Boomers retreat to connect

 

By Jack Cox
Denver Post Staff Writer

 

Granby - Today it's just a sage-covered hillside studded with numbered posts and crisscrossed by dusty paths carved by a bulldozer.

But in a year or two, the expanse of vacant land at the foot of the unpretentious Sol Vista ski area will be filled with neat rows of houses.

It's the first phase of Granby Ranch, a second-home development designed to help satisfy people's yearning for a sense of community, which in the post-Sept. 11 era often seems as urgent as the need to escape. Looping streets, meandering trails and open decks will make it less private getaway and more a place where neighbors get together.

"We call it the invisible amenity," says Granby Ranch planner Gerry Engle, who believes the desire to "be part of something bigger" has become as strong as the demand for golf courses, ski runs, tennis courts and other traditional second-home perks.


 

"People may think about having a cabin in the woods, but just going and sitting around is lonely. What we are finding is that if you can put it in kind of a 'campground' setting, a lot of people will be happier."

Or, as prospective buyer Ann Potempa of Arvada puts it, "It's really important to find people you can do things with."

It's unclear how many potential customers will embrace Engle's vision of a "New Ruralism," the mountain-village counterpart to the neighborly front porches and back-alley garages of architecture's New Urbanism.

But there seems little question that the country is on the verge of a surge in second-home construction, as the 75 million-plus baby boomers - all now in their 40s and 50s - move into their prime earning years.

"After 9/11, people really pulled back on second-home purchases. They wanted to stay closer to home, and they didn't want to show their money, because it was a sign of materialism," says Troy Palmer, an analyst with Maryland-based Robert Charles Lesser & Co., which tracks trends in the industry.

"But now it's coming back gangbusters, and with the baby boomers coming into a lot of money through inheritances, it's prime time for developers."

Nationally, second homes account for about 6 percent of all home sales, according to the National Association of Realtors. But well-heeled boomers are expected to dramatically increase the demand for such housing, which many see as a safer and more usable investment than speculating in a shaky stock market.

In Colorado, the trend could have major implications, especially for a handful of mountain resort areas where second homes already outnumber those of full-time residents.

If second-home buyers are looking to connect with others, will they get involved in the communities that surround them, or limit their interaction to their immediate neighbors?

As they spend increasing amounts of time in their surrogate homes - thanks to telecommunications, flexible work schedules and improved transportation links - will they place unrealistic demands on the providers of local services such as health care, recreation, law enforcement and highway maintenance?

Can the friendships they form in the carefree atmosphere of a second-home community ever be as strong as the bonds forged in the "real world" of cubicles, classrooms and carpools?

"We're seeing kind of a blurring of the line between what used to be called our vacation home and our primary home, just as we're seeing a blurring of the line between work and retirement," says Kenneth M. Johnson, a demographer and sociology professor at Loyola University in Chicago, and an authority on growth in the recreational counties of the Mountain West and Upper Great Lakes region.

"What this does to our sense of community is still to be determined. But one of the nice things about second-home owners is that they bring a lot of energy and expertise. Whether they are corporate executives or midlevel managers, they tend to know how to work a bureaucracy, how to push a city council, how to write grant applications. And some research I've seen says they also are likely to volunteer for church groups and environmental causes," Johnson says.

"It's also important to recognize that not only do these 'amenity migrants' bring population growth, but they mean rural counties can retain people they would otherwise lose, because somebody has got to build all those houses and provide restaurants and other services."

On the down side, says David Lisman, a University of Denver expert on civic engagement, the affluent baby boomers now in the market for second homes have been notably less involved in community service than their parents, the members of what Tom Brokaw has dubbed the "Greatest Generation."

And, he says, citing a recent Harvard report on "Reinventing Aging," it's questionable whether they will become any more engaged as they enter retirement.

To build a sense of community, Lisman says, it's critical that structured opportunities be provided to get homeowners involved in volunteer work or other local concerns.

Otherwise, he warns, the newcomers - already branded by their elders as narcissistic and materialistic - may become totally isolated and indifferent to the needs of the larger community.

Engle says he and his partner, Sol Vista owner Marise Cipriani, purposely named their development Granby Ranch to reaffirm its connection to the nearby town, and pursued its annexation for the same reason.

But while the new homesites have been laid out to encourage interaction, with trails in place of sidewalks and open space instead of parks, he acknowledges that it is homeowners who will bear the primary responsibility for creating a sense of community.

"You may foster it, but it's really up to the people," he says. "However, it's certainly harder for people to connect in their home environment, because their No. 1 priority is work, and families are so over-programmed. It's not until they get to an environment like Granby Ranch that they can decompress."

Hazel Murray, a part-year resident of Cordillera, a high-end second-home community about 20 miles west of Vail, agrees that friendships are more easily made in such settings.

"In New York, I'm more friends with the doorman," she says, referring to an apartment that she and her husband, Matthew, have continued to maintain since he retired after 32 years as a member of the New York Stock Exchange.

In two summers in Colorado, they have become fast friends with a neighbor couple who spends half the year in England and are getting to know many others through activities ranging from golfing and river-rafting to hiking and painting.

"You make some good friendships here - it's not such a formal place. People include you in what they're doing, and if there's not a group, you can make one up," she says.

"After 9/11 (which led the Murrays to attend 10 funerals) you realize that life can be short, so you'd better make the most of your time and your friendships."

Johnson, the Loyola researcher, says the "snowbird" phenomenon suggests that a sense of community can emerge in a place where people spend part of the year just as naturally as "in the neighborhood where you stand on the sidelines at soccer games."

But Lewis Feldstein, co-author of "Better Together: Restoring the American Community," isn't sure how strong and enduring such temporary bonds may be.

"A sense of community isn't an on-off switch, but a continuum, based on connection and trust and reciprocity. It grows gradually over time, as you observe first-hand how people behave toward you and others you know," says Feldstein, who has helped popularize the concept of "social capital" with "Bowling Alone" author Robert Putnam.

"In a second home, you have less time with people, you know less about them, and what you know comes from a narrow range of experience in the somewhat sanctified air of pressure-free relaxation."

Having said this, though, Feldstein adds that "seeing the same people in the same place year after year," as typically occurs in second-home settings, can be rewarding for all involved.

"The surveys done right after 9/11 were strong in showing how it touched something visceral in people's need to be together," Feldstein says.

"We don't have much chance to build a sense of community in the 21st century, because people work longer hours and spend so much time driving around. But we know that where trust and connection are high, people feel better, they live longer, they're safer and their schools work better. So this is not just an idle problem for developers to deal with. We all have a stake in it, because it's important in our lives."