A Stimulating Collegiate Atmosphere, Strong Senior Programs, Good Medical Facilities and Stately Architecture Bring Retirees to Leafy Athens, Georgia
Cost of Living: Below the National Average
Leafy Athens (population 124,000) is located in northeastern Georgia, about 75 miles east of Atlanta. It is a quintessential college town and home to the sprawling University of Georgia (36,000 students), one of the oldest state-chartered schools in the country. Nicknamed the "Classic City" because many of its buildings were inspired by classic Greek architecture, Athens boasts an intact 19th-century cityscape and is this region's cultural and health care hub. While it is a youthful place, it also appeals to more and more baby boomers and retirees. They come for the funky ambiance, creative vibe and mellow, Southern flavor all rolled into one.
Twenty-five percent of the population is age 45 or better, and during the last couple of decades, the over-50 set has grown by 33%, with many new residents coming from hurricane-prone Florida. Forty percent of locals hold at least a four year college degree, and politics lean very much to the left. The city is racially diverse and has grown by 40% within the last 10 to 20 years. The crime rate is below the national average, and the cost of living is 8% below the national average.
The median home price is $175,000. Athens has distinct neighborhoods full of character, and 14 of them are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Architectural styles include not only Greek Revival but Italianate, American four square, bungalow, Craftsman, Tutor Revival, cottage, Victorian folk, Colonial Revival and sixteen more. Many homes date from the early and late Victorian and periods and from the early 20th-century.
One of the most popular neighborhoods, with a mix of older residents, students and professionals, is the quiet, low-density Five Points section, located at the southwestern edge of the University. It has eclectic mom and pop shops, an organic store, restaurants, studios and primarily brick and frame single family homes built just before and after WWII. The Village at Jennings Mill is a gated golf course community. Talmage Terrace is a continuing care community.
The city has more than its share of rental properties, including houses, town homes and apartments, but many cater to the college crowd. Lanier Gardens, three blocks from downtown, is an affordable independent living apartment community for people age 55 or better. Income restrictions apply.
Georgia is a tax-friendly state for retirement. Social Security is tax-exempt, as is up to $35,000 in other retirement income for people age 62 to 64. For residents age 65 or better, up to $65,000 in retirement income is exempt. Real estate is assessed at 40% of fair market value, and all homeowners receive a $2,000 homestead exemption. Homeowners age 62 or better who earn $10,000 or less per year may have $10,000 of their property's assessed value exempt from school taxes. Homeowners age 62 or older whose family income does not exceed $30,000 annually may qualify for a partial exemption from state and county property taxes. For those age 65 and better who earn $10,000 or less, $4,000 of their property's value is exempt from state and county taxes as well. In Athens, the annual taxes on a $175,000 home are approximately $1,600. The state sales tax is 4%, and the income tax rate ranges from 1% to 6%.
The University (UGA) campus dominates Athens' cityscape and has 388 buildings spread across 615 wooded acres. Its presence ensures that there is always something engaging to do. Its UGA Performing Arts Center has hosted the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, among other performers. The Hugh Hodgson School of Music presents hundreds of performances per year, and all are open to the public. The Georgia Museum of Art and the Lamar Dodd School of Art both boast permanent and rotating exhibits. For golfers, the University of Georgia Golf Course is open to all comers and is the site of the PGA's annual Athens Classic at UGA. And on autumn weekends the population swells as football fans flock to watch the University of Georgia Bulldogs play.
But Athens is not entirely about the University. It is also known for its active music scene, with local jazz, blues and rock bands performing on club stages every night of the week. In fact, several well known rock bands have gotten their start in Athens. The city has nearly 500 restaurants, several of which are award-winning. The thriving downtown is a fun area with shops, pubs, art galleries and clubs. Strolling through the State Botanical Garden is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. Memorial Park has hiking trails and greens spaces. The Athens-Clarke County Library has an interlibrary loan program, free computer classes, traveling exhibits, book clubs, talking books, author lectures and evenings of storytelling and music.
The annual Human Rights Festival brings together political activists, musicians and artisans, and the city's Twilight Criterium, one of the nation's largest cycling events, attracts both cyclists and spectators. June's Athfest is a popular outdoor music festival.
Volunteer opportunities include everything from tutoring students to helping out at the Lyndon House Arts Center, and the city has 200 churches and synagogues. Shopping venues are plentiful. Downtown is fun for antiquing and finding gifts, but there are also shopping malls with national retailers. Two Wal-Marts are here, too. The Appalachian mountains are only a short drive away, and many residents enjoy weekends in Charleston or Savannah.
The medical facilities are very good. The award-winning Athens Regional Medical Center (350 beds) is a Level II adult trauma center and is accredited by the Joint Commission. It was named the 2011 Georgia Large Hospital of the Year, and 80% of patients, well above the national average, would recommend it to a friend. Medicare patients are accepted. St. Mary's Hospital has 120 beds and is a primary stroke center. It is accredited by the Joint Commission and has won awards for its clinical excellence, patient safety and general surgery. It, too, accepts Medicare patients. For military veterans, Athens has a VA outpatient clinic, but the nearest VA hospital is in Decatur, 52 miles away.
For a city that caters to college students, Athens has a good menu of senior programs. The Athens Community Council on Aging offers a number of services for people age 55 and better, including transportation services, home health care, a foster grandparent program, a volunteer program and a senior companion program. It also manages the Athens-Clarke County Senior Center, which provides noonday meals, education classes, recreation opportunities, outreach, visitation and telephone reassurance to homebound older adults.
The University sponsors the 1,100-member Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), an organization that offers a wide selection of classes and workshops to people age 50 or better. Classes include everything from art and UFOs (not necessarily in the same class) to navigating Facebook. The group also has trips, art auctions, carnivals, luncheons, local outings and much more. Membership is just $60 per year, plus $10 per class or event. There are no tests or term papers, but a new Certificate of Learning is being offered in limited subjects. Further educational opportunities are available at the University where anyone age 62 or better many enroll in classes tuition-free on a space-available basis.
The extensive Athens Transit System provides bus service to the library, the Medical Center, UGA, Super Walmart and several other shopping venues. The regular fare is $1.75, but seniors ride for $.85 to $1.00, depending on the time of day. An on-demand, curb to curb service, The Lift, provides service to people who are disabled or unable to walk to a bus stop. Athens Ben Epps Airport has one carrier, SeaPort Airlines, which provides daily shuttle flights to and from Nashville International Airport.
Summers are humid with temperatures in the 80s and 90s. Winters are less humid with temperatures in the 30s, 40s and 50s. On average, the area receives 50 inches of rain and a dusting of snow each year. Autumns are crisp and springs are filled with dogwoods and azaleas. The sun shines 215 days of the year.
While people enjoy Athens, the city does have some drawbacks. The number of students can be overwhelming, and when football season revs up each fall, the number seems to double. The UGA football stadium holds more than 93,000 people, and many people come from as far away as Atlanta to watch the Bulldogs play. As a result, autumn weekend traffic and crowds can be a headache. The University also has a reputation as a party school. The city has a high poverty rate, in large part due to its student population, and manifestations of this can be seen around town. The tornado risk is 85% greater than the national average.
Yet the people who have retired here view the University and the youth it brings as an asset. They enjoy the reasonably priced, lively atmosphere that this college town provides and know that Athens is not just for college students anymore.
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