It Works for Georgia, Why Not for Virginia?

North Carolina has Asheville… but Virginia has Abingdon.

When former New Yorker Marty Stefanelli and his wife moved from West Palm Beach, Fla. to Blue Ridge, Ga., they went from paying about $20,000 a year in real estate taxes to $3,000. The couple still maintains a residence in New York, where they pay about $30,000 a year in taxes, but Stefanelli plans to make Georgia their main residence within a few years. “I bought a pickup to fit in,” he quips.

Southern Appalachia is emerging as a growing retirement destination for northern transplants who find Florida too expensive, reports the Wall Street Journal today. The so-called “halfbacks,” who move to Florida and then halfway back north cite lower cost housing, lower taxes and lower cost of living.

Net migration to retirement destination Appalachian counties in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee has risen steadily from about 10,000 in 2011 to more than 46,000 in 2017, according to census data.

The trend appears to be gaining momentum as local developers and real estate agents build housing product geared to the halfback market, and as local businesses provide products and services suitable for more affluent retirees. The newcomers are generating new tax revenue, creating new business opportunities and supporting more jobs for locals. The response is not universally positive. Some locals complain that the immigrants are driving up the price of housing and bringing in their brusque, big-city mannerisms. But overall the impact seems mostly beneficial.

Bacon’s bottom line: Apparently, this mini-migration to Appalachia hasn’t reached Virginia. But there is no reason Southwest Virginia shouldn’t be able to cash in. The terrain is just as beautiful as it is in North Carolina, the property and taxes are just as inexpensive, and there are urban areas like Roanoke and Bristol-Kingsport where retirees can avail themselves of comprehensive medical care. Aside from supporting new jobs, affluent retirees would bolster the tax base of hard-pressed local governments and support quality-of-life amenities that the communities could not otherwise afford.

This is not traditional economic development, but traditional economic development doesn’t seem to be working very well. Someone should research this market to ascertain what it takes to lure some of these halfbacks to Virginia.

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10 responses to “It Works for Georgia, Why Not for Virginia?”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    It all depends on which Appalachia you are talking about.

    My rule of thumb is to get out a map and see where U.S. 19 runs. Anything to the east of it is just fine for wealthy retirees who can afford residences in New York and Georgia or whatever.

    A lot to the west of the highway has been ruined by the coal industry.

    There already are retirement projects for rich people in the mountains of Virginia.

    But the farther west one goes, the more forlorn many places can be. They contain among the poorest ratings in per capita income, highest ratings in early deaths and so on.

    Abingdon is a nice theater town and Bristol is nice. But neither is really in the coal fields. I spent a lot of time there a few years ago researching my book on Massey Energy. You have to drive for miles to get to a restaurant or shopping. Medical care is remote. For evidence check out the RAM clinic in Wise County each summer. People line up the night before because there are so few doctors and nurses and they can’t afford health care. For many it is the one time each year they can get medical and dental services.

    In other words, it ain’t exactly Asheville, which has long had a thriving art and restaurant scene — places where young bohemians and elderly rich people can to live. Most importantly, there’s no coal.

    1. Agreed. There are two Appalachias — the coalfields and the non-coalfields. People who made money money in coal leave the region. Even they don’t want to stay. There’s nothing there to attract anyone from the outside. But Appalachia outside the coalfields could have a lot to offer.

      1. djrippert Avatar

        It won’t happen by itself. The Tobacco Indemnification Fund Money should have been focused on one spot for retirement development. Roanoke would have been a good choice. With Smith Mountain Lake just down the road and Virginia Tech about 40 miles away Roanoke would have made a good choice for focus. However, transportation, health care and amenities are necessary. I think we’ve spent $1.1B in Tobacco Indemnification Fund grants so far. That could have started the Virginia Tech Medical School in Roanoke, built a fine minor league stadium by Smith Mountain Lake and substantially expanded the Roanoke Regional Airport. Any remaining money could have been used to create a Roanoke Enterprise Zone by providing seed and start-up capital to qualifying companies willing to locate or relocate to Roanoke.

        Instead, the money was frittered away … sprinkled here and there … with no meaningful effect.

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Roanoke had its chance to be another Asheville, or could have been Asheville before Asheville was Asheville. No vision.

    Ratings like those published by Kiplinger rank Virginia highly (#7) as a retirement location, but I think the coastal areas are having greater luck. The mountains of Georgia (#3) might have a bit less winter cold and snow than the high country in the far southwest. Perhaps we’re just a little to0 close to being 3/4 back to the northeast for the halfbackers

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t think low taxes is the primary driver. There are thousands of places for folks to settle to if low taxes
    was the predominant goal.

    There are hellholes galore for those who want that one thing more than anything else!

    I think weather is important.. not just cold, but extreme heat or high humidity …storms… floods… etc…

    Don’t think healthy active retirees are focused on top notch medical care…. for instance Blue Ridge is not exactly blessed with world class medical!

    Retirement communities with amenities do attract folks – Father in Law lives in a place called Seven Lakes near Pinehurst. Lots of retirees and now some younger with kids and yes they do have top notch Medical…

    So my question is this – what can a local govt do – other than low taxes – to attract developers of senior retirement communities…. and make no mistake – they are indeed “communities”. For instance Seven Lakes has city water , a top-notch fire and rescue station, a Pharmacy and some nearby upscale grocery stores…

    What could/should Virginia do – to incentivize the development of retirement communities?

  4. djrippert Avatar

    Compare the expansion efforts at Asheville Regional Airport to Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport. While both have been renovated over the last 30 years Asheville’s improvements and expansions have been ongoing while Roanoke’s seem to be a one-time event in 1989.

    Virginia has the natural beauty but not the vision or willpower to make anything of that natural beauty. Virginia is “old south” in attitude joining Mississippi and Alabama. North Carolina and Georgia represent the “new south”.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I agree with DJ on both counts. Neither Virginia not the localities have a vision for economic development with respect to retirement communities or really other things – and the Tobacco fund has been squandered on really ignorant and useless things….

      We have this mindset. NoVa and Hampton rely on the Feds for their economy – and the rest of Virginia relies on NoVa and Hampton to get a share of that money for their own wants.

      No one is really focused on a private economy.

  5. TBill Avatar

    We of course have Smith Mountain Lake…but already developed probably? Today maybe we would not allow loud cigarette racing boats etc but it is what it is.

    I have relatives out that way (Bristol etc). Probably the Va Tech area also is the opportunity.

  6. DLunsford Avatar

    SW Virginia is God’s country and one of my favorite destinations for outdoor activities. But to retire there someday? It would depend on essential services for the aging. For comparison, my in-laws are currently retired in a suburb of C’ville (Earleysville, close to the airport). Even there, not 20 minutes out of town, a good snow storm means days without power and the EMS response time obviously is not what it would be in downtown C’ville. And don’t get me started on the trials and tribulations of the home care component of the UVA Health System.

    Sooooo…. if that is the state-of-the-art in the so-called “front country”, then one can imagine what would be available in the “back-country”. One of my favorite areas down in SWVA (on the east side of I-81 BTW) is the Grayson Highlands area. But when you get off the interstate near Marion you loose cell service barely one mile off the road. If you spend any real time down that way better get a sat phone.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    But these are exactly the types of things a locality would need to address to help support development that caters to retirees, no?

    These are the types of things Virginia would help support with the tobacco indemnity fund or other state-level economic development resources.

    These are the types of infrastructure and services that a developer would not be able to provide and still be able to pursue economically.

    I too love the Grayson Highlands but it’s totally true about cellphones… unless you are up on one of those bald ridges – forget it!

    Virginia got a new ED Czar a while back.. haven’t heard much from him in a while………..

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