Image: Jim Davis
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
Village at Penn State resident Jim Davis works out in exercise room in State College, Pa. The Village at Penn State is a retirement community within walking distance of Penn State University.
updated 3/17/2005 3:59:06 PM ET 2005-03-17T20:59:06

When Jim Davis graduated from Pennsylvania State University, he figured he was leaving for good. But more than 50 years later, he's back, this time for retirement.

"They all think we were crazy for coming back up here," Davis said, of the friends he and his wife, Jo Anne, left behind in their first retirement destination, a gated subdivision built around a golf course in North Carolina. "But it was the best decision we ever made."

The couple’s move to State College, Pa., two years ago makes them part of a small but fast-growing group of seniors enticed back to their alma maters by a new generation of retirement communities opening on or near college campuses.

While private developers have been building such projects for several years, universities and colleges themselves are playing an increasing role, seeking new sources of revenue and a way to cement ties with alumni.

Retirees — most of them graduates of the schools, former faculty or people who already lived nearby — are drawn by the flurry of activities in college towns, the chance to continue learning and life alongside like-minded adults.

"There are a number of people who look for something other than a condo on the fifth green and a warm climate," said Leon Pastalan, director of the National Center on Housing and Living Arrangements for Older Adults at the University of Michigan. "They're looking for something more stimulating and that's what a college campus can provide."

Fast-growing idea
The first college retirement communities opened about 20 years ago, but the idea has really spread in the last three or four years, Pastalan said. There are at least 50 such developments near campuses around the country, from those near large schools like Duke University and the University of Michigan, to smaller schools like Lasell College in Newton, Mass.

Some of the newest are those under way near Stanford University and the University of Alabama. About 10 to 15 others are in the planning stages, Pastalan said.

While four-year schools have led the way, community colleges also are beginning to explore such developments, seeing them as an extension of their existing work with older adults and continuing education, said Gerard Badler, managing director of Campus Continuum LLC, a Newton, Mass. developer and consultant.

The projects vary widely. Some are condominium developments, frequently built with community centers onsite. Others are so-called continuing care retirement communities — combining apartments with assisted living and nursing home facilities, designed to accommodate people from early retirement through their later years.

College perks
That combined offering was one of the selling points for Jim and Jo Anne Davis — he's 74, she's 73 — who were concerned about finding a way to retire without burdening their adult children with future elder care responsibilities.

The couple, Pennsylvania natives, first looked for something near their first retirement home in Wrightsville Beach, N.C. But an article in an alumni magazine about The Village at Penn State, then in construction, drew them back to campus for a visit. They quickly signed up, moving in to a two-bedroom apartment with a view of the school's mammoth football stadium and nearby Mount Nittany.

They've quickly settled into a lifestyle more active than before they retired, Jo Anne Davis said. The couple regularly attend football games and campus performances. She is active in onsite activities like a women's crafts group, and twice weekly water aerobics classes at the university's swimming pool.

"When you get out of the bus and there are all these kids walking around, it just makes you feel so alive," she said.

Intellectual appeal
The appeal was slightly different for Bill Kinley and his wife, Mary, when they bought a unit at University Commons, a senior development near the University of Michigan's campus. The couple already lived in the university town of Ann Arbor, but were enticed by the idea of living in a setting that provide intellectual stimulation in a place they knew they enjoyed.

"I spent an hour and a half with a Shakespeare (discussion) group last night," Kinley said. "We have kids here, we love the community and I think that's what a lot of people here share is a love of Ann Arbor."

The Michigan development has close ties with the university's music school and often hosts two student or faculty recitals a week. Residents also gather for regular lectures onsite. On Friday nights, a potluck cocktail party in a common area known as the Brass Rail Cafe draws 50 to 60 residents.

Financial arrangements vary, but generally, living in the developments does not come cheap.

At Michigan, the condominium units sell for $250,000 to $750,000, and residents pay a monthly maintenance fee to the homeowners' association.

At Penn State, the Davises paid about $200,000 for the right to live in the Penn State development for as long as they choose, as well as a monthly fee of about $2,600. That entitles them to nursing and assisting living care when and if they need it. If they move out within the first four years, they get a limited portion of their investment back. Another option, requiring a larger initial payment of about $285,000, returns 90 percent of that amount to residents or their estate on move out.

"You're not buying any real estate. You're buying lifetime use of a particular unit," said Jill Lillie, the development's director of community relations. Other units at Penn State are priced from $166,000 to $360,000.

The Penn State project is not run by the university but has strong ties. The development was the idea of university President Graham Spanier, and was built on 80 acres leased by the university to a private development team that includes football coach Joe Paterno and Carol Herrmann, a former university administrator. Residents are allowed to take one class on campus free of charge each semester, and get reduced rates for the university's golf course and other facilities.

Some friends still have trouble believing they left the Sun Belt and moved into a place with a nursing home onsite, Jim Davis says. What they don't appreciate is just how much energy flourishes in a campus environment.

"Everybody thinks when you move into a place like this that they have a walker for you waiting at the door," he said. "And there are some pretty active people around here."

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