Casual Missoula, Montana, Remote But Sophisticated, Beckons to Retirees with its Lively Cultural Scene, Trendy Downtown, Abundant Outdoor Recreation and Rugged Mountain Setting
Cost of Living: Above the National Average
Situated at the foot of the Bitterroot Mountain range in western Montana's Rocky Mountains, Missoula (population 72,000) was once called the "Paris of the '90s" by writer John Updike and today is known as "Garden City." It started out as the Hellgate Trading Post in the mid-1800s and later became a mill town and an army fort. These days it is the site of the University of Montana (14,000 students) and is the most liberal spot in an otherwise very conservative state, one primarily populated with working ranches and small, rural communities. Missoula residents enjoy a lively cultural ambiance, very good medical facilities, some jaw dropping mountain scenery, four seasons and nearly unlimited outdoor recreation.
In fact, 81% of the people who live here say Missoula's quality of life is good or excellent. Thirty percent of residents are age 45 or better, and 57% of all residents call themselves Democrats. Forty-five percent of locals have at least a four year college degree. The crime rate meets the national average. The city has grown by 65% within the last 10 to 15 years. Racial diversity is minimal.
The average cost of living is 9% above the national average, and the median home price is $230,000. The city has roughly 20 separate neighborhoods, some of which have a very urban feel while others have a distinctly rural character. Everything from farm houses to condominiums is for sale, but ranch ramblers and raised ranch ramblers are the norm. For the most part, neighborhoods are nicely kept and laid out in orderly grids. A few areas close to downtown, including the Lewis and Clark neighborhood, are very walkable. Expensive homes with acreage dot the outskirts of town. Missoula also has a healthy number of rentals, from apartments to private homes, but many are leased by students.
Montana is not particularly friendly when it comes to retirement and taxes. Social Security is taxed, but the state allows an exemption of $4,070 for pensions, IRAs, 401(k)s and annuities if federal adjusted income is $33,910 or less. For people age 65 or better, $800 to $1,600 of interest income is exempt as well. Homeowners age 62 or better may receive a $1,000 income tax credit if their annual income is less than $45,000. Property is assessed at 100% of fair market value, and the annual taxes on a $230,000 home are approximately $1,945. Montana does not have a state sales tax, but the income tax rate ranges from 1% to 6.9%.
Missoula straddles the clean Clark Fork River and sits in a high altitude valley that was once a glacier lake. National forests and wilderness areas abound, and elk herds graze just outside of town. Locals and tourists alike engage in camping, hiking, cross country skiing, river rafting, kayaking and golfing (seven courses). Ample opportunities exist for photographing nature's bounty or just enjoying some quiet solitude. Fly fishing is particularly popular in these parts, and two nearby sparkling rivers (as well as a sparkling Brad Pitt) were featured in the 1992 movie A River Runs Through It.
The lifestyle is casual, and the ambiance is an interesting combination of Western independence and liberalism. Not many towns see a similar mix of old school hippies, students, ranchers, affluent urban transplants and smokejumpers (Missoula is a Forest Service base). The city is animal friendly and has won national recognition for being bicycle friendly.
UM Grizzlie football, basketball, soccer and cross country athletic activities ensure that there is always a game to attend. The University's College of Visual and Performing Arts has an extensive calendar, with 20 to 30 different performances each month (jazz festivals, guest artist recitals, dance presentations, etc.). The Missoula Symphony Orchestra is very active, as is the city's alternative music scene. The Missoula Cultural Council supports a wide range of cultural events and groups, including the Downtown Dance Collective and the First Friday Gallery Night. Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre and the Montana Repertory Theatre give residents even more venues for enjoying the arts. There are also lots of festivals and fairs, from the Garden City Brew Fest to the Montana Festival of the Book.
The trendy downtown is variously described as "quaint" or "pretentious," depending on one's point of view, with restaurants, pubs, shops, coffee houses, bookstores and galleries The farmers' market, held every summer Saturday and Tuesday, is here, too, and it features fresh produce, baked goods and live music. The North Reserve Corridor has chain restaurants and national retailers, including Costco, Home Depot, Target and others. Southgate Mall is anchored by Sears and Dillard's and has 100 specialty stores.
Mountain Line provides the local public transportation and is free to use. Door to door para-transit transportation is available, too, as is a curb to curb service called Senior Van Lines for people who do not qualify for the para-transit service. The airport, Missoula International Airport, is served by United, Frontier and Delta.
Interstate 90 runs through Missoula, but outside of city limits, wide open country stretches for miles. The nearest town with a population of more than 55,000 people is Great Falls, 135 miles to the east. Spokane, Washington (population 210,000) is 175 miles to the west. Glacier National Park is three hours to the north, and Yellowstone National Park is four hours to the southeast.
The Missoula Senior Citizens Center has a good selection of events and activities, from Tai Chi classes to country western dances, as well as trips to museums and theater events. Lunches are served Monday through Friday. The Center also acts as a referral hub for other senior agencies in the area.
The Missoula Public Library has two branches and offers downloadable ebooks, free wifi, 20 public access computers, book discussions, a writers' group and roving librarians.
For people with a love of learning, UM sponsors the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, also known as MOLLI. This program, similar to the other OLLIs around the country, is open to anyone age 50 or better and offers a full catalogue of classes, everything from History of the Law and Creative Writing 101 to Classic Problems in Philosophy. The emphasis is on learning for learning's sake, so there are no tests or grades. Annual registration is $20.
The Community Medical Center and St. Patrick Hospital provide the local medical care. Community is a Level III Trauma Center that emphasizes cardiac care, diabetes care and orthopedics care but also has two emergency care units. It has won awards for its coronary intervention and is accredited by the Joint Commission. Non-profit St. Patrick is a Level II Trauma Center, a Primary Stroke Center and has won several national awards for excellence in patient safety. It, too, is accredited by the Joint Commission. Both hospitals accept Medicare patients. For military retirees, Missoula has a VA outpatient clinic, but the nearest VA hospital is in Fort Harrison, 95 miles away.
Winters are long with temperatures in the teens, 20s and 30s. Skies are gray much of the time, and snowfalls are sometimes heavy. Summers are cool and sunny, with temperatures in the 70s and 80s. This part of Montana is more humid than the eastern section, but on the comfort index, a combination of humidity and temperature, it is still well above the national average. The sun shines 165 days of the year.
A Missoula retirement has some drawbacks. Not all long-time residents like the fact that the city is growing so fast and drawing newcomers (sometimes called "outsiders"). The city is isolated. The air quality is below the national average.
And yet this pretty city beckons, offering a striking setting, a bevy of outdoor recreation and an energetic cultural scene. It is safe to say that retirees who come to Missoula usually want to stay in Missoula.
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