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Stevens FORWARD! -- Retirees can find rural life's rewards

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By Philip Drown

For the Sun Tribune

What if Stevens County was marketed throughout the state as a retirement destination? A place where people searching for a peaceful life in a rural setting could retire, find a comfortable home to suit any preference, and live an engaged, active lifestyle in a thriving county community.

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Paul Watzke, Stevens County Commissioner, area businessman, and Chair of the Stevens FORWARD! initiative, envisions just such a prospect and is impassioned to see it come forth.

"A retiree could easily exchange his or her world in the city or some other highly populated area for an enjoyable life here in Stevens County."

Attracting both younger and older retirees to settle throughout the county is one of Stevens FORWARD!'s 14 Destiny Drivers. The goal of the Destiny Driver is to "develop the finest retirement community in western Minnesota, attracting 20 new retirees to the community each year" by 2012.

"We want to see at least 20 new retirees moving into Stevens County as their destination," Watzke said.

According to Watzke, attracting retirees not only adds their numbers to the county population, but adds their talents, experience and energy to the community as well. The Stevens FORWARD! initiative has set its sights on a deep pool of potential retirees, from those retiring off farms throughout the region to those living in metropolitan areas who want to leave the hustle and bustle of the city behind.

"What if they're fed up with traffic and fed up with crime?" Watzke said. "The house they built in the suburb is now paid for and they can sell the home and come out here and buy a brand new house on the golf course, or settle in a peaceful patch of land near Hancock or Chokio."

"There has always been a big spread between Twin Cities housing prices and our area," said Tom Hoffman, owner of Hoffman Realty. "So, if you are retiring from a bigger town, just the cost of comparable housing to what you have here is considerably less. So it frees up retirement income. You can buy a house in Chokio for $80,000 that might cost $300,000 in the Twin Cities."

Paul Hendricks moved to Stevens County five years ago and epitomizes the goals that Watzke and others envision. Hendricks, a native of rural Minnesota who established a career as a project manager in the Twin Cities corporate technology world for 25 years, had the good fortune to retire early. In 2004, he was on to new adventures and was considering his family's options for the future.

"We were in a fringe area of the metro that was growing like crazy and housing was going up like popcorn and we wanted to move to a place that would be forever rural," Hendricks said.

His oldest daughter, a 2003 graduate of University of Minnesota, Morris, met her husband while attending UMM. They married, bought a house, and settled in the area. Hendricks and his wife Connie decided that being close to their kids was a strong value, and they began exploring the possibilities of moving into the area.

"We planned to find some land and just build our last home," Hendricks said. "We wanted to be on a major road that was going to be well-plowed. We wanted to be within 10 miles of town. [We wanted] to have some mature trees on the property."

Hendricks investigated several options before his wife Connie expressed her desire to buy a place "where the well was already dug and the vineyard was already planted." They found their home nestled in a grove of trees on some acreage three miles east of Morris. "We saw this house and it fit," Hendricks said.

As they were putting an addition on the new home and remodeling, the young assistant carpenter working on the project took notice of Hendricks' second daughter, who had transferred to UMM when her family moved. The young man shared his feelings with Hendricks and asked permission to ask his daughter out.

"I gave him a little bit of advice and about three or four months later he asked her out," said Hendricks. "And they got married and now they're living in town with a child.

We're really thankful for being part of the community that our kids are part of. This is home for us now."

Watzke believes there are plenty of people just like Hendricks out there and that Stevens County already has plenty to attract them and meet their needs, such as diverse housing options, plenty of recreation, and a strong healthcare infrastructure.

As retirees settle in the County, the demand for quality healthcare will continue to increase. According to Watzke, Stevens County is positioned to comfortably manage the healthcare needs of an influx of retirees, both the young retiree and the aging.

John Rau, CEO of Stevens Community Medical Center, is highly enthusiastic when it comes to the availability of quality healthcare in Stevens County, which he believes is essential to attracting retirees.

"If you look around the state, Morris is one of the only communities of our size to have the level of services available," Rau said. "The number of family practice physicians, internists, and specialists that are a part of SCMC and Prairie Medical is almost unheard of for a community this size to have anything more than two or three doctors available. There are literally 19 providers in our community."

In addition to meeting the healthcare needs of the population, both Rau and Watzke see the healthcare industry as an economic engine. As you bring more family practice doctors, or orthopedic surgeons, or specialists into the community, you also need more support staff, which means more job opportunities.

In addition to quality medical care, both Watzke and Rau expressed praise for the availability of other resources such as the Regional Fitness Center and Snap Fitness, providing a variety of wellness and fitness options, as well as physical therapy resources such as Big Stone Therapies and Nova Care.

"Most communities wouldn't even have one strong physical therapy program," said Rau. "We have two."

For Watzke, finding reasons to move to Stevens County will not be difficult. The present need is finding people who believe in their community and believe in their county to become a group of champions who will further identify the assets of each community and help package them into a marketing strategy.

"The next step is getting the champions together," said Watzke. "I think the group of champions will succeed in putting the package together. The critical step is discovering how we can deliver the package to that market. We don't know that yet, but I am convinced that if we concentrate our effort on this, it can really work."

Are you a 'Champion'?

Stevens FORWARD! stewards are seeking "Champions" -- people who want to get involved in the initiative and spearhead a Destiny Driver. For more information, visit the Stevens FORWARD! Web site at www.stevensforward.org, or contact Coordinator Roger McCannon via email at:

mail@stevensforward.org, or by phone at (320) 287-0882

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