Mississippi: Writing the book on retiree recruitment

By By Sheila Blackmon/The Meridian Star
Jan. 18, 2001
A program to recruit retirees to Mississippi has found a new home under a newly-renamed unit of state government, and officials believe the change will be helpful.
The Hometown Mississippi Retirement Program has attracted more than 2,100 retiree households to Mississippi since it was launched in 1994. Last fall, it was reassigned from the executive director's office of the Mississippi Development Authority (successor agency of the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development) to the Division of Tourism.
Retiree families looking to relocate to warmer climes, typically visit three to six times before the make a final decision, she said. The Mississippi program limited to only 20 cities that could meet stringent criteria when it was launched as an initiative of the Fordice administration targets active, community-oriented people aged 50 to 65.
Each retiree household brings the equivalent of 3.5 factory jobs, according to statistics, average family bank accounts in excess of $150,000, and a spirit of involvement in community activities.
Mississippi is the only state to set strict standards cities must meet in order to become "certified retirement communities." When the program began in 1994, state officials evaluated and selected 20 cities that met criteria they felt were important to retirees such as abundant recreational, educational and cultural opportunities, low crime rates, a range of affordable housing and quality medical care. The cities must also maintain their certification.
Since 1994 no other cities have met these strict standards, which apparently is prompting state officials to consider broadening the scope.
The budget for the current fiscal year July 1, 2001 through June 30, 2002 is $305,000, not including salaries or matching grant funds, which will amount to about $120,000. Advertising and marketing for the program comes out of that budget, which is within 5 percent of last year's almost $304,000 in expenditures, Upchurch said.
Advertising state retiree assets or helping communities place ads to national audiences are key elements of the program.
A four-color magazine style piece called Mississippi Living Guide helps supplement marketing efforts. More than 190,000 copies have been sent out since 1995 to inquirers who respond to advertising efforts.
Upchurch said other marketing events are also held, such as the Hometown Getaway which is staged in a different certified city annually. Natchez and Oxford have hosted the event, this year it is set for the Gulf Coast.
Meridian program
A local retirement director oversees the program in each of the 20 cities. Unlike the state's program, local programs are housed under a variety of umbrellas from Chambers of Commerce to tourism. Meridian's program is housed under the city of Meridian's Community Development division.
City officials say Community Development Specialist Kay Coward, who previously coordinated the program, resigned Jan. 5 to take a position with the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians in Philadelphia.
Community Development Director Don Farrar said Meridian officials are advertising for her replacement with applications being accepted until noon on Jan. 31 and have no intentions of moving the program to the Lauderdale County Tourism Bureau.
Until a new community development specialist is hired, Farrar said the program will be maintained through regular meetings with Meridian Retirement Connection Chairman R.L. Richardson and other devoted volunteers.
He said in each of the last couple of years, about $10,000 which was matched by state funds for a total of $20,000 has been spent on advertising jointly with the state.
He said the state's advertising agency determines the best place to put these co-op ads and state officials send resulting inquires to Meridian for follow-up. Additional local efforts have placed ads in The Meridian Star's Senior Life edition, the Mississippi Business Journal and in Reader's Digest.
She said inquiries for other cities slightly smaller than Meridian range from 3,000 to 5,000. Hattiesburg has received about 13,000, and their relocations total 634 but they started recruiting about two years before the state program developed, are "aggressive, market their program well and have discovered how to track well," Upchurch said. Tupelo has 67 relocated households.
Coralie Richardson, chairman of the Meridian Retirement Connection's Hospitality Committee, said households relocating to Meridian have jumped significantly each year. She said the program got started in 1998. That year, there were 838 responses and no tracked retirees relocated. In 1999, an annual budget of $29,900 brought 3,246 responses and saw 17 households relocated. The program's 2000 budget was about $600 less $29,300 but Meridian received 4,972 responses, and 26 households moved here.
She said she thinks Meridian has a good chance next year of hosting the Hometown Getaway "if we get a director" since it all depends on a quality proposal. She said Coward had a good proposal last year, but Oxford got the event.
Last year, a half dozen retiree couples showed a lot of interest in Meridian. One of those couples is trying to sell their home in Texas so they can move here. Another woman decided against Meridian because she said Meridian lacks public transportation and its housing is too expensive.
Farrar says Meridian's program would not work without volunteers and sponsors who often furnish meals, lodging or supplies for people who come for a personalized tour or for events, such as health fairs and Meridian's third annual retiree celebration at Union Station last year in which more than 400 retirees attended. The Tourism Bureau and the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation also support program efforts, he said.
Sheila Blackmon is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. E-mail her at sblackmon@themeridianstar.com.

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