By CATEY HILL
When making a list of states they'd like to retire in, boomers seldom include North Dakota. In fact, very few have even been there -- it's one of the least touristed states in the nation. But outdoorsy soon-to-be retirees -- especially those who plan to work in retirement, or whose nest eggs aren't as big as they'd hoped -- may want to give picturesque North Dakota a retirement test-drive.
Retire Here, Not There: State-by-State
Forget your parents' retirement destinations. These less-known gems offer lower prices and peppy economies.
Compared with the rest of the country, North Dakota has a thriving economy. That's partially due to the oil industry (North Dakota is now second only to Texas in terms of oil production), undergoing a boom here thanks to the development of the huge Bakken field. The unemployment rate is about 3%, the lowest in the nation. And in a Gallup poll from earlier this year, workers in North Dakota reported the best job situation of any state in the nation, with 42% saying their companies are hiring and expanding the size of their workforces compared with just 8% laying off workers and reducing the size of their workforces.
Despite the boom atmosphere, North Dakota is an inexpensive place to live. The median home here costs just over $100,000 -- roughly one-third less than the median cost in the U.S. as a whole.
It's also quite a bargain compared with some other nearby states that also have lots of outdoor recreation: The cost of living in Montana is 4% higher than the national average, for example, and in Minnesota it's 3.6% higher. But in North Dakota, it's more than 7.5% below average, and income and sales taxes are slightly below average. Nursing home and assisted-living care is also quite a bit cheaper than the national norm, according to the MetLife Mature Market Institute.
There are reasons, of course, that folks aren't exactly lining up for North Dakota living (the entire state has fewer than 700,000 residents). Winters are not for the fainthearted; temperatures in January, the coldest month, range from 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the northeast to 17 degrees in the southwest. And for retirees, there aren't a ton of choices of places to live: There are many towns, like Spring Brook and Epping, with populations of around 100 residents -- which, obviously, severely limits your entertainment and socializing options.
Still, those wide swaths of virtually unpopulated land are well suited to the sporty retiree who loves the outdoors. The Missouri River, Lake Sakakawea (which has more coastline than the state of California), Devil's Lake and the Red River are all popular fishing spots. Hunting is also popular, with the state offering an abundance of everything from upland game birds to big-game species to waterfowl. North Dakota sits in the so-called duck factory -- a 300,000-square mile region in the northern United States and Canada made up of plains grasslands and lakes where as much as 50% of the continental waterfowl population make their summer home. Hunters can also bow hunt for mule deer in the Badlands, and shoot Hungarian partridge, sharp-tailed grouse and ring-necked pheasants at a number of spots in the state.
Residents of North Dakota tend to be friendly. "This is the kind of place where people might leave their cars running in the winter while they run into the store," says Jason Kirchmeier, a certified financial planner for Ameriprise Financial in Bismarck. And there's something of a frontier mentality, as you'd expect in a state of hunters and farmers.
Here are three North Dakota cities that offer a particularly good mix of affordability and amenities.
For retirees who hope for encore careers or to launch their own business in retirement, Bismarck -- the state capital -- is a compelling spot. Bolstered by strong industries like health care and government, the unemployment rate, which is less than 3%, is one of the lowest in the nation. The city has added about 2 million square feet of retail space in the past five years and expects that to keep growing, says Kelvin Hullet, the president of the Bismarck Mandan Chamber of Commerce. explains. The reason: With the thriving job market, the city is projecting that it will add 40,000 residents to the Bismarck-Mandan metro area by 2020. "We're having a small business boom," Hullet adds.
By the numbers
- Population: 61,272
- Median home cost: $148,600
- Cost of living: 2.1% lower than average
- Unemployment: 2.5%
- Source: Sperling's Best Places
Despite the thriving economy, Bismarck still feels small. The North Dakota State Capitol Building Tower is referred to as The Skyscraper on the Prairie, but it is just over 241 feet tall, some 60 feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty. Still, it's long on historical attractions that draw retirees to visit and volunteer. At Fort Abraham Lincoln, retirees can see what life was like for Gen. George Custer and his men back in 1875. The North Dakota Heritage Center provides exhibits that track millions of years of North Dakota history from dinosaurs to the Depression; it's currently undergoing a $60 million expansion.
Nestled along the banks of the picturesque Missouri River, Bismarck also has a ton to offer for boaters and fishermen. The river is well-known among anglers for its walleye, but it's also packed with channel catfish, smallmouth bass and cutthroat trout. Bismarck and its neighboring city of Mandan have hosted several major fishing tournaments. Bismarck has five golf courses, including the top-ranked Hawk Tree Golf Club; and it is a two-hour drive from the scenic Badlands. "This is a very fit community," says Hullet. "You'll see people hiking on the trails here even when it's 10 degrees."
The Bismarck Airport is served by four airlines -- Delta, United, Frontier and Allegiant. The area is also the regional health-care hub for much of northern North Dakota -- there are significantly more physicians per person in Bismarck than there are across the U.S. as a whole. And the big local shopping center, Kirkwood Mall, has five major anchor stores (Target, Herberger's, J.C. Penney, Scheels Sports and I. Keating Furniture World) and more than 90 specialty shops. The biggest problem with Bismarck is the cold: The area averages 45 inches of snow a year. Residents of Bismarck have made the best of that situation, however: In 2007, they set the record for the most snow angels made in one place, when nearly 9,000 residents lay down on the Capitol grounds.
Fargo has seen its share of hard times: For example, the city is prone to flooding from the Red River, most recently in 2009, when the river reached a record crest of 40 feet and wreaked millions of dollars in property damage. That may be one reason why residents here are quick to emphasize their philanthropic spirit. Volunteer initiatives range from a massive homeless-shelter initiative -- the Churches United for the Homeless is operated by a coalition of more than 40 different churches in Fargo and nearby Moorhead, Minn. -- to helping out with one of the myriad arts organizations, including the symphony orchestra, opera and community theater. "The saying here is that it's 'always warm' -- and we aren't talking about the weather," jokes Cole Carley, 62, who retired in Fargo this year from a tourism job.
By the numbers
- Population: 105,549
- Median home cost: $147,000
- Cost of living: 2% lower than average
- Unemployment: 2.8%
- Source: Sperling's Best Places
The largest city in the state, Fargo packs a cultural punch. The Rourke Art Museum, which is housed in a 1913 building in Moorhead, holds more than 5,000 works of art, from artists in the Upper Midwest region and from other 20th century artists. The Children's Museum at Yunker Farm, perfect for the grandkids, has more than 50 exhibits, many of them hands-on, along with a children's railroad, minigolf and a carousel. There's also a historic 1926 theater with a vaudeville stage that hosts films and live productions; a state-of-the-art zoo on more than 16 acres specializing in rare and endangered species; and even a "Walk of Fame" with more than 110 celebrity signatures, handprints and footprints, including those of Garth Brooks, Neil Diamond and Kiss. And the downtown area has been revitalized in the past 15 years or so, with an eclectic mix of restaurants and shops, says Charley Johnson, the president and CEO of the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
There are five golf courses in Fargo and two in Moorhead, cross-country ski trails throughout the city and more than 90 miles of scenic paths for hikers. For those who prefer to watch rather than do, Fargo is home to North Dakota State University's Division I Bison -- which play football, baseball and basketball -- as well as the Redhawks, the area's professional baseball team, and hockey's Fargo Force. The Fargo airport has nonstop service to eight cities -- helpful when winter starts to bite. "My wife and I love to snorkel and we can fly south really easily," says Carley.
When Keith Witt, 53, retired from the Bismarck police force this year, he knew where he was moving: Garrison, a place he and his wife had been visiting for years for fishing and camping trips. The friendly vibe of the tiny town was an added bonus. "My wife moved up here by herself for a few months before I retired," he says. "The neighbors were so friendly and helpful -- they helped her move and shovel the driveway."
By the numbers
- Population: 1,453
- Median home cost: $75,900
- Cost of living: 14.5% lower than average
- Unemployment: 4.2%
- Source: Sperling's Best Places
Garrison is nestled just a few miles from the 178-mile long Lake Sakakawea, the third largest human-made lake in the country (surface area: 368,000 acres), which has three state parks along its shores. "It's a tourist destination with a big lake, but it's also a small, quiet community," says Jude Iverson, the executive director of the Garrison Area Improvement Association. Fishing is particularly popular here: Garrison hosts the Governor's Cup Walleye Fishing Derby, a fishing tournament that more than 250 teams compete in, and there's even a 26-foot statue of a walleye at the end of Main Street. The park also offers canoeing, kayaking, paddle-boating, hiking, ice-fishing, cross-country skiing, bowhunting and an arboretum. Garrison also has three city parks; a nine-hole, par-36 golf course; and even a skate park for the grandkids.
For those looking to stretch their nest eggs, Garrison is perfect. The median home here costs just $75,900 and the cost of living is more than 14% below the national average. Crime is low, and the downtown shops and eateries offer plenty of small-town charm. Garrison is home to the popular Dickens Village Festival for three weeks in November, which celebrates Victorian life with old-fashioned English meals and high teas, decorated home tours, street vendors and a musical production. (There's even an old-fashioned soda shop and an antique and knick-knack shop called Fuzziwigs, after the character in Dickens's "A Christmas Carol")
The small size of Garrison does present some downsides, including the lack of a major hospital or airport in town. On the bright side, Bismarck (which has both) is just over an hour away. Garrison does have a nursing home and an assisted-living facility in town, and it also has a small hospital with a level-four trauma center, ambulance service and visiting specialists. "Older people can feel comfortable about the health-care options here," Iverson says.