The Mississippi Development Authority’s (MDA) Hometown Mississippi Retirement (HMR) program has brought into the state nearly 7,500 retirees since its inception in August 1994. Their presence has added nearly $200 million to the state economy and created more than 2,300 jobs per year in the state’s 19 certified retirement cities and tradition master-planned community on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
An economic impact study of the HMR program prepared by professor Charles Campbell for the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University also revealed that the 22 Mississippi counties with certified retirement communities attracted nearly 350 more retirees than usual per county from 1995 to 2000.
“Focus groups consisting of individuals who had recently moved to each county indicated that the most important factors attracting retirees to Mississippi were finding a place closer to children, the exemption on retirement income, the homestead exemption, the climate, and the friendliness of the people,” remarked Campbell.
Mature Americans represent the nation’s fastest growing and wealthiest economic market sector. Every day, 12,000 “baby boomers” turn 50. Business leaders in Hattiesburg noticed the trend more than a decade ago and met the stringent criteria to become Mississippi’s first certified retirement community. Since then, more than 700 retiree households have moved into the area.
“We know our program is a success,” said MDA director Leland Speed. “This report validates our thoughts and reflects what a tremendous impact the retiree market is to the Mississippi economy. It’s our vision to build off this success and continue to work with our communities to enhance their attractiveness for the retiree market.”
Having statistical data that quantifies marketing efforts is an invaluable tool to objectively look at the effectiveness of the current retiree attraction strategies, said HMR program manager Diana O’Toole.
“This enhances our ability to qualify what potential retirees find important in their retirement decision process and aids us in providing assistance to the certified retirement cities,” she said.
In the final part of the study, the question of whether to make all income tax exempt for Mississippi retirees was examined. The results indicated that it was not recommended at this time, said Campbell.
MDA assists Mississippi certified retirement communities market themselves as retirement venues. To become certified, each community must endure a rigorous three-month screening process conducted by HMR. Each city is evaluated on criteria important to retirees: affordable cost of living, low taxes, low crime rate, quality medical care, recreation, educational and cultural opportunities.
“Twenty-six cities are on the waiting list,” said O’Toole. “All were invited to participate in the recent certification process. Of that number, we received 14 responses.”
Only 11 cities advanced to the second stage, which included a site visit by O’Toole and four members of the HMR program advisory committee.
“Nine of the cities, while impressive, needed to work on a few recommended criteria before they can advance to the final stage,” she said. “Two made it to the final stage and upon completion, these two cities will receive the designation of a Certified Retirement City.”
The names of those two cities will be released soon, said O’Toole.
As a requirement to retain certification, HMR certified cities must send a representative to attend at least one out of state trade show. This year, HMR will host tradeshow booth space at the annual AARP Life @ 50+ annual event, and LiveSouth Real Estate Shows in Chicago, Detroit, and Columbus, Ohio.
In addition, each city has the option to market their retirement destination by setting up a display at one of Mississippi’s Welcome Centers. For fiscal year 2004, nearly three million visitors were serviced through this network of hospitality venues.
The annual budget for the HMR program remained level for the new fiscal year, with $300,000 covering marketing and operational costs, including a $75,000 matching grant fund. The match-grant funds are used to help certified retirement communities offset marketing and promotional costs, such as brochure production and advertising in mature market publications such as Where to Retire.
HMR plans to host an upcoming Mississippi Retirement Roundabout for potential retirees. For a nominal fee, they will board a motor coach to tour several retirement cities.
“We feel this will benefit even our smallest retirement cities, in that they will be competing on an equal footing with the larger cities that have larger annual budgets and could afford to ‘host’ a getaway,” said O’Toole.
HMR’s marketing efforts have paid off handsomely. In fiscal year 2005, local volunteer retiree groups fielded inquiries about Mississippi’s certified retirement communities from more than 88,000 retirees via website and direct inquiries.
“Mississippi is a wonderful place to live,” said O’Toole. “We’re glad that folks are discovering that delightful fact.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.