Special Reports

Hilton Head is growing older fast: How it helps, what it costs

Just how fast is Hilton Head growing older?

Hilton Head Island is getting older fast. From 2000 to 2014, the town aged at almost three times the national rate, according to census data released in December.
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Hilton Head Island is getting older fast. From 2000 to 2014, the town aged at almost three times the national rate, according to census data released in December.

About this series: From 2000 to 2014, the Town of Hilton Head Island aged at almost three times the national rate, according to census data released in December. Today about a third of residents are older than 65 — up from 24 percent in 2000. Is this necessarily a bad thing? We take a look at why we should embrace this trend, and why we should worry.

Below part 1 explores the positive aspects of the trend. Read part 2 here which explores the challenges.

It’s true — the influx of people 65 and older have made Hilton Head Island an older community than it has ever been.

But they’ve also made it wealthier, more educated and more socially active.

It is a cause for celebration, say many residents.

“You can’t have Hilton Head without retirees,” said island resident and retiree Lenore Gleason. “We’re the ones that have the time to give back. We get invested.”

Drag graph to the left if it is partially obscured.

The new face of Hilton Head

In a recent week, Lenore Gleason, 69, volunteered at the Coastal Discovery Museum, teaching a class about plankton. She also joined her husband Marty, 70, to coach a Special Olympics tennis team. Then, she made soup to sell at a fundraiser for the womens’ club at her church, St. Francis By the Sea and attended a board meeting for Hilton Head’s children’s museum, The Sandbox.

Plus, she and her husband are involved in the local political scene and contribute to education programs in the Jasper County School District.

People like the Gleasons are the new face of Hilton Head Island.

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Like 28 percent of town residents today, the couple move here from the Northeast. (Just 17 percent of town residents were born in South Carolina.) Years of great family vacations on Hilton Head convinced them to pack up their Barnardsville, NJ home and make the move.

The Gleasons both earned bachelor’s degrees, just like 58 percent of Hilton Head residents over 65. That’s more than double the 22 percent of seniors statewide who have one.

They also have the financial means and time to be engaged in activities that make Hilton Head a better place.

You can’t have Hilton Head without retirees. We’re the ones that have the time to give back. We get invested.

Lenore Gleason, Hilton Head retiree

“I think it’s remarkable how fully engaged retirees here are,” said Hilton Head Mayor David Bennett. “They retire to such a full and busy life here. I added up that thousands of hours have been given just by the volunteers willing to sit on town committees last year. It’s an army of people.”

A survey conducted by the Island Packet of seven local charities found that more than 80 percent of their volunteers are retired, some of whom work close to full-time for free. That includes volunteers at the Deep Well Project, which helps the island’s needy and the Program for Exceptional People, which supports people with special needs.

“I’ve found this is the most rewarding work I have ever done,” said Elizabeth Bain, 62, a retiree from Ontario who volunteers 24 hours each week at the Program for Exceptional People. “You have all these people who retire here when they are still at the top of their game and they still want to use all those skills for something meaningful.”

Bain first decided to volunteer for the program three years ago after hearing about its mission from a local hairdresser. Immediately the work appealed to her as the mother of an autistic son.

She quickly became one of PEP’s most dedicated volunteers, coming up with new programs for the intellectually disabled adults the nonprofit serves. She pushed for the use of iPads and recently created a training class for dealing with the stress of airports, a problem she identified after experiencing her own son’s difficulty traveling.

Beyond the altruism of the island’s seniors like Bain, others argue that new retirees’ status is also reshaping Hilton Head for the better.

Economic benefit

Beaufort County has the highest per capita income of any county in South Carolina at $32,290, in part thanks to wealthy retirees in Hilton Head, census data show. The per capita income on Hilton Head was well above that at $45,116 in 2014.

Unlike other parts of the state, only a little more than half of the county’s wealth comes from actual wages. About 30 percent comes from investments, which is indicative of the retirement income concentrated in the older population on Hilton Head, county reports show.

$45,116Hilton Head per capita income

$24,222South Carolina per capita income

Frank Hefner, a professor of economics at the College of Charleston who has studied the effect of retirement migration in South Carolina, said wealthy retirees are boons for local economies.

“You hear about an older population becoming a strain on the population when they are low-income,” Hefner said. “But when you look at places like Hilton Head you see a whole different kind of retiree. They have money. This is high-end retirement.”

Despite such a large older population, for example, Beaufort County has the lowest rate of poverty for people older than 65 in the state — 6.4 percent, according to state reports.

Seniors on Hilton Head and elsewhere generate economic benefits as well:

▪  Job creation Seniors relocating to an area are estimated to create 1 full-time job for every 2 retirees, according to research from Florida State University. These jobs can contribute to sustainable growth, though they are typically concentrated in the service and amenity sectors, such as personal finance, retail and restaurant jobs, Hefner said.

▪  Economic activity Seniors may be a big reason why Beaufort County’s service jobs have grown in the last 14 years, in addition to Hilton Head’s role as a vacation destination, Hefner speculated. On Hilton Head, the service industry, which includes jobs at restaurants and shops, jumped from 18.5 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2014. Retirees typically are boons for other parts of local economies as well, including the financial, legal, health care, entertainment and travel sectors.

▪  Higher property values, taxes The local property tax base increases when retirees bid up the price of local housing, Hefner said. On Hilton Head, for example, the median value of owner-occupied housing increased from $320,000 to $447,400 from 2000 to 2014 . Even though seniors pay property taxes, they tend to demand fewer local services from police and don’t send kids to local schools, resulting in a net tax increase, Hefner said.

“The vast majority of crimes are committed by younger people,” said Capt. Bob Bromage, of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office. “Seniors are usually law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. They tend to report suspicious activity. They volunteer with law enforcement. Overall, they’re just good for public safety.”

More educated population

In 1970, 70 percent of Beaufort County’s residents had a high school diploma. Today, 92 percent do. Beaufort County residents with a bachelor’s degree rose from 27 percent to 37 percent from 1990 to today. The county now has the second highest percentage of college graduates in the state, after Charleston County.

Again, the change is in part thanks to people older than 65 concentrated in Hilton Head, who are much more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than Beaufort County’s population as a whole. About 58 percent of seniors on the island have a bachelor’s degree compared to 22 percent of seniors statewide.

Without the support of well-educated retirees, local cultural institutions such as the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina and museums would likely struggle, say non-profit leaders.

Unique organizations have also formed in part to serve the intellectual demands of the educated older population on Hilton Head, including the World Affairs Council of Hilton Head, which brings academic and political leaders to speak on the island.

About 75 percent of the council’s more than 1,000 members are older than 70, according to executive director Joan Apple Lemoine.

“I’ve heard this council called ‘intellectual candy,’” Lemoine said. “Our members did not have time when they were working to participate in things like this, so now they get to explore topics they never knew before.”

Lemoine said the council hosts lectures from retired Hilton Head residents speaking about their careers and have heard from former academics, high-ranking military leaders and diplomats who share their expertise.

“It is amazing the talent that we have just from people who retire to Hilton Head,” Lemoine said.

Hilton Head Island seniors Elizabeth Bain, Suzanne Thomas and Lenore Gleason describe their volunteer activities.

Erin Heffernan: 843-706-8142, @IPBG_Erinh

Profile of Hilton Head

Population: 38,497

Median age: 54

Per capita income: $45,116

High school graduates in population over 25: 92 percent

Bachelor’s degree in population over 25: 47 percent

Median owner-occupied housing value: $447,400

Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2014

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