Monday, March 22, 2010

Baby boomers returning to Owensboro

By Keith Lawrence, Messenger-Inquirer
Published: Sunday, March 21, 2010 12:07 AM CDT
Thomas Wolfe was wrong.

You can go home again.

And many Daviess Countians who left home at 18 to find success in other cities are starting to find their way back home again as they retire.

No one knows their numbers yet.

It's probably closer to a trickle than a tidal wave.

But local officials are hoping the backward migration will pick up steam as baby boomers age.

In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau says, there were 3,921 Daviess Countians age 60 to 64.

By 2008, the census estimates, there were 4,919.

A decade ago, the census counted 6,701 people in the 65 to 74 bracket.

Eight years later, it estimated 7,007 in that category.

Part of the increase is just people who have lived in Owensboro for years growing older.

But part is the first wave of baby boomer exports coming home.

The Class of '64 was the first graduating class of the baby boom generation.

"There were 460 people in our class," says Tom Vittitow, executive director of the Elizabeth Munday Senior Center and co-chairman of the Owensboro High School Class of '64 reunions.

"Fifty have passed away," he said. "Roughly 200 stayed in Owensboro, and 200 took off after graduation. Several have moved back in the past few years. We asked them, 'what is the draw? ' "

Judy Dixon, who co-chairs the Class of '64 reunions with Vittitow, was one of those who left Owensboro.

But she didn't stay away long.

"I lived in Louisville from 1968 to 1970," she said. "My dad was devastated. He said he didn't know he raised me to move away."

Vittitow -- who says, "I've lived here all my life and I'll die here" -- said the most common answers from those returning are, "It's home. It's convenient to Nashville, Louisville, St. Louis and Cincinnati. The crime rate is low. And they've got good pensions and the cost of living is lower than where they lived before."

Baby boomers coming home

The baby boomers, he said, "are starting to come back home, and a lot of them are going back to work."

Vittitow understands that.

He retired from Kentucky Educational Television a few years ago, but decided he wasn't ready to do nothing.

So, he went back to work at the Munday Center.

Ed Burg was anxious to see Owensboro in his rearview mirror in 1964.

"I went to UK and never came back," he said. "I enlisted in the Air Force, came back to finish my degree, moved to Cincinnati; Columbus, Ohio; then Evansville and Princeton, N.J.," working for Bristol-Myers Squibb.

When Burg turned 55, he took the company's offer for early retirement.

"My mom was in Fern Terrace," a local personal care facility, Burg said. "My brother had always lived here. My son was living in Cincinnati then and I was divorced. So, I decided to come back to Owensboro."

Family is the common denominator for many of those who return.

"If it hadn't been for my family here, I wouldn't have come back," says Bill Cook, who enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly after graduating from OHS in 1964.

"I started at Western (Kentucky University)," he said, "but after a couple of months, I decided that that wasn't what I wanted. I spent 20 years in the Army, retiring as a master sergeant."

Then, he went to work in New Jersey for a California-based company, moved to Washington, D.C., in 1990 and retired there in 2005.

"I have family here and I just felt it was a good time to come home," Cook said.

Sharon Rock graduated from Daviess County High School in 1969, went off to college at Murray State University, married Steve Knight, who lived across St. Ann Street from her, and never returned other than to visit family until November.

"It wasn't like I couldn't wait to leave town," she said. "It just happened. We went to Florida for about three years after college and then back to Kentucky. My husband retired as superintendent (of schools) in Marshall County last year and I retired as a high school principal."

The Knights, she said, "retired the opposite way. We moved from Kentucky Lake to Owensboro. Most people do it the other way. We have family ties and old friends here. As you get older, you start thinking about what's important. We thought about Nashville and other places. But this is home."

Didn't want to leave

Home was what brought Greg Black, OHS Class of '73, back to Owensboro.

"I really enjoyed my youth here," he said. "I always planned to come back some day. I had a football scholarship to Eastern Kentucky University. The sad part was that I had to leave home for college. After graduation, I worked for a couple of TV stations for about a year and a half and then I joined the Navy."

He served 21 years in the Navy, retiring as a commander (the equivalent of a lieutenant colonel) in 2005.

After retiring, Black ran a publication for minorities in the military until it folded, taught high school ROTC in Washington, D.C., and in Louisville and then went back to Washington to run the National Military Expo, which was celebrating the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of the military.

"And then, I decided to move back home," he said. "I had been here about three months when this job came open. It was a big break for me. A real blessing."

He was hired as executive director of the H.L. Neblett Community Center in October.

"I lived in 17 cities around the country, on both coasts, in the north and south and traveled to 27 countries," Black said. "But I had always planned to return to Owensboro at some point. My mother and sister still lived here and I didn't have family anywhere else. I just decided that it was a good time to come back home."

Community leaders are taking notice of the slowly rising number of retirees moving back home and want to see those numbers accelerate as more baby boomers retire.

The first boomers will begin drawing full Social Security benefits in 2012.

Targeting retirees

"We want to look at that market," Nick Brake, president of the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corp., said recently. "They bring a nest egg, Medicare payments and a disposable income."

"Retirees who move to the community are a form of economic development," said Jody Wassmer, president of the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce. "They bring perhaps a pension or retirement savings with them and that's new money coming into the community."

"Kentucky is going to be getting a lot of retirees from the rust belt states who want four seasons, but not quite as cold winters," Brake said.

Weather played a role in Cook's decision to come back home.

"My children and grandchildren live in northern Massachusetts," he said. "But it's too cold for me up there."

Brake said Owensboro's amenities include the new hospital being planned for Owensboro's east side, a good health care system, a low cost of living and cheaper real estate than many cities.

"Many retirees make good part-time employees because they have a good work ethic," Wassmer said. "Owensboro is attractive to them because of the low crime rate, low cost of living and access to quality health care."

Kentucky lets people who are 65 and older -- or who are disabled -- deduct $33,700 from the value of their home for tax purposes as an incentive to keep people in the state when they retire.

"Retirees want a vibrant quality of life and higher education where they can take classes at reduced prices," Brake said. "Our low crime rate is a big plus," he said.

He said, "We're exploring targeting military retirees since we're close to both Fort Campbell and Fort Knox. One of our marketing techniques for the future will be recruiting people, not just companies."

Military retirees don't pay a state tax on their retirement benefits in Kentucky, Cook said.

That's a plus.

But, he said, "When I came back home, my military insurance -- TRICARE Prime -- gave me free medical care within a 30- to 50-mile radius of a military base. Owensboro is just outside that. So, I had to start paying for health care."

"I think targeting military retirees is a great idea," Black said. "They've had successful careers and they're still young enough to have a second career."

Cost of living much lower

"I was making a lot more money (in New Jersey) than I could have made if I stayed here," Burg said. "But the cost of living here is about half what it was up there. It's nice to be able to sell a house up there and buy one here. The traffic was bad up there. It was starting to get on my nerves."

Cook served in Vietnam, worked as an investigator in military intelligence in Africa and Europe for years and lived in Boston for awhile before living in Washington.

"I never had any intention of moving back until I retired," he said. "If it wasn't for family, I probably wouldn't have come back."

Cook said the community needs to be more welcoming of newcomers -- and those who return.

"After six months, I started looking at property in Florida," he said. "I've lived most of my life in bigger cities. Owensboro was cliquish when I left and it's still cliquish. It's been very difficult to meet people. I've found friendlier places in the Northeast."

It took awhile, Cook said, "but I've met a lot of nice people at flea markets and bowling."

Knight is commuting to Madisonville three days a week, filling in as director of secondary education with the Hopkins County Board of Education until a new one is hired.

She and her husband plan to travel when she's through with that job, Knight said. "But we want our nest to be in Owensboro."

A lot has changed in Owensboro since the classes of 1964, 1969 and 1973 turned the tassels on their caps.

"I left just before Wesleyan Park Plaza and the bypass opened," Burg said. "I had come back to visit and I had lived in Evansville, so I had seen the changes taking place."

But, he said, "The thing I've noticed most is the amount of poverty, unemployment and drugs I'm seeing working with rental property. That bothers me. Owensboro has some really nice areas and some really poor areas."

"I love what's happening downtown," Knight said. "Owensboro has become better through the years. It's truly improved. It is a little bit cheaper than Marshall County, but that's not really a factor."

Wants to stay involved

She said: "I want to stay involved with the community in retirement. We're just loving being back in Owensboro. We're excited about it."

"Owensboro has grown quite a bit," Black said. "But this has always been a very friendly place. It's fairly safe with very little crime. It has great schools. The cost of living is a big factor."

The cost of living in Owensboro, he said, "is probably one-third of living in Washington, D.C. The quality of life is so much better here than it is in most cities. There are a lot of frustrated people in most cities."

"My mom had some rental property and my brother and I bought some more houses and got into the rental business," Burg said. "Now we have 18 buildings with 22 units. I work but I have time to play golf when the weather is nice. It keeps me busy."

He's glad he came back to Owensboro, Burg said.

"I got to spend time with my Mom before she died," he said. "I guess I had thought about coming back to Owensboro some day. But if I had stayed married, I might not have. I might have retired in North Carolina or someplace."

Burg said: "I don't think people will retire here unless they're from Owensboro or have family living here now. It's really not a retirement area."

"The population didn't change much while I was gone," Cook said. "They moved Main Street out to the beltline, but the community hasn't really changed. I think people want Owensboro to stay a small town."

He started a business buying and selling antiques after he retired to Owensboro.

"Overall," Cook said, "the cost of living is cheaper here. Whether Owensboro has something to offer retirees depends on what they're looking for. There's not a lot to do here for retirees. Hanging out in parks is for young people. Most retirees don't play ball or tennis."

But Black said for people like him, Owensboro has something no other city can match.

"This is the greatest place I've ever been," he said. "It's home. And there's no place like it."