Nestled in Kentucky's Bluegrass Region, Beautiful Berea Beckons with its Rich Artisan Culture, Collegiate Vibe, Affordable Housing and Country Charm
Cost of Living: Below the National Average
At the edge of the Cumberland Plateau where the mountains meet carpets of bluegrass in east central Kentucky, rural Berea (population 15,000) is a quiet place steeped in Appalachian culture. It grew up around well-regarded Berea College, which was founded by abolitionist Reverend John G. Fee in 1855. Today, even though Berea College is small with just 1,600 students, it still strongly influences Berea and brings a bit of liberalism to an otherwise very conservative town. Berea is also known for its flourishing Appalachian artisan community and attracts tourists and shoppers from around the region. It is, in fact, officially known as the "Crafts Capital of Kentucky."
Berea has grown by 65% within the last couple of decades, which gives it the distinction of being one of the fastest growing towns in Kentucky. Thirty-two percent of residents are age 45 or better, and 27% of all locals have a least a 4 year undergraduate degree. Politics lean to the right, and the crime rate meets the national average. Racial diversity is minimal. The cost of living is 12% below the national average.
The median home price is $130,000, well below the national median. Neighborhoods are not overtly defined, and some toward the edges of town meander along country roads where sidewalks are few. Cute single family homes are clustered around the college, while larger, newer homes on acreage are found farther out. Many residences, old and new, are brick ranch ramblers and raised ranch ramblers. Berea does not have a good selection of apartments, and the ones that are here are primarily occupied by students. There are two mobile home parks.
Kentucky is a welcoming place when it comes time to retire. Social Security benefits, railroad retirement benefits and Roth IRA proceeds are exempt from state taxes, and up to $41,110 in other retirement income (military, civil service, qualified pensions and more) is also exempt. Property is assessed at 100% of market value, and in Berea, the annual taxes on a $130,000 home are about $1,065. For homeowners 65 and better or for people who are completely disabled, $36,000 of the assessed value of their property is exempt from state taxes. The state sales tax is 6% (food and prescription drugs are exempt), and the income tax ranges from 2% to 6%.
Berea College was the first coeducational, non-segregated college in the South. It is located just off of Main Street and has a strong commitment to serving the Appalachian region. It 1904, it stopped charging tuition and instead required students to work in a college industry. One such industry was arts and crafts, and this is what kickstarted Berea's artisan heritage. Today, Berea has skilled craftsmen producing weaving, needlecraft, furniture, jewelry, paintings, writings, ceramics, woodcraft and more. Many artists work in open-air studios in the Artisan Village. A handful offer workshops to the public. The annual Festival of Learnshops has dozens of workshops in which to participate, everything from blacksmithing to writing children's literature.
Handmade products are for sale in Old Town and throughout Berea but particularly at the Berea College-owned Log House Craft Gallery and the Kentucky Artisan Center, a beautiful, 25,000 square foot retail and exhibition gallery featuring only Kentucky-made items. College Square and Chestnut Street are also home to shops, galleries, studios and restaurants.
Aside from the arts and crafts scene, Berea has a bit of culture, too. Berea College's theater department presents a number of productions each season, and the Berea Country Dancers, when not touring in places such as Denmark and Mexico, stage dancing workshops and events. The Berea College Artists in Modern Motion produces "Kinetic Expressions," a combination of modern, jazz, classical, contemporary and improvisational dance performances. A spring bluegrass concert is performed by the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble. The Berea Arts Council has a schedule of literary readings, workshops and visual arts exhibits.
There is also a Celtic Festival, a craft festival and the Spoonbread Festival, complete with a pancake breakfast, a tractor show, concerts, clogging, a carnival and more. Renfro Valley, just outside of town limits, is a music venue with country music performances. Folk dancing performances happen every Friday night at Berea College. The Russell Acton Folk Center is the home of even more folk dancing.
Walkable downtown Berea, which is small, has a collegiate vibe, but this is a "dry" town, meaning liquor is only sold in a few restaurants. Berea College students do not drink. This may help explain Berea College's excellent academic reputation as well as Berea's reputation as a non-rowdy college town.
Dining options cater to tourists, with numerous chain restaurants. There are, though, some locally-owned eateries, including ones with Chinese, Mexican and Italian menus. Craft shopping is king here, but the town also has a Walmart, a Walgreens and some other national retailers.
The Madison County Public Library Berea branch is located in a newish building with skylights and a fireplace. It has a bookmobile, an interlibrary loan program, a book club, public access computers and free wi-fi.
Berea sits in Kentucky's lush bluegrass region, home of thoroughbred horse racing and picturesque horse farms, and Daniel Boone National Forest is just a few miles to the east. Berea College owns 7,700 acres of nearby forest land, and hiking trails and bicycling trails wind their way through much of it. With all of this surrounding natural beauty, residents enjoy all kinds of outdoor recreation, everything from camping and fishing to four wheeling. The one country club 9-hole golf course is open year round.
Berea College's history of diversity influences Berea's way of doing things. To support age diversity, the town's parks and recreation department and the Kentucky River Foothills Development Council manage the Intergenerational Center, a building that houses both the Berea Senior Center and the Head Start program, which includes a child day care center. The idea is to bring older adults together with children so that they may learn from one another. A kitchen for everyone, a playground for kids and a roster of activities and events for the 60+ crowd let everyone interact, breaking down walls between the generations. The Center also provides congregate meals, tax advice and legal assistance.
With Berea situated along I-75, residents have easy access to Lexington (population 475,000 in the metro area), just 38 miles to the north. Foothills Express provides local public transportation. Everyone rides for $1, and the bus makes stops at Walmart, the senior center, the grocery, the library and the hospital, among others. Curb-to-curb service is available, and stops can be added to the route with 48-hour notice. Lexington, 40 miles to the north, has a regional airport, but the closest international airport is 115 miles away in Cincinnati, Ohio.
St. Joseph Berea is the local hospital. It is small with just 25 beds, but it is accredited by the Joint Commission and accepts Medicare patients. Just 12 miles away in Richmond, the Pattie A. Clay Regional Medical Center (105 beds) is also accredited by the Joint Commission and accepts Medicare patients. For military retirees, Berea has a VA outpatient clinic, but the closest VA hospital is in Lexington.
For people interested in continuing their education, Berea College accepts non-degree students who want to audit classes. These students, though, whether age 28 or 88, must pass admission requirements similar to those for degree students.
Summers are warm, with temperatures in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Winters can be chilly with temperatures in the 20s and 30s. On average, the area receives 46 inches of rain and 11 inches of snow per year. On the comfort index, a combination of temperature and humidity, Berea is below the national average. The sun shines 188 days of the year.
A retirement in Berea is full of simple pleasures, but it does have some drawbacks. This part of Kentucky is poor, and Berea has a poverty rate well above the national average, even accounting for the student population and money brought in from tourism. Racial diversity is minimal. The college is a left-leaning institution, and this sometimes creates tension between it and more conservative residents. The tornado risk is 55% above the national average. Blue Grass Army Depot is a chemical weapons storage facility and just 15 miles northeast of town.
So Berea is not a perfect place, but its simple charm and country character are appealing. Combined with a rich Appalachian culture, a strong college presence, an artsy sensibility and an affordable cost of living, it is a great spot for retirement.
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