Alternative to Mining? 08.22.13

Read this online from Woods Person Blog

Back to the drawing board—last night we heard the same old promises of almost three years ago that divided our community then and continue to do so now. To no avail we could debate the glorious claims of prosperity for all forever, but another issue on a positive note has surfaced. In his presentation to the Iron County Mining Impact Committee, John Sendra spoke as if the increased population of older citizens in our community is a terrible thing. Tell that to Naples, FL, Sun City, AZ or the Cranberry Inn. Not only the sunbelt communities but towns all over the country are waking up to the fact that the retirement industry is one they want to promote.

Pro mining folks continually speak with resentment about those who retire here in Iron County because those pesky retirees don’t need jobs, having already earned their money elsewhere. Not sure what they are saying: retirees should butt out of the mining debate because they don’t need a job? Instead of spending their money in this community, they should take their money and go away?

Inspired by these comments, we've done some research on the effect of retirees on a rural community.

Why attract retirees? Because the retirement industry is huge.

Research shows a positive economic impact of both high and low income retirees on rural communities. Consider the following:.

+50 age group is the fastest growing and wealthiest market sector.

One retired family has the equivalent impact on a rural community of creating three factory jobs.

Retirees have more disposable income.

Retirees need services of professionals—attorneys, accountants, doctors, technical service people, dentists and thus contribute to higher income levels in a community.

Retirees eat out more than younger working families. Ask any restaurant owner what would happen to their bottom line if the gray heads left.

They buy more new cars.

Most own their own homes.

They provide a bigger tax base.

They don’t pollute.

They aren't noisy.

Some of the services they fund, they don’t use, i.e. schools and police.

They provide the volunteer base: (In one year in Peoria, for example, volunteers worked 1.7 billion hours to generate $3.7 billion in economic impact).

Etc. etc.

Mr. Sendra and both the Hurley and Mercer school superintendents cried for population growth which they envision will come “when the mines return.”  However, a University of Alabama Extension study found that “population and employment growth in rural areas with strong tourism and retirement industries has outdistanced the growth in those rural areas that depend on manufacturing, mining, and agriculture.”

After interviewing many local business people and retirees about why they relocate here to retire or to start businesses or why some stay here all their lives, we’ve learned that it’s not because they want to live in a bustling, industrial mining area. Most have vacationed here, then returned to settle because they love the lakes and forests, the small town, safe community, clean air and water, good recreational activities. Would they still find those qualities if a mine operates here? Perhaps all those kids that the superintendents say want to stay but can’t find jobs wouldn’t want to be here if the character of the area was so changed.

Ok, but the population and school enrollments are declining, thus putting the future of the county in jeopardy. Right, the influx of retirees and 30-49 year olds is too slow, and the kids are leaving, (isn’t that what kids do?)  Attract more retirees and the jobs they generate will increase. In fact, they have already; our area is in need right now of doctors, accountants, attorneys, dentists, landscapers, technicians, etc. One hygienist at our local dentist’s office commutes all the way from Stevens Point because no one qualified could be found in the area. What will happen to our economy if one retiring dentist isn't replaced so his/her patients have to go elsewhere for their dental work? Why aren't our Mercer and Hurley kids getting inspired to go into these professional careers? Hmmm, maybe that’s another topic.

But back to the retirement issue.

What attracts retirees to an area?

There is no one size fits all answer to this question. Each area has its unique assets which will attract a unique set of retirees, or younger residents for that matter. The UW Extension Iron County’s “The Gogebic Range Next Generation Initiative” seeks to build on our primary asset—nature based outdoor recreation afforded by thousands of quality lakes and streams and miles of woods and trails. It’s this asset that attracts most people to vacation and eventually settle here, but it’s a slow process, and we have more work to do.

Checklist of attributes of a community attractive to an aging population

Recreation: parks and paved trails

Options for employment

Volunteer opportunities keep people mentally engaged

Social events and places to hold them

Mercer Health and Wellness & UW Extension Brunch

Advocates such as UW Extension

Adult day care programs

Affordable housing and food

Transportation system

Small communities

Appropriate street design

Intergenerational opportunities, i.e. mentoring

Good health care and other services

Climate: believe it or not some people come here because of the snow


Leisure activities: cultural events, restaurants, etc.

Proximity to shopping

Most of the above items are already in place in Iron County and maybe just need to be tweaked and publicized. A few, like transportation and adult day care, need bolstering, and a major paradigm shift must occur in Hurley. 

We can’t change our climate, but we can try to reach the people who like snow. 

The snowbird flight is another issue that presents a challenge to our community. The summer population in Iron County is 18,000 and 6,000 in winter, which means our workers either work extra hard during the season or fly along with the snowbirds. Neither option is impossible and may be attractive to some people. And remember most of those 18,000 people are paying taxes even when they are not here.

To summarize, if increasing the population, thereby increasing job opportunities, is what we seek, then the best way to do that is to continue to build on our assets, to promote tourism, and to attract retirees which in turn creates opportunities for all age groups and job skills.  It will take many years for a mine to be permitted and constructed in the Penokees if that day ever comes. Why not do something positive now; embrace those spirited gray haired folks that want to spend money in our communities. Change the attitude; make it more attractive for them. We are fortunate to live in a beautiful place; the migrating retirees know that and they want “in.”


Andresen, Will. University of Wisconsin, Iron County Extension,

Carrigan, Kenny. “Embracing Today’s Retirees,” Peoria, March, 2013,

Chesnutt, J. Thomas, Why Attract Retirees to Your Community? , University of Alabama Cooperative Extension System. 2003

Long Term Impacts of Retiree In-Migration on Rural Communities, University of Tennessee.

Retreat for Creating an Aging-Friendly Iron County, July 31. 2013.

Shields, Martin S., The Economic and Fiscal Impacts of the Elderly on a Small Rural Community. 2003

Shields, Martin, Comparing the Impacts of Retiree Versus Working-Age Families on a Small Rural Region: An Application of the Wisconsin Economic Impact Modeling