A senior citizen in its natural habitat – Qualicum Beach. (Black Press Media files)

Painful Truth: Boom and bust for towns welcoming B.C. seniors

What happens to B.C.’s retirement towns when there aren’t any more retirees?

The silver rush is on in B.C., but just as with the gold rush and every other resource boom of the past century, it will leave ghost towns in its wake.

I’m not speaking of silver ore. I mean silver hair, on the heads of seniors, a natural resource that is fueling the economies of a number of B.C. towns.

Let’s consider Qualicum Beach, for example.

According to the 2016 Canadian Census, there were 8,943 people living in that pleasant little coastal town on Vancouver Island.

Most of them were retired, or close to it. The average age in Qualicum Beach was 60.1 years, and the media age was a staggering 65.9.

That’s compared to a B.C. average age of 42.3, and a median age of 43.

Qualicum is the extreme outlier, but you can find similar numbers anywhere dubbed a “retirement destination.”

Nearby Parksville? Average age 55.8. Peachland is 55.8 and Osoyoos is 54.8.

Most of us who grew up in the Lower Mainland, we Generation Xers and Millennials (remember, the older Millennials are now in their mid- to late-30s) have parents or grandparents, uncles and aunts and family friends who have decamped to one of these spots.

And why not?

They worked for 30 or 40 years, they saw the values of their suburban homes rocket skyward, and they sold up and retired to somewhere quieter, with a newer house and a view of a lake or the ocean.

The Boomers will be fine.

The question is, what happens to those towns in 20 to 30 years?

Right now, the tax base of Qualicum Beach or Osoyoos or Peachland is solid as a rock. The oldest members of the Baby Boom generation are only in their mid-70s at most. Many of them are still only beginning to consider retirement. They’ll be heading for retirement destinations for years to come, increasing the population there, generating new construction, patronizing shops and restaurants.

And then, in about 20 years, the stream will run dry.

There are fewer Generation Xers than there are Baby Boomers, after all. We also have less money, having been born under generally less fortunate circumstances, and fewer will be able to sell up and move. (Frankly, many of us are worried we’re simply going to work until we die.)

The Boomers will be heading into care by then, or into the great beyond.

What happens to the towns?

The worst case scenario is they are hollowed out, just as so many resource-based B.C. towns have been when the mill or the mine shuts down.

With fewer and fewer new residents, construction halts. The price of homes begins to drop, and with some left empty, property tax revenues begin to shrink, putting local services at risk of cuts. That can be the start of a death spiral for a small town.

It doesn’t have to be that way, but it will mean these towns need to find another source of residents or visitors, whether it’s seasonal family visitors or overseas tourism. Or perhaps, some other form of industry that can replace the seniors with a more stable mix of age ranges (and prompt a need for new schools).

But the worst case scenario is likely to hit at least a few of these towns hard.

Silver, it turns out, is a non-renewable resource.

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