Published April 14th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
PITTSBURG, Kansas — On a sunny Monday afternoon, the Watts family is out and about in this college town about two hours south of Kansas City.
Allen, a former military man, is wearing an Army Rangers crew neck sweatshirt, painting some boards in their five-car garage for the newly renovated master bathroom. Stephanie is in athleisure apparel, recently back from volunteering with Pittsburg Beautiful, a group of community members working with the city’s parks and recreation department to keep the city looking pretty.
This is life in retirement for the Watts. After traveling the world for most of their lives, they returned to a place that keeps them involved with the community, and slows the pace down.
“You start to reach a point sometime in your life where the city just takes from you,” Stephanie said. “At some point, there’s got to be more, and we moved to a place where we can breathe, and think.”
Both Stephanie and Allen attended Pittsburg State University. Allen was a football player, and their son Ian now is a second-year safety for the Gorillas. So retiring here was like returning home.
It also made a lot of financial sense.
Pittsburg recently was ranked the ninth best place in the country to stretch $1 million in retirement, according to a SmartAsset study. Joplin, Missouri, about 30 miles east, is the 13th best place in the country, and the best in the state.
The remarkable affordability in the area is reflected in the Watts’ Pittsburg home, which is twice the size and half the price of their old house in Orlando, Florida. The Pittsburg property also offers a much bigger lot to enjoy on their backdoor patio, filled with furniture and a hot tub.
The interior is filled with decorations that Stephanie accrued over years of traveling in Japan, London and other countries around the world. Her career in visual merchandising allowed her to travel and fill her house with interesting items.
Broadway is the main drag through Pittsburg. The downtown district spans roughly five blocks. Just down the road is the campus for Pitt State.
One might think the college town might repel retirees, but actually they say the youthful vibe enhances the community.
The city has made a conscious effort to team up with the university to make the city a place where students and other residents can not only co-exist, but make the community better. Stephanie works hand in hand with college students volunteering in the community. Over the last six years, the city has spent about half of a billion dollars in capital investments to improve the town and attract retirees.
“One of the big focuses now is really saying ‘come home’,” said Shawn Nacarrato, chief strategic officer at Pittsburg State University. “Because a lot of the people who are going to come here are going to be people who have been here before because they either grew up here, or they went to undergrad or graduate school at Pittsburg State and would have knowledge of this place.”
Such is the case for Claudia Blancett, a retiree who worked for 30 years in the airline industry. She took an early retirement offer to take care of her father in Pittsburg. A self-proclaimed gypsy, Blancett spent time living in New Zealand, Australia and Southern California before retiring to Pittsburg.
Like Watts, she loves life in a small town, and the affordability it brings.
“(In California) people are not so nice, because they are all so stressed, they are dealing with traffic, that’s not even mentioning the pandemic,” Blancett said. “People here are friendly.”
Blancett echoed a similar sentiment as Watts when it comes to the cost of living. Her home in Pittsburg was just $40,000. She didn’t have to take out a mortgage to afford it, unlike her friends back in California.
Built-in entertainment options from Pitt State athletics, and student produced theater are big draws for the community. There are plenty of hiking and biking trails as well.
The central location of Pittsburg is another perk for retirees. The town is a relatively short drive from Kansas City, close to Tulsa and easy driving distance to outdoor attractions in Missouri and Arkansas.
There are a handful of retirement communities in Pittsburg, and a high-end gated community being planned right now. The hope from the city is this will recruit more retirees.
With more retirees comes an increased need for quality health care. Of the $500 million in projects over the last six years in Pittsburg, $74 million was invested in the health care industry. One of the health care centers in town, Ascension Via Christi Hospital, is a cancer center designated facility.
To be sure, retiring in Pittsburg with $1 million is fairly rare. According to Census data, less than 15% of people in Pittsburg are 65 and over. Roughly a quarter of the population is below the poverty level. The median household income is just under $35,000 a year.
Not everyone in the town thinks it’s a great place to retire. Flatland posted a social callout in the “I Remember When… Pittsburg, KS” Facebook group, and the majority of respondents had negative things to say.
“One of the best places to retire…? Give me a break,” said one user.
But there were positive ones as well.
“Pittsburg is a fine place to raise a family. I feel safe here,” said one.
Blancett and Watts expressed their love for this community, and don’t plan on leaving any time soon.
“Coming back here might have been a little old-fashioned,” Stephanie Watts said. “But it’s a beautiful way to live.”
Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.