Wisdom that comes with age

La Plata County benefits from rich retiree community

“I just like volunteering. I’ve always done it,” said Lynne Hardy, 78, a retired librarian, while helping in the Durango Public Library. Hardy also volunteers at the La Plata County Humane Society Thrift Store. From former executives with Fortune 500 companies to former scientists with national laboratories, Southwest Colorado has a retiree pool rich in talent from which to draw. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

“I just like volunteering. I’ve always done it,” said Lynne Hardy, 78, a retired librarian, while helping in the Durango Public Library. Hardy also volunteers at the La Plata County Humane Society Thrift Store. From former executives with Fortune 500 companies to former scientists with national laboratories, Southwest Colorado has a retiree pool rich in talent from which to draw.

The director of Music in the Mountains? Semi-retired IBM executive John Anderson. A key player in the planning of a resource recovery park in Durango? Former World Bank adviser Ali Sabeti. The host organization of Fort Lewis College’s Life Long-Learning lecture series? A group of retirees.

It’s no secret that Durango attracts an impressive batch of retirees. The city’s recreational, educational and cultural amenities make it a regular on national recommendation lists, including those aimed at aging adults. Money magazine named Durango one of six “terrific towns on the water” where baby boomers could retire without breaking the bank, while Smart Money magazine included Durango in its story “Retire here not there: Four less-known havens for living the Rocky Mountain high life.”

The number of people at or near retirement age in the county is growing. Since 2005, the number of people aged 50 or older has increased by 2,000 people while the number of 20-to-49-year-olds has decreased by about 1,000.

Beyond, and also because of, their numbers, retirees play a big role in supporting and shaping the political, philanthropic, cultural and commercial spheres in Durango.

Many organizations say they wouldn’t be what they are today, and couldn’t help the people they do, without the contributions of time, money and support from the area’s older populations.

Nonprofit support

“We would literally not exist and function at the level we do without (retirees), that’s how integral they are to our organization,” said Cindy Smart, the founder and executive director of the Durango Botanical Society.

The same can be said for other organizations as well, said Sheila Casey, director of La Plata County Senior Services.

“Most of these nonprofits couldn’t be as successful as they are without (seniors’) contributions,” Casey said.

Casey calculated that the volunteer hours seniors put into senior services in 2011 was worth $109,000.

The area’s high concentration of nonprofits can be partially attributed retirees, said Tim Walsworth, president and CEO for United Way of Southwest Colorado. These people bring a wealth of knowledge and experience, time and, sometimes, money that is a big benefit to organizations with small salaries and budgets, he said.

Data the agency collected last winter showed that of almost 300 donors who gave their age, 111 were older than 55.

Though he hesitated to draw sweeping conclusions, the data shows that “these folks are supporting at least United Way quite well,” Walsworth said.

Durango’s arts scene also has retirees to thank, said John Anderson, president of Music in the Mountains.

“Retired people are heavily engaged in the arts and in supporting organizations that support the arts,” he said.

A lifetime of knowledge

For a small town, Durango has an impressive array of retirees with résumés chock-full of high-profile careers, said Cissy Anderson, who formerly worked for the White House Department of Scheduling and Advance.

That high-level business experience has been a valuable experience for the Southwest Colorado Small Business Development Center, Director Joe Keck said.

Retirees help advise new and existing businesses, which is key to the center’s work, Keck said. In 2011 alone the center worked with 396 businesses, increased their sales by almost $860,000 and created or retained 239 jobs in its five-county region.

He wholeheartedly acknowledged that the center has reaped the benefits from Durango’s desirability as a retirement destination.

“These people with great business backgrounds and talent are migrating here because of the fantastic quality of life, which has made them much more available for us to be able to find,” Keck said. Retirees provide a unique “breadth of experience.”

“You don’t find resources like that in rural areas very often,” he said.

Fort Lewis College also has been a major benefactor of the area’s retirees. The most obvious example is the Professional Associates of Fort Lewis College. Made up primarily of retirees, the group advises the college’s faculty and students, helps with programs like Engineers Without Borders and the college’s honors program and puts on the Lifelong Learning lecture series.

“For the college to be able to tap into these sorts of professional experts and executives is a really powerful thing,” FLC spokesman Mitch Davis said. Students become exposed to “people who have led the World Bank, physicists and people who have travelled the world,” he said. The group’s members include former professors, a former scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratories, a man who owned a nationwide advertising company, a woman who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency and a former neurosurgeon, said Robert Yearout, a member who worked with the National Parks Service.

Housing and politics

Buyers in retirement or semi-retirement “certainly are a percentage” of the real estate market in La Plata County and will likely grow as Baby Boomers continue to age, said John Wells, owner of the Wells Group.

Retirees have been one driver of various subdivision developments throughout the county, La Plata County Commissioner Wally White said. Glacier Club, for example, “tends to orient toward a generation of older, more successful business people,” he said.

In this year’s election season, retirees have been crucial in bolstering the advertising power of local political candidates. Retirees are the biggest contributors to all four county commissioner candidates. Their contributions accounted for 28 percent to 49 percent of all individual donations.

They also have a big role on many of the county’s advisory boards and commissions, including the long range finance committee and library advisory board, White said. Older people tend to be more active in giving their input to local government as well, he said.

“At many meetings there is a predominance of gray hair,” White said. Meetings about the county’s comprehensive plan, for example, were dominated by people in their 50s or older, he said.

That imbalance in representation is something policy makers have to take into account in decision making, he said.

But the value of feedback from older people shouldn’t be underestimated.

“To some extend these people are more knowledgeable about certain issues,” White said. The gray hair means “you know they’ve been around for a while.”

ecowan@durangoherald.com

Participating during a planting day with Durango Botanical Society, Nancy Wallace and her husband, Jim, have volunteered for four years. “We would literally not exist and function at the level we do without (retirees), that’s how integral they are to our organization,” said Cindy Smart, the founder and executive director of the society. Enlarge photo

JOSH STEPHENSON/Durango Herald

Participating during a planting day with Durango Botanical Society, Nancy Wallace and her husband, Jim, have volunteered for four years. “We would literally not exist and function at the level we do without (retirees), that’s how integral they are to our organization,” said Cindy Smart, the founder and executive director of the society.

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