Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Kirk Kruse sits on his front porch at his home at Jasper Highlands in Jasper, Tenn. on Thursday, May 13, 2021.

Kirk and Cindi Kruse first came to the Chattanooga area more than a decade ago when their son decided to enroll at Lee University in Cleveland.

"We immediately fell in love with Tennessee and knew someday we would retire here," says Kirk Kruse, a former hospital manager who lived most of his life around Geneva, Illinois, west of Chicago.

The Illinois couple toured a variety of lake, mountain and other retirement resorts in East Tennessee and northern Georgia before deciding to buy into Jasper Highlands, a mountaintop development that has attracted retirees and near-retirees from 47 states and six foreign countries over the past decade.

"Everyone here is so friendly and there certainly is a better climate here than up North," Kruse says.

The Kruses moved into a new, 1,600-square-foot, two-bedroom home atop Jasper Mountain this spring and are quickly making Tennessee their home.

With more open spaces, warmer weather and lower taxes and cost of living than most northern cities, Jasper Highlands developers have sold more than 1,100 parcels, primarily to retirees who plan to eventually make Jasper Mountain their main residence, if they haven't already.

"The pandemic caused a lot of people to think about what they really wanted, and we're definitely seeing people ready to move here now from all across the country," says Dane Bradshaw, president of Thunder Enterprises, the developer of the 8,800-acre development in Marion County. "When they come here, they are all kind of pioneers in this together and they have quickly developed a bond and a community among folks from all different cities."

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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Jasper Highlands president Dane Bradshaw looks out from Jasper Mountain at Jasper Highlands in Jasper, Tenn. on Thursday, May 13, 2021.

Mike and Connie Dillon, who worked as international bankers before retiring, relocated to Jasper Highlands in 2018 from Naples, Florida. Although Naples is a popular retirement destination with dozens of golf course communities, the Dillons said they like the open spaces and scenic views atop Jasper Mountain, where most residential lots range from one to two acres and there are thousands of acres set aside for natural attractions and hiking trails.

"Naples was getting really crowded and we were looking for more space and a simpler lifestyle based on being outside and being active," Mike Dillon says. "When we saw this lot and the sunset view it has, we immediately bought it."

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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Mike and Connie Dillon at their home at Jasper Highlands on Friday, June 4, 2021.

From either their sprawling back deck and porch or a sitting area erected on the lawn below, the Dillons frequently enjoy the sun setting over the Cumberland Mountains and the wooded valley below.

The mountains seem to be calling many retirees to East Tennessee. Among the 19 counties in Tennessee that are certified retirement communities and are marketing properties to relocating seniors, 11 are in East Tennessee. Major mountain or lakefront developments targeting seniors include such developments as Fairfield Glade in Crossville, Tellico Village in Loudon, and Rarity Bay in Vonore, Tennessee. In Southeast Tennessee, other mountaintop developments luring seniors with rural appeal close to Chattanooga include Fredonia Mountain in Dunlap and Black Creek Mountain in Chattanooga, among others.

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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / A home with a view at Jasper Highlands in Jasper, Tenn. on Thursday, May 13, 2021.

More urban senior communities serving older people wanting the convenience of prepared meals and community events are drawing retirees from other states.

"We've seen a real uptick in retirees moving to Tennessee from higher-cost states like California," says Zach Ledbetter, the director of outreach and engagement for the state Department of Tourist Development who heads the Retire Tennessee program that markets the Volunteer State to relocating retirees. "Our lower tax rates and cheaper housing, combined with the quality of life and natural beauty, are a real draw for our state."

Greg Vital, one of the founders of Morning Pointe Senior Living who has worked in the senior-living industry for more than two decades, said Tennessee senior living facilities of all types are drawing retirees from more expensive northern states, as well as many already-retired Florida residents who like the four seasons and milder climate of Tennessee.

"Absolutely we have come a long way in the past 10 years positioning ourselves as a great place to live, work, play and retire," Vital says. "Low property taxes, no state income tax and the elimination of the Hall tax all contribute to an excellent tax environment."

There are more than 52 million Americans age 65 and older, comprising more than 16% of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau's Vintage Population Estimates. Every day, more than 10,000 more Americans turn 65 years old and the 65-and-older population grew by 34.2% during the past decade. The senior population is projected to nearly double by 2060 to 95 million.

That growth is leading to the development of more independent senior living facilities, assisted living and memory centers and nursing homes across Tennessee.

But Jasper Highlands remains the region's biggest draw. With 8,893 acres atop Jasper Mountain in Marion County, Jasper Highlands is expected to eventually include about 1,500 homes and the value of the development when built-out in the future should top $750 million, including the Top of the Rock restaurant and other community amenities.

More than 1,100 lots have already been sold at Jasper Highlands, collectively worth more than $130 million. Only about 175 houses are now occupied atop Jasper Mountain, but another 75 houses are under construction and the population of the mountaintop community continues to grow.

"There are a lot of other developments on part of a mountain or in different communities, but with an entire gated community on the mountain, this is almost like its own island," Bradshaw says. "We continue to see interest in Tennessee from all over the country (from relocating retirees), but especially from California, Illinois and Florida — pretty much wherever someone is trying to escape cost of living, taxes, politics or weather."

But within a half hour's drive of Chattanooga and with high-speed broadband service and a helipad on the mountain, Jasper Highlands is well connected to nearby urban amenities and health care. At the entrance to the mountaintop development, a wellness center, general store, restaurant and brewery serve both residents and visitors; while swimming pools, pickle ball and tennis courts, community parks and hiking trails give residents lots of recreational and community gathering opportunities.

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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / From left, Cheryl Hale, Karen Pryor, Connie Griffiths, Paula Endress, Sally Thornton, Lauren Durfee and Dave Endress show off their pickleball paddles at Jasper Highlands on Friday, June 4, 2021.

Dave and Paula Endress, who retired and relocated here two years ago from the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, Illinois, say "the mountains of Tennessee are awesome" and the amenities of Jasper Highlands allow them to stay active playing pickle ball, tennis and hiking while meeting other people from around the country. Although their retirement home is a bit bigger than the home they left in Illinois, their property taxes are only about 20% as much as what they used to pay, Endress said.

"It's a great community that has come together here, and we're all one big family here," Paula Endress says.