By Barbara McDonald
When Gov. Kirk Fordice gave the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development the mission to attract out-of-staters to retire in Mississippi in 1994, executive director Jimmy Heidel knew that an innovative program would be needed to successfully compete with long-time retirement havens Florida and Arizona.
Heidel implemented a unique program called Hometown Mississippi Retirement which has become the model for the nation in four short years. The state of Mississippi redefined retiree relocation by creating the first program of its kind which promotes qualified cities based on retirement desirability. The Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development certified 20 cities which offer retirees what they most desire: low cost of living, low crime rate, mild four-season climate, quality health care, affordable housing, educational and cultural opportunities, outdoor recreation, special retirement tax exemptions, and, most importantly, a warm welcome from Mississippians.
Mississippi`s program has been touted by national media including NBC Nightly News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times. Most recently, the book, Choose the South by John Howells, sings the program`s praises.
“Even though this has always been a great place for retirement, a recent development makes Mississippi a prime place for relocation. There`s a well-funded and professionally managed state campaign to get the news out about retirement here. The state allocates more than a half-million dollars a year for this program. The money isn`t spent on a mere propaganda barrage to lure warm bodies to the state. Their message isn`t just `Come to Mississippi` and leave the results up to chance. They follow through with a well-considered program to welcome individuals into each community,” writes Howells.
It`s the state`s job to entice the target market of persons age 50-65 across the nation to inquire about Mississippi and it`s the certified cities` job to convince the prospects to move here. So far, both have been successful. The national advertising and public relations campaigns have brought in more than 130,000 inquiries, and the certified cities have documented more than 1,100 new retiree households. This translates into significant economic impact for the state as statistics show that each new retiree household is the economic equivalent of 3.7 factory jobs. Just as importantly, the retirees become active volunteers in the community.
The cities chosen for certification underwent intensive evaluation and committed to spend $10,000 locally on the program and maintain an active volunteer base. Certification is continually monitored with strict requirements which must be met to maintain the prestigious status. There is a waiting list of a dozen cities wanting to qualify for the program when an opening is available.
The state recognized that it is impractical to try to promote more than 20 cities and that not all Mississippi towns have what retirees need and desire. Heidel has insured the success of the program by certifying cities based on their qualifications and not politics.
Retirees are first drawn to the state because of its mild climate and its low cost of living. One of the program`s most successful ads proclaims “You can`t put a price on happiness but it does cost less in Mississippi.”
Bill and Nancy Litwiller of Hampstead, North Carolina, learned about Mississippi in Money magazine. They liked the idea that Mississippi exempts qualified retirement benefits from state income tax and offers an additional homestead exemption bonus when property owners reach age 65. But what sold them on moving was the people they met when they visited Hattiesburg.
“We wanted to be a part of a whole community, and when we started meeting some of the great people down here, we knew it was the place for us. We couldn`t be happier. We`ve been here over a year, and we`re still excited about it,” they said.
The local volunteers, known as Connectors or Ambassadors, have become the best salespeople for the program. Once the state provides leads to the cities, volunteers — many of them newly relocated retirees — personally contact the inquirers to tell them about their own experience in Mississippi. The volunteers invite the prospects to visit and give them a personalized tour when they arrive.
The process does not end with recruitment. Each city has in place programs to acclimate the newcomers to the community. Some of the successful social events cities have held are dances with *Big Band* era music, a fifties picnic with poodle skirts, trips to art exhibits and plays, art gallery walks, senior jam sessions and golf tournaments. The retirees also perform community services such as erecting walking trail signs in a park, assisting with festivals, and heading up “Santa for Seniors” programs. Institute for Learning in Retirement programs in conjunction with the universities and community colleges provide retirees an opportunity to make learning lifelong. The retirees determine what classes they would like to have offered, and the classes are often taught by retirees. Some of the favorite selections are gardening, bridge, Internet surfing, water color painting, and Mississippi history.
The Certified Retirement Cities are Aberdeen, Booneville, Brookhaven, Clinton, Columbus, Corinth, Hattiesburg, Holly Springs, Madison, McComb, Meridian, Mississippi Gulf Coast, Natchez, Oxford, Picayune, Southaven, Starkville, Tupelo, Vicksburg and West Point.
For information on Hometown Mississippi Retirement or to have a Mississippi Living retirement guide sent to out-of-state relatives or friends, call 1-800-350-3323, write to Hometown Mississippi Retirement, P. O. Box 849, Jackson, MS 39205 or visit our Internet Web site at http://www.mississippi.org.
Barbara McDonald is director of Hometown Mississippi Retirement and manager of marketing and advertising for the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development.