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Study Shows Retirees Migrating to Area

The City of Piedmont recently partnered with University of Missouri Extension to have a demographic study conducted on the area. Results from the retail analysis study were presented Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 18, at a public meeting at city hall.

Two Extension personnel presented data at the meeting. Pat Curry, based in Columbia, is an analyst, planner and entrepreneur with over thirty years of experience supporting economic development using evidence based planning processes. Richard Proeffer, based in Fredericktown, is a business/community economic specialist, works with area communities and businesses. He helps businesses start, stay in  business and be successful He also works with communities to help them plan their economic development future.

“That is what we’re doing here today,” Proeffer said. “We want to help Piedmont grow and address some issues.”

Curry believes there extraordinary opportunity for Piedmont and Wayne County even though economic indicators do not look promising.

“You are different here,” Curry. “You are like a diamond in the rough. You are truly unique and have a lot of opportunities. I hope you feel that way, too.”

Rural Missouri is considered counties that have cities that have populations of less than 10,000. Bollinger County is not considered a rural county even though it is a very rural place; it is part of the Cape Girardeau metropolitan area. Butler County is not considered a rural county due to Poplar Bluff; having Poplar Bluff close is a good thing.

“You have to look at long term population change,” Curry said. “You are like an endangered species if you are in rural Missouri–slow economic growth. Rural areas have lost population.”

Wayne County is unusual because it has a lot of public land. Public land means outdoor recreation to a lot of people.

“You have an asset that most areas do not have,” Curry said. “You have an area where people come to recreate. You are isolated. That is not a bad thing. Going forward that is one of the key things to think of as an asset.”

“Butler County has extraordinary growth,” Curry continued. “Iron and Madison County 

In 1970, population increased for Wayne County. This was something called the Rural Renaissance. There was peak crime in cities. There was large migration from urban to rural. In the 1980s, that growth slowed. In the 1990s, it started to grow. In 2000s, it slowed and then the Great Recession occurred. 

“Between 2010-2017, all rural counties have lost population,” Curry said. “This is not good.  People work and spend money. They are what drive every economy. When that declines, you see declines in all facets of life.”

People are not moving to small towns. They are moving to the countrysides.

Curry said that Wayne County is like a retirement county. As that happens, people are looking for recreation, a small-town connection.

“We need to find a way to repopulate this town,” Curry said. “I believe we have some ideas. It doesn’t happen overnight. You want to make as much of that rural land and opportunity accessible to people as possible. That is indeed why  people are looking at this area–access to Clearwater Lake, access to the national forest. It is being close to a major state park and close to a river. Extraordinary set of assets. Migration is driving the population.”

When the Piedmont Walmart opened in 1987, the city and surrounding area was growing primarily as a result of retiree migration, according to University Extension’s study. Growth continued throughout the 1990s when a robust national economy supported continued gains in people and jobs. During this period Wayne County experienced population growth above the rates for all neighboring counties with much of those gains occurring in the area surrounding Piedmont. During the 2000s, growth slowed dramatically as population increased only 2.0% compared with a 14.9% increase in the 1990s. As the Great Recession took hold of the local and  regional economy in 2008 the growth stalled. Between 2007 and 2018, Madison is the only county in the region that added jobs and Butler and Carter are the only counties that have a larger population than in 2007. 

This region of Missouri has continued to be plagued by high rates of poverty and a low income profile. Wayne County has the highest poverty rate (26.0%) and lowest income profile in the region. An important reason for the low income profile is the increasing proportion of the population that depends on transfer payments for income. By 2016, transfer payments comprised 44% of County income with  retirement and medical benefits making up 90% of transfer payment income. Another contributing  factor is the low average wages paid to workers in the County. In 2018, the average wage of $31,667 was only 48.9% of the national average wage of $64,748. 

The study shows the population increased there were notable changes in households and housing in the 1970 to 2010 period. The proportion of married couple households decreased from 70.5% to 52.7% while single adult families increased to 14.6%, and one person households increased from 20.4% to 27.7%. The largest  proportional increase occurred in households with unrelated persons living together which increased from 0.7% to 5.0%. These changes were consistent across all neighboring counties. Most new home  construction occurred in the 1970s and 1990s. During the 2000s construction slowed to less than one half the rate of the 1990s and since 2010 has practically stopped. 

Wayne County is notable because it has the lowest value housing stock in the region with a median home value of $72,700, the largest proportion of mobile homes (28.2%) and a significant share of housing in seasonal use (16.3%), the study said. 

So much has been said about Walmart leaving Piedmont. The store showed a profit and was a major employer for the community. University Extension’s study said that when Walmart closed its store in 2017, Piedmont was the smallest, and one of the lowest income, store locations in Missouri. In the decade prior to the closing the growth in retail sales of 10.2% was  significantly below that of the nearest communities hosting Walmart stores (Poplar Bluff 18.3% and Fredericktown is 3%). An analysis of 15-minute drive time markets for the three communities reveals  that Piedmont lags both of these markets in every indicator of retail viability including; significantly less sales potential, lower incomes, less buying power, and lower population densities. In the year following the store closure retail sales dropped from $46,645,539 to $38,180,644 a decline of-18.1%.

“When communities lose a major employer, especially one that generates significant tax revenue, it can be disruptive and distressing,” the study reads. “Diminished tax revenues will influence the capacity to provide services to residents, The job losses may contribute to population decline as workers move to find employment. A large empty building can become a liability if it remains vacant a long time. The loss may also be  interpreted by some community residents as a failure of leadership and lead to political rancor.

“The appropriate next step is to develop a plan of action to address the impacts of the loss. To this end there are several actions the City should consider implementing to recover from the Walmart closing.”

Wayne County has more deaths than births. If Wayne County did not have people moving here, the population would be in a free fall. 

“People are moving here,” Curry said. “Every year, you have to attract about 100 people to make up the difference (from deaths). Who are they? Where are they coming from? Why are they coming here? These are questions we need to understand. You need to figure out how to continue to spur the  migration here. One of the reasons they are coming here is Clearwater Lake. You have a low cost of living. Purchasing a house here is cheap compared to other places. You have a migration stream almost as large as Butler County. You are attracting nearly as many retirees as Poplar Bluff. You are attracting more 65-69 retirees than any adjoining counties.”

The median age of Wayne County has risen to 46.8 years in 2016. Wayne County now ranks 12 among the 115 counties in Missouri, with Reynolds, as the oldest in the region.

It is often said that children leave the area when they graduate high school and never return. Curry said that is not true. He said that when looking at data, there is a large migration back to the area when they reach 30-35.

“Where are these retirees coming from?” Curry asked. He grabbed data from the IRS. From this data, he could see where the retirees were coming from. Many were coming from out of state.”

Bill Turner, administrator of the Clark’s Mountain Nursing Center, said he is concerned about what the numbers for 2017 and 2018 due to the closing of Walmart.

“Those numbers will look much different,” Turner said. 

Curry said that he does not believe the numbers will change. People are coming here to retire. Curry said that Wayne County is aging pretty rapidly.

The numbers of young adults and children have declined in recent years.

That vacant Walmart building has been a source of conversation among city leaders. Finding a tenant has been the top priority for some time. The study looked at the challenges.

Seeking a new tenant for the Walmart building is going to be a difficult challenge in the current retail environment, according to University Extension. The 33,000-square-foot building is currently for sale at $1.2 million. The large footprint is a problem in a rural community like Piedmont with limited market potential.

Shopko, one of the few department store developers in rural America that has stores of this size, is entering bankruptcy. Rural King, another potential developer, has a store in Farmington. Orscheln has increasingly avoided small towns in favor of larger retail centers and already has a store in Poplar Bluff. Buchheit is based in Perryville but has not been developing new properties. Big R is another opportunity but they also do not have any stores in Missouri, according to the University Extension study.

“One of the outcomes of this analysis is a detailed profile of the Piedmont market that can be used as a prospectus to respond to requests or proactively to market the community,” the study reads. “Next steps should include packaging the market profile and working with the building owner to create a marketing strategy.”

The study recommends that the city implement a business retention and expansion program. Piedmont has a day-time population over twice the size of the city population. This is the result of the large number of service businesses, health care providers, schools, and manufacturers. These businesses attract consumers and workers from outside the city. Retention of these businesses is critical to maintaining the current retail sales base. Business retention and expansion programs address this need by opening up lines of communication between the city and business owners to provide support when businesses are facing challenges or have opportunities to expand. University of Missouri Extension could help establish a program in Piedmont, according to the study.

The study recommends that the community find ways to support the existing retail businesses. “The city should engage with the Piedmont Area Chamber of Commerce to identify retail development strategies focused on small retail and service businesses,” the study reads. “A next step should include a survey of businesses to assess their needs and to give them a voice in plotting a course forward.”

The study recommends that the community implement a succession of ownership program. As small retail business owners age and approach retirement one of the challenges they often face is what to do with their business. Succession of ownership programs address this need by helping to connect business owners with potential buyers. The objective is to avoid a business closure.

The study also recommends that the city increase the impact from visitors and tourists. In 2017, Clearwater Lake attracted an estimated 384,623 visitors and nearby Sam A Baker State Park had 1,022,467 visits. These attractions create an opportunity for Piedmont to expand retail trade since the city has the retail infrastructure to capture value from tourists. The impact of visitors is already noticeable in the quarterly sales tabulations as peak sales typically occur in the second and third quarters when demand for outdoor recreation peaks. The City could work with the  Clearwater Lake Association to identify potential opportunities.

University Extension also recommends that the city promote population growth. In 2017, there 400 fewer people living in Piedmont than in 1980. The retail sector of the economy needs consumers and this is a troubling trend. “The city in collaboration with the Chamber should engage in a planning process to think about what is driving this trend and forge strategies for making Piedmont an attractive place to live,” the study reads.

The retail sector of the economy is in turmoil. At the national level once dominant chains like Sears, Bon-Ton, Toys R Us, and RadioShack are in bankruptcy while Amazon experiences double digit growth. The  impacts of the shakeup are reaching deep into rural America at a time when many small towns are still recovering from the Great Recession. 

Piedmont is emblematic of the tumultuous retail environment as it tries to cope with the loss of a Walmart store in 2017. As a response to the store closing Piedmont  officials asked University of Missouri Extension to conduct an analysis of the retail sector of the local economy. 

To understand the retail sector of the Piedmont economy it is useful to examine broader economic and demographic trends in the surrounding region. This is particularly true for Piedmont because of labor  force dynamics. Current estimates indicate that one-half of all jobs in the Piedmont market are held by workers from outside of Wayne County and one half of workers living in the Piedmont market work outside of Wayne County. The fate of Piedmont is closely tied to the health of the regional economy. This analysis will focus on county level indicators in Wayne and surrounding counties except Stoddard because there is little interaction between the economies of Wayne and Stoddard counties.

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