Why are Retirees Moving to Chattanooga?
Weather, health care, the lack of income tax, and Chattanooga’s culture and great outdoors are all just a part of what makes Chattanooga such an attractive retirement destination.
By Andrew Shaughnessy
Every day, around 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65. That trend has been going steady since 2011 and will continue through 2030. And as more and more Americans reach retirement age, they’re scouring the nation for the best spot to settle down, kick back, and make the most of their golden years. For many, that spot is Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Among those is 63-year-old Judy Gallagher, who moved to Chattanooga from the Finger Lakes region of New York state in 2016 to be close to her daughter and grandson. But before long, Gallagher discovered that her new home was also the perfect place to spend her “semi-retirement.”
“I love the outdoors,” Gallagher says. “I’ve connected with a hiking club mostly made up of people my age. There’s a nice cultural scene and lots of things to do here. My friends and I are always saying, ‘You could do something new every day or even more.’”
Whether drawn by the mild climate or affordability, the arts or the outdoor amenities, an increasing number of retirees are choosing Chattanooga. “We’re a great place for people to live,” says Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke. “That’s true for people of all ages, but retirees often have the luxury of choosing where they want to live, and they look around the country and pick Chattanooga.”
According to a 2017 census report, more than 27,000, or approximately 15.6%, of Chattanoogans are over the age of 65 – up from 14.6% in 2010.
These incoming Boomers are making a significant, positive impact on the local economy. Typically, an aspiring retiree visits a location three to five times before deciding to move to a new place. For each of those visits, they’re eating at local restaurants, staying in local hotels, and shopping at local stores. And if these retirees ultimately move to Chattanooga, the positive impact increases. They purchase homes, goods, and services, pay taxes, and often bring their savings with them, transferring their assets to local banks.
To provide a quantifiable snapshot of that impact, retirement-focused marketing group RPI Media tracked 214 retirees who moved to Hamilton County after attending one of their expos over the last four years.
- Other services include transportation, education, recreation, communication, professional, personal care, social/religious, and household maintenance services.
- Other nondurables include pharmaceuticals, games, pet supplies, household supplies, personal care products, tobacco, and magazines.
- Other durables include recreational vehicles, audio/video, equipment, computers, jewelry, eyeglasses, and books.
“If each of those 214 buyers bought a $300,000 home, that’s $64 million even before taxes, eating, shopping, or moving their wealth,” says Retire Tennessee Director Ramay Winchester. “If these people visited three to five times before making a purchase, that’s roughly 1,075 visits to Chattanooga, and that’s only counting those 214 people. That’s a huge economic impact!” Chattanooga has been a part of Retire Tennessee, a Tennessee Department of Tourist Development program, for its entire 14-year existence.
According to a 2016 Oxford Economics report, adults aged 50 and older “spend more overall than their under-50 counterparts.” Retirees set on enjoying life attend local museums, frequent local restaurants, pay local taxes, and use local hospitals. In 2015, Americans aged 50 and older spent $5.6 trillion nationwide on consumer goods, services, and health care. For every retiree who settles here, a piece of that pie belongs to Chattanooga.
“We’re a consumer-based economy,” Berke explains. “When people with disposable income are active in our city, that builds apartments and homes. That causes people to get jobs in restaurants. That means retail stores are more likely to hire.”
Boomers are also working longer than older adults of previous generations. Some retire only to begin a second career or start that small business they’ve always dreamed about. As a result, they’re continuing to produce goods and services, earning and spending money longer, directly or indirectly creating jobs, and ultimately helping fuel economic growth.
And beyond the economic upside, these citizens are contributing to the community in a multitude of ways. “We find that older adults give back to their communities,” says Winchester. “Many are mentors in the schools. They volunteer in civic organizations. They’re not ready to just sit on their front porch and rock.”
Here’s the Top Factors Driving Chattanooga’s Retirement Boom
Ultimately when choosing a retirement destination, it comes down to both the tangibles and the intangibles. Here’s why Chattanooga is on the map:
With its warm summers and mild winters, Chattanooga’s climate is a huge draw for retirees from more extreme environments.
“I like that there are four seasons here,” says Gallagher. “I grew up in South Florida, where it’s basically hot all the time. And then the winters in the South are better than in upstate New York. Chattanooga turned out to be a really nice compromise. You get out of the snow and New York’s nine months of winter, but, unlike Florida, you still have the seasons. Fall and spring are my favorite.”
Winchester notes that Chattanooga attracts a lot of “half backs,” or people that initially retired to Florida seeking to escape the bitter cold of more northern states. But when they discovered that they don’t like being stuck in a perpetual summer, they moved “halfway back home,” to Tennessee. “It’s really all about those East Tennessee mountains,” says Winchester.
With a population of around 180,000 people, Chattanooga provides a small-town atmosphere while still offering plenty of things to do. And, for those willing to drive a few hours, there are worlds of activities within reach.
Chattanooga is set like the hub in a wheel, surrounded by spokes of highways. Between I-24, I-59, and I-75, you can travel to bigger cities like Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville, or Birmingham within a couple of hours. Or, for those looking for a cooler climate and some Blue Ridge Mountain magic, the trip to Asheville, North Carolina, is just three-and-a-half hours.
Meanwhile, the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport offers non-stop flights to 10 cities across the country, including Chicago, Orlando, New York City, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. The airport has grown for the last five years in a row and is currently planning a major expansion of the passenger terminal and parking area to accommodate increased demand. It’s also the first airport in the nation to run entirely on solar power.
“I often hear from older adults that they like that we’re centrally located, especially if they have family in Atlanta or Nashville,” says real estate broker and Greater Chattanooga Association of Realtors President Kim Bass. “If you want to travel around the South, we’re easily accessible to anything.”
Access to Health Care
Chattanooga also boasts a rapidly growing health care industry and great access to numerous hospitals and health care facilities.
U.S. News and World Report recently ranked Chattanooga’s CHI Memorial Hospital as the second best hospital in the state and the best regional hospital. The not-for-profit, faith-based health care system offers a range of services and employs more than 3,500 associates and 600 physicians throughout Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia, including many specialists. Erlanger Health System, the 10th largest public health care system in the United States, operates a number of hospitals and offers the tri-state region’s only Level I trauma center.
Parkridge Health System, a family of five Chattanooga hospitals, offers comprehensive health care including cardiology, robotics, mental health, and award-winning orthopedics services, and Kindred Hospital is a long-term acute care facility in the area. Tennova Healthcare, which encompasses 10 hospitals and more than 115 physician practices, offers a full range of health care services throughout the state. Hamilton Health Care System services the North Georgia region and offers major medical, surgical, and diagnostic services, including the accredited stroke and chest pain centers.
Low Cost of Living
For retirees looking to stretch their dollar so they can live life to the fullest, Tennessee is a great bet. According to Kiplinger, a finance and business forecasting company, the cost of living in Tennessee is approximately 12% less than the national average and the fifth lowest in the country. That calculation takes into account the average cost of housing, utilities, transportation, groceries, health care, and more.
For example, for a retiree moving from Portland, Oregon, to Hamilton County, groceries in their new home will cost 12.3% less, housing will cost 46.8% less, transportation 25.8% less, and health care 10.6% less. For every $100,000 the Portlander would spend on living expenses, a Chattanoogan would only need $74,590.
In other words, Chattanooga-bound retirees will get a lot more bang for their buck.
And because Tennessee’s economy is doing great, it’s unlikely that any of this will change anytime soon. In a 2018 study by Mercatus Center, a think tank, Tennessee’s fiscal condition was ranked third among all 50 states. Chattanooga in particular continues to thrive, with a consistently growing job market and one of the fastest-growing median household incomes in the United States.
No State Income Tax
While Tennessee does have a higher sales tax (9.25%) than many states, there’s no state income tax, no pension tax, and low property taxes. In fact, when it comes to forms of income, Tennessee only taxes dividends and interest on investments, making it a very attractive option financially for retirees.
“The affordability in Tennessee has gotten everyone’s attention,” says Winchester. “Not just the fact that we don’t have a state income tax, but because our property taxes are so low.”
For many retirees moving to Chattanooga, lower property taxes are a big deal. In data gathered during Ideal Living resort and retirement expos, retirees indicated that lower property taxes was their top deciding factor when choosing a place to retire, with lower state income taxes coming in a close second. Tennessee checks both boxes.
“At these shows, we hand out a little comparison map that displays median home prices and property taxes,” says Winchester. “So that might say $175,000 with a property tax of $1,100. And they’ll look at that and say, ‘Oh, $1,100 a month. That’s not bad!’ And when we tell them that’s for the whole year, that really blows their minds.”
A Variety of Housing Options
Whether you’re looking to retire to a downtown loft or a riverside bungalow, a quaint cottage in a quiet neighborhood or a piece of land all your own, Chattanooga has considerable housing options available at reasonable prices.
“We’re very affordable here,” says Bass. “Our median home price now is $214,900, and the median national average is $300,000. So you can come here and get an affordable house. If you want to move to the outskirts of Chattanooga, we still have that land you can purchase to retire on. It’s a great place to settle down and just enjoy life.”
While Lookout Mountain and Signal Mountain are popular retirement destinations for those looking for an elevated living experience, the city proper has a number of popular and distinct areas to fit any taste.
The NorthShore and Riverview neighborhoods, just north of the Tennessee River and Coolidge Park, are home to scenic parks, bridges, and numerous iconic restaurants and shops. Peruse the local art galleries by the river, grab a cone at Clumpies Ice Cream Co., or get fitted with custom running shoes at Fast Break Athletics.
Across the river, the Southside Historic District offers a fun, walkable neighborhood chock-full of murals, coffee shops, bike stores, and breweries. Explore the Songbirds Guitar Museum, sample some fabulous local wares from Neidlov’s Breadworks or Chattanooga Whiskey, or grab a cold beverage at Hi-Fi Clyde’s to get through those hot summer nights.
Venture a few more miles south, and you’ll find the St. Elmo neighborhood nestled at the foot of Lookout Mountain. Lined with quaint old homes, this quiet community is a local gem, boasting truly local tacos, a Taphouse, and the Incline Railway – a trolley that climbs to the top of Lookout Mountain.
Arts & Culture
For a mid-sized city, Chattanooga offers a considerable amount of art and culture for public consumption. The Hunter Museum of American Art, located on a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River, has a fantastic permanent collection along with a constant rotation of temporary exhibitions.
Glimpses of creativity and beauty are scattered throughout the city in the form of sculptures and murals. Many of these were funded through public grants by local foundations or made possible by Public Art Chattanooga, a division of the city government dedicated to supporting public art. Others were spearheaded by local artists and organizations like ArtsBuild and the Glass House Collective, nonprofits that work to revitalize neighborhoods through community-led art.
When the grandkids visit, there’s still plenty to do. See Rock City for stunning views and your garden gnome fix, venture deep into the earth at Ruby Falls, or check out the Chattanooga Choo Choo, a revitalized and repurposed grand train terminal, harkening back to the city’s glory days as a railroad hub.
While the city Outside magazine twice dubbed “Best Town Ever” may attract hordes of young climbers, trail runners, and whitewater paddlers, it’s equally appealing to still-active retirees.
“There are trails of varying levels,” says Gallagher, who recently completed a night hike with local government organization Outdoor Chattanooga. “You can do easier trails or something that’s a lot more difficult.”
For Boomers looking to get outside, there are 54 trailheads for biking, hiking, or running, all within 25 minutes of downtown. The paved Riverwalk winds for 13 miles (and growing!) along the Tennessee River, traveling from Lookout Mountain, past Southside, through downtown, and ultimately to the Chickamauga Dam.
Water activities also abound. Paddleboards can be rented from various vendors along the Tennessee River. Outdoor Chattanooga offers information, activities, and classes on everything from kayaking to mountain biking and night hikes.
Last but not least, Chattanooga’s culinary scene continues to grow and develop every year. Laid-back bars like the Flying Squirrel and The Bitter Alibi offer locally sourced food and quality craft cocktails. OddStory Brewing Company and Hutton and Smith, nearly across the street from one another, sling only the finest craft beer across their countertops.
Several local chefs have been recognized nationally for their achievements. St. John’s Restaurant Executive Chef Rebecca Barron was a Best Chef: Southeast semi-finalist in the 2019 James Beard award competition. Erik Niel, chef and owner of Chattanooga favorites Easy Bistro and Main Street Meats, was himself a semifinalist for the Best Chef: Southeast award back in 2016 and again in 2017, while longtime Chattanooga restaurateur Daniel Lindley was nominated five times over the years.
With classic Southern cooking, fine Italian cuisine, innovative breweries, increasing vegan options, and more, Chattanooga is a foodie’s paradise.
Looking to the Future
From gorgeous trails and award-winning restaurants to a low cost of living and quality health care, Chattanooga is increasingly a destination of choice for retirees. And that’s not about to stop anytime soon.
“This trend is going to continue, because our city is going to continue to grow in terms of quality of life,” says Berke. “All of the reasons that retirees are coming here – the outdoors, culture, walkability – those aspects of our city are being enhanced right now and will continue to make us more attractive.” CS
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