t big enough, said 14-year Martinez resident Tom Zange.
Zange, 68, and his wife Rita consider themselves active retirees. Nine years ago, as he prepared to retire, they bought a second home in the massive Del Webb Sun City community in Bluffton, S.C.
Zange said he believes Columbia County should try to land a similar large-scale retiree development.
“I just think this is a good opportunity,” Zange said. “It doesn’t have to be in Columbia County. Within 15 miles of downtown Augusta would be ideal. This area would attract a lot of people because of the culture we already have here, the medical complex we have here, and the proximity that Augusta has to things that people at that age want.”
Zange started talking up the idea of a local Sun City-type development around the time the county started working on the retirement study, and he escorted development officials on a trip to Sun City to show them around.
“Somebody is going to get a Del Webb community or a similar community around here as time goes on because of the numbers,” Zange said. “There are more and more seniors retiring, and we’re just hitting the baby boomers now.”
Whether in small numbers to individual homes or large numbers to senior communities, retirees bring growth to the area without burdening the schools, Harmon said.
“It does exactly what I think the current board of commissioners and the sheriff and the school board want,” he said. “That’s reduce the impact that people moving into the county are having on our school system.”