Retirees Come to Welcoming Walla Walla, Washington for its Wine Culture, Quaint Downtown and Gentle Ambiance
Cost of Living: Below the National Average
Off the beaten path, just north of the Oregon border in southeastern Washington, the mellow city of Walla Walla (population 34,000) was once a fur trading outpost and then the center of a region long known for growing wheat and delicious sweet onions. Today, this pretty metropolis is becoming a wine connoisseur vacation destination and is a comfortable, welcoming spot for retirement. It sits on a flat plain surrounded by rolling farmland and has a growing arts community, a charming downtown (named "Best Main Street in the West" by Sunset Magazine) and two small colleges (Walla Walla University and Whitman College).
Residents tend to be conservative, and 38% of them are age 45 or better. Twenty-four percent of locals hold at least a four year college degree. The crime rate meets the national average, and the city has grown by 4% within the last decade. It is also racially diverse. The cost of living is 7% below the national average.
The median home price is $325,000, a 13% increase over a year ago. Vintage single family homes, contemporary ranch ramblers, cottages, Craftsmans, town homes, condos and apartments are all available. The southern end of Walla Walla tends to be the most desirable, and the older neighborhoods around Whitman College have an abundance of character. Many historic homes are within walking distance of downtown.
When it comes to taxes, Washington is a friendly place to retire. There is no income tax so the state does not tax any retirement income, including Social Security. When it comes to property taxes, there are homestead exemptions for people age 61 or better who cannot work and who have an annual income generally below $40,000. One exemption freezes the tax value of the home and the other lets the homeowner deduct up to $70,000 from the value of the home. The average effective property tax rate (the annual tax payment as a percentage of median home value) in Walla Walla is 1.14%. The annual taxes on a $325,000 home are approximately $3,705, without a homestead exemption. The state sales tax is 6.5% (food and prescription medications are exempt).
Walla Walla, which means "place of many waters," is somewhat remote, about four hours driving time from Seattle and Portland. It is this location, however, that has helped Walla Walla remain undisturbed and able to maintain its gentle, small town way of life. And although it is a quiet place, annual festivals, including the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival and the Balloon Stampede, bring residents out to celebrate the Walla Walla way of life. While not a bastion of urbanity, Walla Walla does boast ArtWalla, the Little Theater of Walla Walla, the Walla Walla Symphony, the Walla Walla Chorale Society and free summer concerts downtown.
No fewer than 65 wineries and 40 vineyards call Walla Walla and the surrounding Walla Walla Valley home. Outside of town, the fertile hills are covered with not just wheat fields and onion fields but with more and more grapevines. Inside city limits, tasting rooms are tucked away in beautifully restored 19th-century Italianate and beaux arts commercial buildings. It is very easy to spend an afternoon sampling a variety of delicious, award-winning vintages without wandering more than a few blocks.
Sandwiched between the downtown tasting rooms are top-tier sushi and steak restaurants, cozy cafes, well-used bookstores, unique mom and pop shops, art galleries, small museums, studios and antique retailers, all very quaint and not overrun with tourists. For book lovers, the Walla Walla Public Library is open Monday through Saturday and has public computers with Internet access, an interlibrary loan program and monthly book club meetings.
When it comes to outdoor activities, locals enjoy eighteen public parks, five golf courses and miles of flat bicycling trails. The nearby pretty Blue Mountains offer opportunities for hiking, camping and bird-watching.
Valley Transit provides reliable public transportation. The standard in-town fare is $.50, but people age 55 or better ride for $.25. Monthly passes for people who cannot drive because of age, disability or income are $10. A Dial-a-Ride service is $.75 to ride or $12 for a monthly pass. The nearest Interstate is 40 miles away, but Valley Transit connects to Greyhound Bus and Amtrak for trips beyond Walla Walla's boundaries. There is a regional airport, but Alaska Airlines is the sole carrier.
The Center at the Park is the senior center and offers tours, classes (aerobics, Tai Chi, painting, cooking, etc.), pharmacy consults, potlucks and card games to anyone age 50 or better. Congregate meals are provided to people age 60 or better ($4 donation requested), and both Meals on Wheels and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program are active. The Walla Walla YMCA also has a number of exercise and social programs for the senior set.
Providence St. Mary Medical Center is ranked in the top 10% of hospitals nationwide for patient safety and has been named by Consumer Reports as one of the nation's best surgical hospitals. It is a Level III Trauma Center and a Level I Cardiac Center. It is accredited by the Joint Commission and accepts Medicare patients. For military retirees, Walla Walla is home to the Jonathon M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center.
Summer weather is warm and dry, with daytime temperatures in the 70s, 80s and 90s, perfect for growing sweet onions and grapes. Winter weather can be a bit dreary, however, with gray skies, fog and temperatures in the 20s, 30s and 40s. On average, the area receives 16 inches of rain and 19 inches of snow each year. Some days are windy. On the comfort index, a combination of temperature and humidity, Walla Walla comes in well above the national average. The sun shines 188 days of the year. The air quality meets the national average.
A Walla Walla retirement has some drawbacks. The overcast winters can make the city can feel isolated. It should be noted, too, that Washington State Penitentiary is located on the north side of the city. Surrounded by wheat fields, it has 2,200 inmates. Some potential residents may consider the prison off-putting, but the facility contributes substantially to the local economy.
Despite these issues, this diamond in the rough called Walla Walla is coming into its own, becoming a little bit more sophisticated every day while still boasting a gentle way of life. Its wines are award-winning, and soon Walla Walla itself may be winning awards as a great place to retire.
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