WASHINGTON — Living in a rural Nevada town, Moe Royels recalls a more bustling time when retirees poured in to enjoy the warm desert climate, nearby casinos and quiet community. But soon boom turned to bust, and years after the recession ended, Royels still wonders if things will ever fully turn around in small towns like his.
Across the U.S., rural counties are losing population for the first time ever because of waning interest among baby boomers in moving to far-flung locations for retirement and recreation, according to new census estimates released Thursday.
Long weighed down by dwindling populations in farming and coal communities and the movement of young people to cities, rural America is now being hit by sputtering growth in retirement and recreation areas, once residential hot spots for baby boomers.
The census estimates, as of July 2012, show that would-be retirees are opting to stay put in urban areas near jobs.
Recent weakness in the economy means some boomers have less savings than a decade ago to buy a vacation home in the countryside, which often becomes a full-time residence after retirement. Cities are also boosting urban living, a potential draw for boomers who may prefer to age closer to accessible health care.
For instance, in Royels’ Lyon County, Nev., about 30 miles east of Reno, small towns prospered during the housing boom. Spillover residents from California’s expensive Bay Area flocked to the area, drawn to the affordable housing, temperate weather and lack of a state income tax.
But after the housing bubble burst, the retirees stopped coming. On Main Street in the town of Fernley, the Wigwam, one of the town’s oldest restaurants, now does half the business it used to, according to Royels, who opened the diner in 1961 and sold it five years ago.
“People moved out of town,” Royels said from his seat at the restaurant, where he returns every afternoon for a cup of coffee. “Some of these subdivisions are still sitting vacant, with the curb and the gutter in but nothing else.”
It’s not just happening in his county. Analysts say the rural decline spreads far and wide, and could be long-term.
“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,” said John Cromartie, a geographer at the Agriculture Department who analyzed the data.
About 46.2 million people, or 15 percent of the U.S. population, reside in rural counties, which spread across 72 percent of the nation’s land area. From 2011 to 2012, those non-metro areas lost more than 40,000 people, a 0.1 percent drop. The Census Bureau reported a minuscule 0.01 percent loss from 2010 to 2011, but that was not considered statistically significant and could be adjusted later.
Rural areas, which include manufacturing and farming as well as scenic retirement spots, have seen substantial movement of residents to urban areas before. But the changes are now coinciding with sharp declines in U.S. birth rates and an aging population, resulting in a first-ever annual loss.
U.S. migration data show that older Americans are most inclined to live in rural counties until about age 74, before moving closer to more populated locations.