• Population shift fueled by retirees
• County population crowds 300,000
If you happen to be living in Asheville two decades from now, you’ll probably notice that your neighbors are sort of old.
Baby boomers—the biggest and wealthiest generation in American history—are starting to retire en masse, and a lot of them are cashing in their equity and relocating to places like Asheville in search of higher quality of life. But together with the inevitable aging of the local population (Ponce de Leon was wrong), it means the area needs to plan for a grayer future. According to state demographic statistics, by 2027 slightly more than a quarter of Buncombe County’s population will be 60 and older (up from roughly one-fifth today). Another quarter of the local population is expected to fall between the ages of 35 and 54 by then—just old enough to feel the first arthritic twinges after years of playing Xbox and Wii.
At the same time, the area’s youngest demographic group—people under age 17—is projected to decline slightly. “This shift in age groups is worthy of attention,” notes Joe Connolly, director of the Land-of-Sky Regional Council’s Area Agency on Aging. “By 2030, the older-than-60 group will be bigger than the 17-and-under. We’re going to have to accommodate that shift. For example, as we build more schools, we should also be making sure that they can be used as community centers with programs for seniors.”
In 2027, the median age in Buncombe County will be 42 (up from 40 today). But they’ll be spring chickens compared to the folks in nearby Transylvania County, which is projected to have a median age of 52.
“This is where a great deal of the world is going,” says Ron Manheimer, director of the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement, based at UNCA and now celebrating its 20th year. “We’re going to see dramatic redefinitions of what it means to be both middle-aged and elderly. People will be working later into their 60s, and very often into their 70s, creating a multigenerational workplace.”
At present, the largest group moving into the Asheville metro area is 20- to 30-year-olds. But a lot of them don’t stick around.
“They’re also the most transient group here,” notes Connolly. “They’re coming, looking at the area and moving on. The people who are actually putting down roots here are 50 and older.”
Still, absent the arrival of plague or a nuclear war, Asheville and Buncombe County will probably continue to see moderate population growth well into the future. The state demography unit projects increases of about 11 percent per decade over the next 20 years, with growth slowing somewhat toward the end of that span. (At present, Asheville’s population is growing by about 1.6 percent annually, according to the Chamber of Commerce’s Asheville Metro Business Research Center.) Not surprisingly, the vast majority of that growth is expected to come from new arrivals, as opposed to local births, according to the research center.
And despite many residents’ impression that Asheville is a vortex into which much of the nation is falling, statistics don’t bear this out. Between 2000 and 2005, several of North Carolina’s coastal communities, especially in Brunswick and New Hanover counties, grew by more than 200 percent. Closer to home, Maggie Valley showed an impressive 86 percent population-growth rate during that time, but Asheville didn’t come close to making the state’s list of 85 burgeoning municipalities.
Still, if the state’s projections prove correct, Buncombe County’s population in 2027 will be 282,587, compared to an estimated 221,000 today. That’s roughly akin to adding another Asheville to the county over the next two decades.
“It raises questions of ‘how do we absorb these people and make them a part of our community,’” says Manheimer of the Center for Creative Retirement. “There’s a real potential for these people to contribute—to add to civic life, to open new businesses and to grow the corps of volunteers here. But we’ve got to reach out.”