Baby boomers are the nation's fast-growing age group. Local seniors discuss why they retired in Fort Smith.

Alex Gladden
Fort Smith Times Record

The room was filled with gray hair and wrinkled smiles. The walls were white but sprinkled with paintings to cheer the room. 

People shuffled into the Fort Smith Senior Activity Center, eagerly awaiting the day's lunch special: lasagna.

The seniors sat two to a table to keep social distancing practices and donned their masks when they weren't eating.

Amid the meal, people chatted among themselves, occasionally hollering a joke to another table. 

These people are a part of the nation's fastest-growing age group. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as baby boomers age, the 65-and-older age group is skyrocketing, growing by more than a third during the past decade. 

In Arkansas, the 50-plus population is projected to grow from 36% of the population in 2018 to 40% of the population in 2050, according to an AARP report. The 65-plus population grew from 494,000 to 559,000 from 2016 to 2021, according to projections from the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Elmo and Mary Mathers, front, have lunch at the Fort Smith Senior Activity Center, 2700 Cavanaugh Road, Tuesday, Feb. 23.

Local officials agree that senior citizens are a boon to the population. They're rarely involved in crime; they are active in their churches and volunteer leagues; they're regular voters. And some say area cities should be making more of an effort to attract these people to live here. 

Keith Loris, who spent his career working in the automotive industry, said he thinks that the city should focus more on recruiting older Americans to the area.

Seniors are looking for areas with mild weather, a favorable tax base, attractions and communities with affordable housing, public transportation, parks and options for retirement communities, said Herb Sanderson, the Arkansas state AARP director. 

To attract older Americans, cities should encourage builders to build for senior living, make parks usable for seniors, guarantee access to health care, and talk to other towns that have successfully attracted an older population. 

Sanderson recommended that cities apply to become AARP-designated livable communities. He said it sends a message to seniors that the city cares about older Americans. 

Elmo and Mary Mathers, front, have lunch at the Fort Smith Senior Activity Center, 2700 Cavanaugh Road, Tuesday, Feb. 23.

Sanderson also commented that most seniors visit an area before moving. An area could attract more seniors by encouraging them to visit first. For example, the Fort Smith Advertising & Promotions Commission has worked for many years to bring in group tour bus travel to Fort Smith.

On city websites, officials could designate activities that seniors would enjoy, said Emily Ingram, the AARP associate state director for community outreach. This is similar to how many cities highlight activities for families and children on their sites. 

Once seniors visit the area, convincing them to stay could be made through efforts as simple as creating pamphlets advertising why to retire in the city, Sanderson said. 

Loris pointed out that many seniors have comfortable retirements they could be spending in Fort Smith. He suggested the city have regular programs aimed at attracting older folks, similar to Bentonville, a city he feels does that well. 

Debbie Griffin, the community relations economic development director for the city of Bentonville, said that the city has listening sessions to see what Bentonville residents want. Shelli Kerr, the city's comprehensive planning manager, said that for upcoming sessions, the city is particularly targeting seniors as people Bentonville would like to hear from.

“The seniors are just being ignored," in Fort Smith, Loris said. “Let’s make this a retirement place for America." 

Many at the Fort Smith Senior Activity Center said they retired in Fort Smith because they grew up in the area. 

Russell Popp helps Sharon Gerhardt with a computer program, Tuesday, Feb. 23, as they work together in the Fort Smith Senior Activity Center dining room, Tuesday, Feb. 23.

“I've been all over the United States. Fort Smith is home," said Dan Swink who has lived here his entire life. 

Elmo and Mary Mathews, who have been married for 68 years, grew up in Greenwood and moved to Fort Smith after they first got married.

“We had a good place to live, so we might as well stay," Elmo Mathews said about why the couple decided to retire in Fort Smith. 

Kenneth Ross, from Mountainburg originally, thinks Fort Smith is a "good place to live." 

Other seniors, like Helen Miller, stayed in Fort Smith because of the low cost of living. Miller has lived in Fort Smith for five years. She originally moved here because of a job. She said she retired in Fort Smith because she can live here on her social security benefits. Miller moved to Arkansas from Washington after a short stint in Oklahoma, where she had some friends. 

Nancy Baker, who has lived in the Fort Smith area her entire life, does not think that the city makes an effort to recruit seniors to the area. 

“I don’t think they really consider that a priority," Baker said adding that the senior centers are the only programs exclusively geared toward older Fort Smith residents. 

For Baker, Fort Smith is a good place to live because the taxes are low, and there are services for seniors. In Fort Smith, the tax rate is broken down by 6.5% tax from the state, 2% tax from the city and 1.25% tax from Sebastian County. That rate will drop to 9.5% at the start of 2022 when a University of Arkansas-Fort Smith support tax expires and the county sales tax drops to 1%.

Baker says she would like to see Fort Smith up the level of care at its medical centers. Oftentimes when her friends need surgery, she said they go to northwest Arkansas for care or even as far as Dallas.

Baker also wants more options for senior living. Some of her friends had to leave the town because they could not find the right kind of care that offered them their independence but also offered assistance when needed.

“But I don't want to sound all critical of our community because I do think it’s a good place to live," Baker said. 

Mayoral take 

Fort Smith Mayor George McGill said the city has many qualities that make it desirable to senior citizens. 

He said the city makes an effort to attract older Americans to the area through its marketing, as well as the Fort Smith Advertising & Promotions Commission. McGill said he does not know how much the city spends on this.

The most significant attraction about Fort Smith is that the cost of living is low, he said. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, a living wage for one person without children is $13.32. In Garland County, where Hot Springs is located, that number is $13.72. Dallas County, Texas shows that number to be $15.21, while Sarasota County, Florida's living wage for one person without children is $14.22.

“We have a lot of things to offer seniors," McGill said, citing the city's western heritage, the symphony, golf courses, and world-class rodeo.

Martha Jone, center, prepares to deliver boxed lunches, Tuesday, Feb. 23, from the Fort Smith Senior Activity Center, 2700 Cavanuagh Rd., in Fort Smith.

Both the Paris and Booneville mayors said they do not make an effort to recruit older people to their towns.

Paris Mayor Daniel Rogers said he focuses on trying to attract young people and families to his city. Paris already has a large older population and is lacking on a younger one. 

Rogers said people who retire in Paris mostly were born in the town or moved to the area for jobs. 

Booneville Mayor Jerry Wilkins said his city does not have enough housing for people to retire there. There are few available rental properties, and houses are built and sell quickly. But there is a nursing home in town and apartments dedicated to senior living.

Van Buren Mayor Joe Hurst said he thinks his city is in a good position to attract retirees. 

“It’s clear that baby boomers are retiring so that creates a lot of opportunities for cities to attract new residents," Hurst said. 

Van Buren is in the middle of updating its economic development plan, and Hurst said he thinks attracting senior citizens could be something included in the plan.

Statistics show that older Americans have disposable incomes that they can use to spend on area amenities, Hurst said. He added that having a group of seniors move in could be as lucrative for a town as having a new business.