Tide Of Gray Washes Into North Carolina Older Americans Propel The State To 3d Most Popular For Retirement.

Posted: January 31, 1998

BREVARD, N.C. — Jean Tilly always thought she would retire to Florida like everyone else and spend her sunset years in a land of warm, sandy beaches.

Instead she's up in the mountains, 250 miles from the ocean in a town where the only sand is spread on the roads when it snows.

Tilly, 66, is among the growing number of Americans who have forgone traditional retirement spots for the mountains and coasts of North Carolina, drawn by a mild, four-season climate, scenic landscapes, low crime rates, and a reasonable cost of living.

Sure, Florida is still God's waiting room, by far the nation's most popular retirement state, while Arizona ranks second. But North Carolina has quietly climbed to third, its hushed beauty and country charm luring thousands of retirees from the Midwest and Northeast.

``We sold our land in Florida,'' said Tilly, who moved to Brevard from Rochester, N.Y., with her husband, Ralph, 69. ``We like it here.''

The Tillys wanted a place where they could see the seasons change, where Jean could fulfill her desire to help others and Ralph could fulfill his to play golf and fish.

They found both in this western North Carolina city of 5,455, 28 miles south of Asheville, known as the Land of Waterfalls for its 200 plunging rivers and streams. Downtown is quaint and peaceful, with brick sidewalks, a corner bistro and trees filled with white squirrels, protected by city ordinance.

The Tillys also found scores of other, earlier arrivals - during the 1980s 60 percent of all newcomers to Brevard were retirees. Many share a passion not just for the region's championship golf courses but also for volunteer work.

Brevard's retirees serve as school crossing guards, tutors, mentors and hospital aides. Since moving here in 1990, Jean Tilly has devoted years to expanding Sharing House, a Christian ministry that provides food and clothing to the needy.

``I really wanted to do something that would help other people,'' she said. ``Some people can't live without a mall. We can.''

Brevard sits in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, next door to the Pisgah National Forest. The woodland views are spectacular. Culture abounds at the Brevard Music Center and Brevard College. Halloween is big - what would you expect in Transylvania County? And the tony restaurants, pro sports and medical centers of Charlotte are within a two-hour drive.

``There are a lot of things in the area that make it unique,'' said Stella Trapp, editor and publisher of the Transylvania Times. ``Everybody doesn't want to be where everybody else is retired.''

Census figures indicate that only about 5 percent of Americans move when they retire. But that figure is expected to grow as America ages. And those who move generally take ample bank accounts with them.

``They're being wooed all over the country,'' said Sue Reynolds-Scanlon, a researcher at the Center on Aging at the University of South Florida in Tampa. ``They're generally healthier and wealthier than the average retiree. They're unencumbered - they're going to play for the next 10 to 15 years.''

From 1985 to 1990, the latest years for which reliable U.S. Census figures are available, North Carolina saw a net gain of 38,094 adults 60 and older. That's the number of people in that age bracket who moved into the state minus the number who left (deaths were not factored in). North Carolina ranked third, behind Florida's net gain of 323,000 and Arizona's 60,476.

Pennsylvania lost 21,365 older people and New Jersey 57,380.

Other statistics support North Carolina's emergence as a retirement center. In 1960 and 1970, the state did not rank among the top 10 in total newly arrived adults 60 and older. By 1980, it was seventh, and in 1990 it jumped to fifth, with 64,530 older people moving here. Florida was first every year.

The largest group coming to North Carolina was from New York. The second-largest came from Florida - the so-called half-backs or bounce backs, who left the North for the Sunshine State, didn't like it, and moved halfway back.

This tri-county region of Henderson, Madison and Transylvania Counties is the state's most popular retirement area, with the coastal area second. Most buyers at the golf-course communities in nearby Hendersonville are retirees; some developments say half their customers come from Florida.

While Florida remains the preeminent retirement destination - attractive not just for year-round warmth but also for the absence of a state income tax - census statistics show that its share of the market is declining, while South Carolina and Georgia are posting gains.

That trend probably will continue as the number of Americans 55 and older increases from 55 million to 75 million by 2010, according to Charles Longino, a respected demographer at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Some studies predict that retiring baby boomers will move at twice the rate of their parents. Many states, Pennsylvania among them, have set up agencies to attract retirees, seeing their presence as a boon.

``They're a `clean industry,' '' said June Barbour, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Division of Aging. Unlike factories, retirees don't pollute. They don't need many government services. And they tend to spend their money locally.

In addition, the energy and drive they once devoted to their careers often is transferred to volunteer work. In North Carolina, the average retiree spends 7.4 hours a week helping people at schools or hospitals.

Newcomers also arrive with different values and priorities. Here, for example, they have brought religious diversity to a solidly Baptist region. They work to protect natural woodlands, while natives may be more interested in supporting development to create jobs.

Some studies show that older people exert tremendous influence in their new communities because of their extraordinary voting turnout - as high as 80 percent. In Florida and Arizona, antitax retirees have successfully voted down bond measures for school construction.

Their impact in Brevard has not been so pointed.

Take Blair Willard, who used to help Texaco drill for oil in the jungles of Ecuador. Now, at 77, he helps children cross the street to school.

He and his wife, Kitty, moved here from Denver in 1985 - his son in Winston-Salem raved about North Carolina living - and threw themselves into the community.

Willard, an engineer who designed plants and handled contract negotiations, now helps direct traffic and serves on the Brevard Planning Commission. He formed a group of moped-riding fixer-uppers who do everything from planting flowers to printing fliers at the Deerlake Village clubhouse.

``There's no feeling of animosity from the natives toward those who moved here from up north,'' Willard said. ``I think the town is happy to have us.''

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