a long career in the arts after graduating from
Dartmouth College, Jim O’Connell worked in New York,
Phoenix, Des Moines and, finally, Wausau, Wis., a county
seat near the center of the Dairy State with a
population of about 39,000 and several other small
one might expect that when he transitioned away last
year from directing a performing arts foundation, he
might gravitate back to an urban center rich in cultural
at 65, he’s teaching a course on arts management at
the nearby state university extension campus and
enjoying the performing arts center he helped create.
come up for tenure at 70, and I’m going for it,"
the assistant professor said.
survey of 3,638 adults earlier this year by Merrill
Lynch and Age Wave found that most pre-retirees (60
percent) intend to stay in their current state or region
to a "second act" career later in life using
contacts from a previous career could be part of what’s
keeping some baby boomers in their current cities (along
with proximity to family), but O’Connell sees a larger
trend playing out as rural areas begin to link together
to attract local investment in public projects.
was recently part of a panel discussion on civic
vitality and special business improvement districts
around his state. The districts are typically formed by
coalitions of businesses that want to share costs for
revitalization programs, such as downtown lighting or
green space projects.
keeps O’Connell from moving back to an urban area is a
sense that he can have a voice in shaping what’s
around him, he said.
love medium-sized cities," he said. "In a
medium-sized city no level of decision making is out of
reach. If you need to see the mayor, you just call his
assistant and set it up. If you need to see the head of
the hospital foundation, you can do that."
he was raising money for the performing arts center,
community discussions centered around how to get more
use out of the facility during the summer months, when
the theater schedule slowed.
led to building in a multi-use lobby that could be used
for non-theater events, such as weddings, he said.
multiple uses was a catalyst in the development of the
project," he said. "Using facilities in
nontraditional ways makes the whole space more
be sure, not all baby boomers are picking up the mantle
of civic engagement that the demographers foresaw for
this generation as it heads into retirement. Plenty of
retirees are still decamping for warmer climates and
golf courses. Or they’re moving back to cities to
enjoy the same cultural vibe that’s compelling
companies to get out of the suburbs and create urban
hangouts for young tech workers.
for O’Connell — and others like him — there may be
something to this quest for community building in later
space isn’t enough," he said. "You have to
continually populate spaces with activity and bring
people together physically" to create the kind of
vibrancy and mutual respect that gets all groups of
people, not just retirees, excited about living in a
particular place, he said.
we’re no longer coming together and our exchanges are
mostly virtual, it leaves us with little in
common," he said during the panel discussion.
"If the only thing we have in common is our
property tax bill, is it any wonder civility is in