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Seeing seniors as assets

North Dakota's seniors generate annual income of almost $1.9 billion and comprise a growing market for entrepreneurs, a new analysis of census figures shows.

North Dakota's seniors generate annual income of almost $1.9 billion and comprise a growing market for entrepreneurs, a new analysis of census figures shows.

Residents 65 and over had incomes comprising 16.5 percent of the state's total income, according to the North Dakota State Census Data Center.

Significantly, seniors held58 percent of the state's interest income, a category that includes dividends and rents, an important source of investment funds, says Richard Rathge, North Dakota's demographer and the data center director.

"This is income, taxable income," he says. "What I'm suggesting is seniors are assets," he says. "If you can look at them as assets, it changes your thinking, it changes the discussion."

Too often, society views seniors as a responsibility to be shouldered, when they present an opportunity for communities and businesses, Rathge says.

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And there will be more of them. A lot more.

"There's going to be this huge surge of seniors," he says. "You have to provide for them anyway."

Seniors comprised 14.7 percent of North Dakota's population in 2000, but are expected to number 25.1 percent by 2030, according to projections by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Given the wealth, experiences and contributions seniors can offer the state and its communities, policymakers should consider targeting incentives to keep and attract them, Rathge says.

Seniors, especially early retirees, are a mobile population. When they move, they often take their money with them, as well as their contributions to their communities.

"Instead of chasing an industry, maybe we need to chase a category of people," Rathge says. "Hopefully this will provide some good ammunition for policymakers."

The alumni foundation at Dickinson State University is doing just that. The foundation is planning Hawk's Landing, a new development on campus that caters to retirees.

The $11 million complex, featuring cottages and apartments, as well as libraries and classrooms, will be home to 90 or 100 retirees when it opens next fall.

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The development is a project of the university's alumni foundation, which sees seniors as an increasingly important population group.

"One of the goals of our foundation is to retain our alums and also attract seniors," says Kevin Thompson, the alumni foundation's director.

The development is believed to be the first of its kind on a campus in the Dakotas, Thompson says, but is part of a growing trend at colleges and universities.

Community leaders in Cooperstown, N.D., a farming community of 1,000 located 73 miles northwest of Fargo, also are striving to draw seniors.

They are developing a complex combining local schools, a medical center and assisted senior living facilities.

One of the project's aims is to provide services and amenities to allow seniors in the area to stay, says Wade Faul, superintendent of schools.

"I think some will stay, even some possibly will come back," he says.

Jerry Sandstrom, Cooperstown's community development director, adds: "Money follows the seniors."

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Cooperstown and Griggs County envision a "kindergarten through seniors" cooperative. Seniors can volunteer as mentors to teach schoolchildren, and participate in lifelong learning programs.

The community is applying for a feasibility study to explore shared heating and kitchen facilities, and the viability of adding a theater, shops and post office - all connected to the schools and medical complex.

Noting initiatives like those in Cooperstown and Dickinson, Linda Butts, North Dakota's economic development director, says communities and entrepreneurs are increasingly embracing seniors.

"We are seeing more communities take a look at this as an asset and resource," she says. To be attractive, communities must have health care, safety and amenities.

"North Dakota has that in spades," Butts says.

But the state hasn't tackled the question of whether to specifically target economic incentives to seniors. "I would say it's a discussion that hasn't taken place," she says.

AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, an advocacy group for people 50 and older, has been pushing to make communities "livable" for seniors. It identifies attributes as diverse as mass transit systems, pedestrian-friendly design and community cohesiveness.

Linda Wurtz, associate director of AARP in North Dakota, believes communities are beginning to think more about how to plan for an aging population. One key is to enable people to remain independent as they age.

"There's a lot more emphasis on home and community based services," Wurtz says. "I think the entrepreneurs are recognizing the fact that baby boomers can age differently than their parents."

Increasingly, seniors and those looking ahead to their retirement will be looking for "livable communities," she says. "There hasn't been loud voices yet."

Policymakers are beginning to pay attention, she adds. Recently, for example, she was contacted by state transportation planners who are looking for ways to design and mark streets and roads for older drivers.

The Dickinson State alumni foundation's Thompson agrees that seniors are an attractive market to serve, and an important segment of society.

"They're an economic engine unto themselves," he says.

Moreover, seniors are human repositories of knowledge and experience who will contribute to campus life, Thompson adds. Some will be able to serve as mentors or instructors for students, and sit in on college classes and activities.

Hawk's Landing will also provide practical learning experiences for students in many fields, including business, nursing and physical education.

"It's going to go all across our curriculum as far as interaction," he says. "We're only limited by our creativity."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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