"What baby boomers will do will be key to rural migration and growth," said Jason Henderson, a former vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City who is now associate dean of the Purdue University College of Agriculture. "Right now, we're just at the forefront of baby boomers entering retirement age, but many have been delaying retirement." Some will decide the time for moving back to the country has passed, he said.
Henderson expects a bit of a rebound for scenic retirement destinations as the economy improves, but nowhere close to the levels seen before the recession.
John Cromartie, a geographer at the Agriculture Department, calls the rural decline a potential turning point. "This period may simply be an interruption in suburbanization, or it could turn out to be the end of a major demographic regime that has transformed small towns and rural areas."
The scenic retirement destinations experiencing lower growth stretch wide, from the Upper Great Lakes and Appalachia in the eastern U.S. to the Sun Belt, the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks and the Intermountain West. Boomer migration to many of these areas had typically yielded greater economic activity, including construction, landscaping and service-sector jobs that brought in workers of all age groups.
Signs of the recent bust are evident in places such as Fernley, Nev., a rural community in Lyon County, about 30 miles east of Reno. During the housing boom, Fernley prospered due to spillover residents from California's expensive Bay Area who were drawn to Fernley's affordable housing, temperate weather and lack of a state income tax.
By 2007, however, Fernley's growth began to wane amid recession and rising gasoline costs. Since then, Lyon County has posted one of the nation's worst population turnabouts: from 6.9 percent annual growth from 2000 to 2007, to a 0.7 percent annual loss between 2007 and 2012. The county now has a population of 51,000.