Nerd Wallet, a personal finance website, pumps out lists of Top 10 places and “Best Cities” the way Spars makes sausage – endlessly. Compiling the lists is an easy way to get a little publicity for its website in the places on its lists – and sooner or later, every place gets on one of them.
So, when Nerd Wallet’s “Best Places for Baby Boomers” came out, we took it with a grain of salt that No. 3 was “Buffalo-Niagara Falls, N.Y.” Especially considering the criteria used: It gives the area props for our public transportation coverage (78 percent – if you have the time), and its cost-of-living index puts median home prices here at a whopping, and not totally accurate, $337,059. As one friend remarked, “Well, maybe if you own two homes.”
But, data irregularities aside, the Nerds got us thinking about other, unrated and possibly unmeasurable qualities of life in Western New York that are keeping older people here and bringing many back, including baby boomers. That would include the area’s famed “20 minutes to anywhere” rule and, for those moving from either coast, the economics of “buy twice the home at half the price.”
And no one says it better than those who are, as they say, living the dream.
“We could move a lot of places, but we won’t,” said Art Zucker of East Aurora, who retired 13 years ago from General Motors’ engine plant. “Why would I move? Financially, it might be better, but money is secondary at this point.”
Zucker and his wife, Rhoda, go to Florida for a few weeks each year, “to break up the winter,” he says – and have traveled around the country and Canada, often using their camper.
“Nothing against them, they’re nice places, but they are transient,” he said of communities in the South and West that he has visited. “You don’t get the sense of groundedness. They’re nice people, but everybody’s from somewhere else.”
Here, he said, he still sees former co-workers regularly for lunch, takes his Corvette to car shows and makes the occasional trip to Toronto. He and his wife are both active volunteers and consider East Aurora a near-perfect place to be retired.
“Nobody had to talk me into staying here,” Zucker said. He said his wife grew up here, “and my wife loves it here, too.”
He also has a measure of pity for friends who retired to Phoenix.
“They can’t go out of their house after 10 o’clock in the morning” because of the heat, Zucker said. “I’d rather put on a coat and hat in the winter than worry about dying of heat stroke.”
Many “Best Places” lists include a weather variable, often using “sunshine days” or average temperatures, the higher the better, to determine the desirability of the climate. Our snow and winter clouds weigh heavily against us, while the raging wildfires, suffocating humidity, drought and earthquakes elsewhere are barely factored in for those places.
However, the local lake-modulated climate is appreciated by many who live here, including retirees who have no interest in answering the call of the Sun Belt. That includes Charles and Gerry Kempton from Cheektowaga, who brought their lawn chairs to the edge of Lake Erie last week to enjoy the light breeze and the view.
“No tornadoes, no hurricanes, no floods. It’s a nice place to be,” said Charles Kempton, explaining why the couple opted to stay in Western New York when they retired. The waterfront is among their favorite amenities.
There also is a general sense among residents – and numbers back this up – that the Buffalo area has an exceptional level of cultural attractions for its size. The Nerd Wallet rightly included the world-class Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Burchfield Penney Art Center as attractions for the 50-to-70 set (which is 25 percent of the population), but nothing else.
For next time, Nerd Wallet, let us also suggest the Sportsmen’s Tavern, Allen Street Hardware and the Colored Musicians Club, among many other venues that appeal to mature and dedicated music lovers.
And there’s our classical music profile. That starts with Kleinhans Music Hall and the Buffalo Philharmonic, and it continues on to a small opera company and other chamber groups that are easy to get to and easy to pay for – if any ticket is needed at all.
Boomers with discretionary bucks are also fans of Buffalo’s genuine theater district, where “The Book of Mormon” recently played to eight sold-out houses at Shea’s Performing Arts Center – and where the most expensive seats were still under $100 – which is the lower end for New York’s Broadway, when you can get tickets.
This space could be filled with a long rehash of regional assets – museums; parks; golf courses; great architecture and old homes; up-and-coming, locally sourced restaurants; and, naturally, Niagara Falls – and that would be fine. Yet, it would still miss what appeals to Buffalo’s boomers most.
Last month, an article in Time magazine made an argument in favor of ignoring “best places to retire” lists altogether. As writer Martha C. White put it, the lists miss the point: “They don’t tell you much about what your life would be like if you lived there. ... Plus, a lot of what’s desirable is completely subjective.”
For Carrie Smith, volunteer coordinator at the Retired Senior Volunteer Program of Erie County, it is the retirees themselves – 90 of them in her programs alone – who belong on the list of our best assets.
“It’s not only helping the community grow and become stronger,” Smith said. “The volunteers also reap benefits – they are staying active and engaged, they are involved and getting positive feedback, and some really great friendships have begun here.”
One such volunteer, William N. Kieser, retired from the New York State Thruway in 1999.
“I’m a docent” at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park, said Kieser, who lives in the Town of Tonawanda. “I’m down there at least once a week in the summer. On Mondays, I volunteer at the Buffalo Veterans Administration Hospital – I’m a Vietnam-era veteran myself. I also do Meals on Wheels for about a dozen clients once a week with my wife – I drive, she delivers.”
His wife, Dawn, is a retired schoolteacher and also joins her husband doing single-day, or single-event volunteer jobs through the volunteer program.
Kieser said there was a time when they considered moving to Florida, after visiting friends who had retired to the Gulf Coast. Thinking they might want to make a permanent move, they took a three-month rental one year.
“And we cut it short,” Kieser said. “We both missed Buffalo too much.”
Instead, they embraced this place. He plays horseshoes in Amherst on Wednesday nights and was planning a Frisbee golf game with his brother in Ellicott Creek Park when interviewed for this story.
“I never rode the Maid of the Mist until after I retired – and I’m sorry I didn’t do it sooner,” said Kieser, adding that visits to the falls can be free for seniors. In New York State, if you’re 62 or older, you can use almost any state park for free Monday through Friday. “You can’t beat that.”
“Best Places to Retire” lists can give points for low income taxes or for great public services; some count the number of doctors, and others value the number of nursing home beds; some recreational publications track mountain bike trails and whitewater rapids, while others prefer golf courses and yacht clubs. Nerd Wallet gave high points to having lots of neighbors in the boomer demographic (Buffalo ranked high); other lists try to plunk people down into college towns, with a smaller general population supplemented by younger students.
“They were promoting the fact that you could still have a ‘life of the mind’ there,” said Edward J. Healy, marketing executive at Visit Buffalo Niagara.
In Buffalo, retirees can attend events and audit classes at the University at Buffalo, SUNY Buffalo State (an asset mentioned by Nerd Wallet), Canisius College and 10 other private or community colleges. Erie County also has a library system that, even in its downsized form, is more extensive than many in newer cities.
Other “Best Places to Retire” lists are for people who like wine, history or architecture, or are geared toward cheap housing, low food prices or access to shopping outlets. Some get points for air quality or proximity to a major airport, and for bike trails, walking paths and gardens.
Buffalo doesn’t show up on any of these lists, and, despite the area’s acknowledged problems of poverty and what we like to call January and February, it is not unreasonable to wonder, why not?
Healy said, “It has a lot to do with what we’ve been calling the ‘who knew?’ effect,” seen in people visiting Buffalo for the first time and being exposed to the walkable neighborhoods, wine trails, waterfront and classic architecture, and quite a few friendly people.
Well, some people knew, and that’s why they are sticking around.
As Art Zucker jokingly put it, “At this age, there’s not a helluva lot of time left. You might as well enjoy it.”