Saturday, August 11, 2012

For retirees, Pittsburgh has a lot to love - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Eileen Albrecht likes it when she hears the trains whistling around the hills of Beaver County -- it reminds her of growing up in New Brighton with a father who worked for the railroad.

The 59-year-old is happy to be back, having returned to the Pittsburgh area last year and bringing her husband, Don, with her after they spent 15 years in Clarksburg, W.Va. They retired from staff positions at a large FBI office there, and they had lived about as long before that as a married couple without children in the Washington, D.C., area.

Now able to earn government pensions, they could have retired in Clarksburg, returned to Washington to be around friends, moved near Don's brother's retirement village in Delaware or gone anywhere. Instead, they chose a built-to-their-specifications home in the Traditions of America Liberty Hills development along the border of New Sewickley and Economy.

"We thought about Delaware, but the more I thought about it, that's so far from anything I knew," Mrs. Albrecht said. "This was always home base."

PG graphic: Best places to retire
(Click image for larger version)

As they showed off their quiet community geared to people in their 50s and older -- with its grand clubhouse, swimming pool, tennis court and putting green -- the Albrechts cited a slew of things they've long loved about southwestern Pennsylvania: sports teams, cultural opportunities, health care access, affordability and minimal traffic.

Not so coincidentally, a number of those aspects are what keep putting Pittsburgh on lists of places recommended for people to enjoy retirement.

Last October it was the U.S. News and World Report list of "10 Best Places to Retire in 2012" that placed Pittsburgh alongside dreamy desert and mountain landscapes such as Santa Fe, N.M., and Boone, N.C.

Before that was Money magazine's "Best Places to Retire 2011," where Pittsburgh was also the biggest metropolitan area singled out for inclusion, joining Albuquerque, N.M., Tucson, Ariz., and other fair-weather places that sound more traditionally appealing to older generations.

The website recommends 100 destinations, in descending order, for retirees to settle. While Pittsburgh is only 66th, that's a little misleading: There is no other comparable Northeastern or Midwestern major city ranked higher. The next closest is Chicago, at 74th.

It seems that just as general-interest publications have been charmed for years now by Pittsburgh, which always seems to score high in their rankings, it's no different when the focus is on those who have already raised their families and are either retired or winding down their careers.

In its recent top 10 ranking, U.S. News praised the area for the "best mix of affordability and amenities."

"Pittsburgh has a low cost of living coupled with a wide variety of amenities that retirees will need as they age," the magazine said. On top of moderate housing prices, proximity to a major university, free mass transit and "top-notch" hospitals, it continued, "You'll just have to decide whether you want season tickets to the ballet, symphony or Steelers games, assuming all three won't fit into your budget."

U.S. News associate editor Emily Brandon, just 29 herself, compiled the list with staff colleagues after examining research data about numerous places.

Asked why Pittsburgh could fit on a list that in general contained much smaller population areas as retirement destinations, she said, "Most big cities are very expensive. If you live in New York or D.C. or San Francisco, the housing prices are going to be unaffordable for retirees from outside the area. ... Pittsburgh's got all the amenities of these big cities where housing is much more expensive."

Most retirees, actually, are interested in staying where they've spent their adult lives and are more likely to be surrounded by the relatives, friends and social networks with whom they're comfortable. But that doesn't necessarily mean they want to remain in the very same home they've been in as they age, particularly older Pittsburgh homes with lots of upkeep and steps.

Nathan Jameson, Traditions of America's director of operations, said the company has focused in recent years on development at five Pennsylvania locations of modern, convenient, low-maintenance housing for people 55 and older. The Beaver County site a few miles west of Cranberry is the only one in the Pittsburgh area so far, and it has been a better seller than the four other locations scattered across Central and Eastern Pennsylvania, Mr. Jameson said.

As an example of the local area's affordability, he explained, the company's most popular home style -- the two-bedroom, two-bath Washington with its island kitchen -- costs $50,000 less at Liberty Hills, $269,900, than it does across the state in Bethlehem.

Aside from cost advantages and abundant amenities offered in the Pittsburgh area as draws, Mr. Jameson said, "The third thing that I find consistent among people that have moved into our community from outside the area is they've been in Pittsburgh before. They started their career in Pittsburgh, or went to college there or had a career stint there. Then they moved all around the country and always told themselves, 'You know what, when we retire we're moving back to Pittsburgh.' "

When Forbes identified Pittsburgh among "The Best Retirement Places" in March 2011, it listed the following "pros" of living here as an active, older adult: "affordable place to live, tax breaks for retirees, many doctors, good sports town."

The following were the cons: "lousy winters, crime."

Pittsburgh is not really a high-crime city among its metropolitan peers, but it might merit that status when compared to the many small cities and towns with which it often shares such lists. The recent U.S. News list, for example, included Traverse City, Mich., Ithaca, N.Y., and other modest-sized communities dwarfed in size by Pittsburgh.

There's not much solution for the "lousy winters" except that some, like the most recent one, aren't actually so bad, and retirement-oriented housing developments such as Traditions of America provide everyone a garage and handle snow shoveling and other chores in return for a maintenance fee.

But whatever the weather, the fact is that most of today's retirees or near-retirees -- more active and in better health than predecessors -- want to enjoy all of the things they did when younger and take advantage of their more abundant leisure time to do so.

So while college towns like Ithaca and Lincoln, Neb., made the U.S. News list, so did Pittsburgh with its rich mix of universities that older adults can benefit from almost as much as their children and grandchildren.

At Carnegie Mellon University, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute has 2,064 members -- average age of around 72 -- who take advantage of low-cost, noncredit classes offered to older people with free time during the day. It's so popular that about 900 more people are on a waiting list. At the University of Pittsburgh, a similar Osher institute has nearly 1,000 members of its own taking history, music, cooking and other courses.

"It opens up another world and decreases the isolation that senior citizens sometimes feel, with their family all scattered," said Millie Lynch, senior administrative coordinator for the Osher program at CMU.

The Albrechts, up in Beaver County, haven't taken advantage of such educational opportunities so far. But they like being able to get to Pirates games in a half-hour or so, and knowing that they don't have to drive hours if they need a skilled medical procedure.

And though Mr. Albrecht doesn't have local family, Mrs. Albrecht has a brother and sister living in Beaver County whom they can see now whenever they want. That's the kind of thing that doesn't necessarily show up in a magazine's retirement rankings, but as she happily noted, "I just feel like I'm home now."

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