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A New Wave in Maine

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., R.S., LEED AP, Criterium Engineers
Have you seen the wave? No, not the new fashion from the west coast or the latest music style. I am referring to the much-heralded wave of “baby boomers” approaching retirement age with their oversized empty-nest houses trying to downsize and shed their multi-task lifestyles. This pending tidal wave of retiring boomers has been fascinating actuaries, economists, and housing planners for years.
It seems lately I have been seeing a higher percentage of senior (over 55) or retirement communities seeking reserve fund studies or other engineering services, resulting in my taking more of an interest in this sector of Maine’s residential housing market. Of course I am not the only one.
Recently I attended a seminar titled “The Greying of Maine: Real Estate Needs for an Aging Population” at the Abromson Center in Portland sponsored by the Maine Real Estate and Development Association (MEREDA). What attracted me to this presentation was the panel of experts assembled. It was not just a gathering of academics or social science professionals but rather it was made up of Maine’s most successful condominium, retirement community, and assisted living facility developers.
This meant that the audience would likely consist of principals and decision-makers of Maine’s real estate industry including developers, property managers, lawyers, architects, engineers, bankers, and other leaders in housing our future population. I expected the meeting to not only be informative but also to have a lively question and answer session. I was not disappointed, and I wanted to share with you some of the issues discussed.
One of the speakers was John Wasileski, who is one of Maine’s most noted developers of both affordable and high-end condominium complexes including retirement communities and assisted living facilities. His most recent accomplishment is the Highland Green project that will have nearly 400 units in Maine’s first active-seniors condominium community with a golf course and 230-acre nature preserve.
Mr. Wasileski spoke about the evolving needs of Maine condominium unit owners over the years that he has been building and managing these facilities. He also discussed the changing market conditions and the attractiveness of Maine as a retirement destination. Though Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina are still sought-after locations by folks planning on retiring, these states are losing their cultural luster as they have become over-built and far too busy.
Boomers remember their idyllic summers on Maine’s seacoast or on wooded trails near pristine lakes and ponds. They are coming back. Recent statistics suggest that the current populations in Maine’s major retirement communities are made up of 50% out-of-state retirees and 50% of people who have lived less than 30 years in Maine.
But today’s aging boomers are not their parents’ retirees. Boomers have always been demanding and will not change in their golden years. They want their healthy and active lifestyle to continue. They expect not only complete, maintenance-free living but the amenities they have come to expect such as cafés, pubs, pools, exercise facilities, conservation areas, trails, golf, etc. They do not often fully express the need for a continuum of care but they strongly value it.
Boomers do not want a cookie-cutter condo unit. The past triplex and even duplex design layouts are less desirable with more interest in stand-alone cottages or at least the sense of a single family home. They want larger living areas with finished basements and even second floors with the ability to customize with high-end finishes and all the bells and whistles they take for granted. Units are to have tall ceilings with plenty of windows, yet still be very energy efficient. Boomers may have contributed to our energy woes, but many want to make up for it now, “going green” even as they are showing some grey.
Speaking to the assisted living element of condominium complexes or stand-alone facilities, Bill Gillis, president of Continuum, LLC, discussed his experiences over the last 25 years in the nursing homes industry that has resulted in his developing Maine’s preeminent retirement estate, Sentry Hill. He identified his primary competitor as the desire of seniors to remain in their own home as long as possible.
Future retirement condominium communities will recognize this need of seniors to be as independent as long as possible. The community must provide the soft support services in the home to do this. Once boomers settle into a community they will want to avoid any future moves. They will want their spouse’s future care assured. They want to avoid a nursing home and are willing to assume the risks of their decisions.
As many will not be able to afford what they truly want, the future options will include higher-density independent living, multi-unit buildings that will be designed to give a sense of single-family living and privacy. Whatever options boomers select, rest assured they will get what they want when they catch the next wave.