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From the Manor Born

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Aggressive care, pursuit led retirees to the Valley

If you build it, will they come? Rogue Valley Manor was a retirement home of dreams when the 10-story tower became home for 292 retirees in 1961.

At that point, the local Yellow Pages didn't even have a heading for retirement homes. Instead, there were categories such as Homes for the Aged, Nursing Homes and Sanitariums.

There weren't a lot of choices, says Jeff Chamberlain, who operates several senior living communities throughout the Northwest. Back then, you were either in the hospital or a nursing home.

Today, there are 30-some retirement centers and communities in the Rogue Valley. Money Magazine touted Medford in its 2002 list of Best Places to Retire ' long after the area had already become a retirement Mecca.

Market research consultant Mark Dennett, who did similar work for the Manor and Pacific Retirement Services from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, says seminars promoting Southern Oregon, California and Hawaii had a great impact.

— Their aggressiveness put Southern Oregon on the radar, Dennett says. They really pioneered continuing care retirement communities and then Where to Retire Magazine picked up on it and there were newspaper articles in San Francisco and San Diego. That was the catalyst for developing the retirement population in the area.

Further, Dennett says, the relative property values made Southern Oregon a natural destination for Californians.

A third factor is that people in this area are historically much more sports and culturally connected to Northern California than the Northwest Dennett says. They're not Seahawks and Mariners fans, they're 49ers and Giants fans.

He adds that in focus groups he gathers, people frequently comment how the Rogue Valley reminds them of the Sonoma Valley 20 or 30 years ago.

Dennett also credits the thriving local health-care community for attracting retirees. He did a study in the Brookings-Harbor area and found that retirees typically sell their homes 18 months after moving to the south coast because their medical needs weren't being met.

They would end up driving to RVMC or Providence all the time, he says.

The perception of retirement communities has changed as well.

Growing up here, I felt it was more of a resource for well-to do folks retiring from our community or moving predominantly from California, says Bill Thorndike Jr., president of Medford Fabrication and a Pacific Retirement Services board member. As a kid, I saw the Manor as a retirement home sitting on top of that hill where really old people lived.

While old people still live there today, he knows that people make retirement living choices earlier than they did 40 years ago.

Those choices expanded as first Medicare and Medicaid revamped the senior living landscape.

In the 1970s, Chamberlain recalls, there was almost no marketing for senior facilities.

You build it and they'll come was the reality, he says. There was pent-up demand. There were no assisted-living facilities and not much in the way of independent retirement facilities.

Chamberlain moved to the Rogue Valley from Tacoma, Wash., to administer Villa Royal Care Center in 1974. He bought the facility two years later.

People didn't want to go to a hospital or nursing home, Chamberlain says. Prices were high, relatively speaking, for independent living but there were a lot of people there that didn't need nursing; they just needed occasional assistance with dressing.

He says that assisted living sites exploded in the 1990s once the state began subsidizing a substantial amount residents' costs. The growth was such that in 2001, the state slapped a moratorium on the development of new assisted-living residences, although projects already in the works were allowed to continue.

All these people went out and built assisted living communities and there was a flood-out of nursing homes, Chamberlain says. People wanted to be there because it was so much more socially appealing. It was new and exciting.

The Rogue Valley Manor?s main building, left, is where a retirement empire sprouted. Opened in December 1998, Skyline Plaza, right, is a modern sign of the enormous growth that Medford-based nonprofit Pacific Retirement Services Inc. has enjoyed. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell