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Phoenix vs. Vegas: The Fight Is On

Las Vegas may be internationally known as “Sin City,” but it may have to change its moniker soon to “Retirement City.” The 50+ crowd that swarmed to Arizona—particularly Phoenix—for decades is expected to now turn its attention in much greater numbers to Las Vegas.

The polar vortexes and harsh winter cold and repeated snowstorms have plenty of people across the Midwest and Northeast eyeing a Southwest relocation even sooner than they planned. And while Arizona has touted and marketed itself as a place to retire, the generation of baby boomer retirees may be looking for some of the excitement of Las Vegas instead of the more serene and laid back atmosphere found in Arizona.

It’s going to be a horse race for the next couple of decades,” says Steve Bottfeld, a marketing consultant for the home building industry, mortgage industry and international investors. “And I think the lifestyles of other parts of the country appeal more to Vegas.

Bottfeld doesn’t say that lightly. He’s lived in Las Vegas for two decades and Phoenix for ten years and has commuted between the two cities until recently selling his remaining properties in Southern Nevada. He and his wife now live in the Phoenix area full time, but Bottfeld still commutes to Las Vegas to meet with clients.

A key that’s most important to older Americans is they need entertainment,” says Bottfeld who adds that Las Vegas has transformed itself over the last 20 years to become more of a Mecca for entertainment beyond gambling. It has an ever-increasing variety of shows with star performers, a new performing arts center that has created a lot of national attention and is now known as one of the best restaurant cities in the world.

Las Vegas has acclaimed golf courses that rival those in Arizona so Phoenix’s has lessened its advantage there. What Las Vegas entertainment lacks that Phoenix has is spring training for Major League Baseball that attracts many from the Midwest to relocate to Arizona to follow their team. Vegas is home to Mixed Martial Arts powerhouse Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) that has a growing—but still limited—appeal.

Arizona has attracted retirees and those 50+ since before World War II, Bottfeld says. Las Vegas has only been a magnet for that group since the 1990s when housing developers focused on master plan communities, especially those serving older age groups, he says. In the last decade, Las Vegas has built more 50+ housing facilities than the Phoenix area, he says.

Census numbers from 2010 show Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, has nearly 32 percent of its population that’s 50 and older. By contrast, Clark County that include Las Vegas and its suburbs, measures 28 percent. Today, Maricopa County has just fewer than four million people compared to two million for Clark County.

Arizona had a big head start and you’re talking a huge historical difference between the states,” Bottfeld says. “The population of Las Vegas quadruped in less than 20 years whereas the population of Phoenix has grown steadily, Suddenly, Las Vegas became more appealing in the 1990s because of the opening of the Mirage (first themed resort) and entertainment that became available.

Over the decades, Arizona has had success in luring people from the Midwest where the lifestyle the Phoenix area seemed more comfortable for them, Bottfeld said. Las Vegas has done better of luring people from New York City and even from Southern and Northern California.

Among some of the comparisons of the cities:

Las Vegas is slightly cooler in the summer and winter compared to Phoenix because of its higher elevation. One advantage Phoenix has is boasting “better” sunsets and stargazing compared to Las Vegas, Bottfeld says.

Phoenix is also more attractive to those on the political right of the spectrum than for liberals, while Las Vegas has a mix of political viewpoints that don’t make any one group feel uncomfortable, he says.

Phoenix also offers more medical facilities compared to Las Vegas that many retirees find more attractive, he says.

One negative for Phoenix is that it lures more snowbirds that spend time in Arizona between November and May but are gone in the summer months. That leaves some communities empty during the summer and fewer neighbors to socialize with, he says.

As for why he’s not living in Las Vegas now, Bottfeld says it was a decision driven by his health and medical care and that the home he had in Phoenix was paid for.

“I will never give up Las Vegas as a place I think of as home,” he says.

Since the Great Recession, the more diversified Phoenix economy rebounded better than the Las Vegas economy, but Bottfeld says the advantage of disappearing because Southern Nevada is coming around and that will benefit the region in luring more 50+ folks to the state. That group wants to live in a state with a growing economy to protect their wealth and housing investment, he says.

Housing in Las Vegas has become more affordable since it peaked in 2006 when the median price of existing homes was nearly $290,000. That price is now sitting at  $160,000, well below the $203,000 median price in Phoenix, he says. New homes cost $124 a square foot to build in Las Vegas compared to $137 a square foot in Phoenix.

“Home builders have been concentrating on Las Vegas rather than Phoenix because the sales have been more significant,” Bottfeld says.

Las Vegas will have another advantage going forward over Phoenix in that it’s already a destination that many people have visited several times in their lifetime. Studies show that once people visit a city four to five times, they’re more likely to relocate there than to a city, he says.

Although Las Vegas has the lingering “Sin City” image and can be a negative for those with an addiction problem, Bottfeld says those who get a chance to visit outside the Strip know it’s much more than that. They see that Las Vegas isn’t different than a lot of other communities; only it has the world-class entertainment that goes with it when they want it.

“If Las Vegas tends to draw people again and again, the better chance those people are going to spend their senior years there,” Bottfeld says. “Las Vegas has an image for people who visit, but, remember, perception isn’t reality.”

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