Effort to attract retirees, especially alumni, seen as win-win

David Ambler and his wife, Mary Kate, share a joke about the location of their Lawrence home.

It’s across from a retirement home, and they tell people they moved there so they could wheel each other across the street when the time came.

“But I always tell her to make sure a Mack truck is coming when she wheels me across, because I don’t want to live in a gated retirement community,” Ambler said.

It’s a sentiment that Ambler, a retired vice chancellor with Kansas University, thinks is gaining traction with the new crop of retirees.

“I think what is becoming more attractive is having homes that are on one floor, designed friendly for retirees, but still located in a neighborhood where there are kids out riding their bikes,” Ambler said.

A new neighborhood

It also is a sentiment on which Lawrence thinks it can capitalize. A high-powered group of community leaders have formed a nonprofit board to begin planning for a new type of intergenerational development that they tentatively have dubbed the Campus Village.

Dennis Domer, a longtime KU architecture professor and researcher, is leading an effort that envisions a development of 20 to 60 acres that would include a mix of single-family homes, apartments and condominiums designed to attract people 62 years and younger.

In the same neighborhood, there also would be a “continuing care retirement community” that would offer independent living, assisted-living, skilled nursing care and memory-care facilities.

“The intergenerational component is what is attracting quite a bit of attention,” Domer said. “People are realizing that retirees don’t want to be stigmatized as old, and that is what happens if you are segregated and put into a community on the edge of town.”

Kansas University has taken a keen interest in the intergenerational neighborhood concept. The university has seen other university communities — Columbia, Mo. has gained national attention — have success in drawing alumni back to their communities upon retirement.

The new board includes the dean of KU’s architecture school, the dean of the university’s school of health professions, the president of the KU Alumni Association and a distinguished professor of psychology and gerontology.

Good memories

Judy Wright, a retired executive with the KU Endowment Association, said university leaders are right to be excited about the prospects.

“There are so many people who graduated from KU who still love this place,” Wright said. “The reason they love Lawrence is because they had such a good experience at the university. That market is really our low-hanging fruit. That is who we need to be marketing to.”

Wright is on the board of Douglas County Senior Services, which has been tasked with developing a one-stop shop for information regarding retiring in Lawrence and Douglas County.

The project is expected to include both an online and physical component. Eventually, an extensive marketing campaign of television, radio, print and online advertising is expected to be part of the effort.

“There is a whole laundry list of attractive things I think we already have in place for retirees,” said Douglas County Commissioner Jim Flory, who co-chaired a joint task force on retiree attraction. “The key is making sure we let people know about them.”

Retiree riches

Flory and other elected officials have been touting the potential economic development benefits of attracting retirees to the community.

“I know there are people who say there is not going to be an economic benefit to this, but I disagree,” Flory said. “I think there could be a significant one.

“There is a dollar-and-cents capital that they bring, but they are also going to be very active in our community,” he said. “They are going to bring a lot of human capital with them.”

Ambler said the active nature of new retirees should make them an attractive part of an economy.

“They’re not going to come in here and drain more resources,” Ambler said. “They probably will come in and stimulate the economy. They’ll be buying tickets for the theater, joining health clubs, spending money on meals.”

Wright said focusing on retirees that have some connection to Kansas University will be particularly beneficial. By bringing alumni back closer to campus, that will make it more likely that they will become involved with future efforts to grow the university.

“Ideally, the people you are looking to move back to town are people who are actively retired,” Wright said. “They are somebody who wants to be involved as a volunteer. Somebody who wants to be part of events. Somebody who has some discretionary income.

“Really, you are just talking about someone who wants to make this their city.”