Lake Ella is a short drive from Glenn and Loujean Nelson’s home in Tallahassee, Fla., where they moved after winning a contest run by a project called Choose Tallahassee.
In Florida, one city is not waiting for retirees to show up but is recruiting them to resettle there.
While older people flock to the state each year, relatively few head to Tallahassee, a tree-lined city in the Panhandle where lawmakers hold forth in the Capitol and streets spill over with students who attend the area’s major universities.
Tallahassee, which is not growing as fast as the rest of the state, is looking to attract new residents, including small-business owners who can generate jobs. A key part of the city’s efforts is expanding its population of retirees, and it has adopted some unusual tactics — including subsidizing a few people to move there.
A community project is working to recruit baby boomers who are hitting retirement age and looking to move someplace warmer and more affordable but who may not have thought of Tallahassee as an alternative to destinations like Sarasota, Boca Raton or even Panama City, which is also on the Panhandle.
“People have images of palm trees when they think of Florida,” said Michelle Bono, the chairwoman and an early volunteer in the campaign, called Choose Tallahassee. “Tallahassee is a little different. We have hills and lots of oak trees and a few palm trees.”
Tallahassee’s economy is fueled by state government as well as Florida State University, Florida A & M and a large community college. Some 66,000 students attend those institutions, but most are passing through.
Florida State University is a local hub for cultural and sporting events.
About 191,000 people live in the city, whose downtown has popular pockets of restaurants as well as a large green space, Cascades Park. Like many college towns, Tallahassee draws a variety of speakers — Florida State University had Patti LuPone, the Broadway star, in March — and holds music events that would not always be available in a midsize city.
To better compete for baby boomers — and improve its chances against other college communities like Athens, Ga., or Tuscaloosa, Ala. — Choose Tallahassee ramped up last fall and expanded from an all-volunteer organization to one with a paid staff. It hired a part-time executive director. The group now has a budget of $150,000, three times its old budget, which comes from the city and county governments as well as banks, real estate firms and other companies.
It rolled out a social media campaign in early May to promote some of the city’s offerings, including the Tallahassee Senior Center, where $5 and $7 classes include American folk music, Florida geology and excursions to a wildlife refuge center.
Using paid targeting, dedicated landing pages and the tagline “Things Aren’t the Same Since You Left,” the ads are aimed at boomers who grew up in Tallahassee, went to college there or once worked there, said Gregg Patterson, Choose Tallahassee’s executive director.
Some ads will target “anchors,” who are Tallahassee residents with parents living elsewhere, to “showcase the advantages of having your parents live there, such as free babysitting,” said Amanda Handley of the public relations agency BowStern, which oversees the campaign.
Parents who live elsewhere see only a message about the potential benefits typically provided by adult children, like free tech support and manual labor, she said. Each audience, anchor or boomer, will see only messages designed to appeal to it.
“No one really wants to relocate to babysit,” Ms. Handley said. “So the grandparents don’t see that part of the message.”
Choose Tallahassee came up with the idea to pinpoint exactly who was interested in moving there. The campaign started trying to make Tallahassee better known nationally with a contest on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets several years ago that offered a year’s free housing and other perks to the winners. Glenn and Loujean Nelson of Chicago won in 2016. The couple, both retired teachers, had been set to move back to their hometown in Alabama when they heard about the contest.
“We made a list of what we wanted in a retirement area, and Tallahassee had everything plus more, including college sports, which I love, along with plays and musicals and lifelong learning for people over 50,” Mrs. Nelson said. In the semifinals, the couple submitted a brief video about why they wanted to move to Tallahassee, and later had a Skype interview with volunteer judges, who selected the winners.
The four couples who were finalists received a free weeklong visit to Tallahassee, which included tickets to a Florida State football game. The Nelsons — she is 70, and he is 71 — received the housing money and other perks, like tickets to musical and other events. They applied $24,000 of their prize money to the down payment on a single-family home with a yard where they can entertain their eight grandchildren during visits, and moved in last year.
Retirees in Florida add to the economy in varied ways. They contribute less in sales taxes than the average Florida adults, but they own more valuable homes and pay more property tax, according to a University of Florida study. (Florida has no income tax, a draw for retired people.) And, while older residents rely on more health and hospital services, that is offset by their use of fewer services like public education, prisons or even roads because they usually travel at off-peak times, the study found.
Tallahassee, though, is not at the top of most retirement destination rankings despite its affordable homes and two major hospitals, Capital Regional Medical Center and Tallahassee Memorial, which is part of a nonprofit community health care system that operates in 16 counties.
And the city has begun to fix what some see as a serious drawback — a relatively sparse stock of retirement complexes that are common in established retirement locales. About 10 communities catering to those 50 and over who want amenities like swimming pools and golf courses are underway or planned in the area. One is operated by Brookdale Senior Living, which runs hundreds of communities around the country.
After two contests that attracted retirees, Choose Tallahassee is skipping a third, at least for now, and instead focusing on helping residents persuade out-of-state relatives, friends and acquaintances to move to the city.
One reason is that campaign organizers want to learn what attracts people to Tallahassee and improve outreach.
“One of our earlier efforts was looking at the number of new driver’s license applications from out-of-state residents who were 60 and over,” Ms. Bono said. “We expected small numbers — it was up about one-third over the five years ending in 2016 — but we wanted a more precise way to track who the campaign is reaching.”
Cathy and Bill Campbell moved to the area from New Hampshire in 2015, a year after they won the first Choose Tallahassee contest. Their advice to the city: Attract more multigenerational families.
“Our daughter and grandson moved here, too, and our daughter set up a business,” said Cathy Campbell, 69, a retired graphic designer, whose husband was a meteorologist.
“Maybe it’s because it’s a capital city, people don’t realize that it’s a quiet place that is family friendly,” she said. “More and more people our age who are thinking about relocating end up moving closer to their kids.”