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Non-certified cities also working to promote themselves

Certified retirement community program drawing hundreds to state

In August 1994 when the State of Mississippi created its program for retiree recruitment, the process began to name 20 cities as certified retirement communities.

Now, with that many certified communities in the state, 23 other communities have lined up to become certified in the future. Unfortunately, expansion of the program won’t happen anytime soon because of budget constraints, said Diana O’Toole, program manager over Hometown Mississippi Retirement (HMR) for the Mississippi Development Authority’s tourism division.

“Our focus is maintaining the current level of funding to adequately market and promote the 20 certified communities that we have,” O’Toole said.

But that isn’t stopping the 23 communities looking to be certified from marketing themselves to retirees across the country. Gautier, one of the 23 communities interested in becoming a certified retirement community, began its quest for certification four years ago. Jim Allan, Gautier’s city manager, said becoming a certified retirement community is supported by the Gautier Economic Development Council as well as the city council.

“Having retirees is a benefit to any community,” Allan said, adding that Gautier has much to offer anyone, including retirees.

“In Gautier we have a quality of life that’s unique and interesting,” Allan said. “We also offer one of only two malls on the Coast, as well as a community college with an annex to the University of Southern Mississippi. So from those standpoints, it fits the model as meeting the requirements for the community.”

Allan is speaking of the requirements set by the State of Mississippi for certification as a retirement community. Those requirements include official city support, the designation of a sponsoring organization, funding, access to a hospital, available housing, an establishment of committees including a general Retiree Attraction Committee and a minimum of four subcommittees, the development of a community profile and written marketing plan. Retirement directors are also required to attend certain state meetings, as well as solicit community support and develop a prospect package relevant to retirees’ needs.

Allan said becoming certified would help Gautier promote the city as a destination for retirees. Not being in that group, however, hasn’t hindered the city’s promotional plans to attract retirees.

“We’re not waiting for someone to promote us,” Allan said. “We’re promoting ourselves.”

Wayne Cole, Cleveland’s city administrator, said Cleveland is also promoting itself as a retirement community, although it is still waiting to be approved by the state for official certified retirement community status.

“We have a lot to offer senior citizens in my opinion,” Cole said. “I think we have a quaint, small town atmosphere and a great downtown.”

And that, along with the access that the city’s residents have to Delta State University, hospitals, affordable housing and a number of other amenities, have already drawn a number of retirees to Cleveland.

A win-win situation

Meridian, which was certified as a state retirement community in 1995, has drawn about 70 retiree families since that time. Rebecca Gentry, retiree recruitment director for the City of Meridian, said the program has been invaluable to the city.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Gentry said. Having retirees in the community is wonderful because they are so involved in the community, whether their involvement is voting or becoming part of the number of civic organizations there, she said.

Christy Knapp, assistant director of the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation and the director of the Retiree Attraction Program, said the state’s help through HMR has been helpful to Oxford as well, but Oxford was promoting itself more than a year before the state jumped in and offered its support.

“Our economic development foundation in Oxford decided to start the program when they realized that with the amenities offered to retirees we’d be a good retirement community,” said Knapp. “We decided to start marketing ourselves as a good retirement destination.”

Oxford offers plenty to its retiree families, including a cultural arts community, free classes through the University of Mississippi to those 65 and older, hospital and other amenities. And the city will offer its residents much more in the future — plans are already underway for the construction of a new cancer institute and surgical clinic at Baptist Memorial Hospital North Mississippi at Oxford.

The spirit of cooperation

Since Oxford’s retirement program began in 1993 the city has attracted some 472 retiree families. But while it’s important that Oxford attract retirees to the area, Knapp said it’s equally important that the city cooperate with surrounding cities to draw retirees.

“There’s a real spirit of cooperation between retirement directors in our city,” Knapp said. “We have the support of the state, but there’s a real spirit of cooperation too. It’s important that we work hard for our communities and our state.”

The City of Madison, which was certified as a retirement community in December 1994, also works hard to attract retirees to the area. Since it was designated as a retirement community, Madison has tracked more than 300 retiree families that have moved to the area.

Tona Becker, Madison’s retirement coordinator, said the state’s program has been very successful for Madison as well as for other cities around the state.

“Retirees are a tremendous asset to the community,” Becker said. “They’re great volunteers and knowledgeable in many areas.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at ekirkland@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1042.

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