While government officials wage intense battles for new business to keep Idaho's economy expanding, a state economist sees the nation's growing population of retirees as an untapped reservoir of financial strength.

"Unlike young migrants, for whom the region must provide employment, retirees bring the equivalent of a job with them - their fixed income," says economist Richard Gardner of the Division of Financial Management. "The deferred income of retirees is the equivalent of a new basic industry."The Sunbelt states have been benefiting from the rising mobility of retirees for decades, but Gardner says there is no reason why at least some communities in Idaho, especially rural ones in the more temperate regions of the state, cannot cash in as well.

Those areas would include the Treasure and Payette River valleys in the southwest, the Lewiston-Orofino area to the north and the Hagerman Valley in south-central Idaho.

Idaho has the kind of climate, recreational and scenic opportunities, low cost of living and friendly, crime-free atmosphere a large segment of America's retired population is looking for, he says.

It will take some investment of time and money from the state and local communities, Gardner points out. But an economic development strategy for attracting retirees is not nearly as risky as one focused on new businesses. And it provides significant financial benefits to communities without dramatically increasing demand for services.

Pulling together information from a large number of studies on older Americans, Gardner concedes only a small number of retirees are apt to move after they take their pensions. But nearly 5 percent of the nation's senior population relocated to new states toward the end of the 1970s, and they seem to be the younger, more affluent, better-educated members of the elderly population.

Moreover, the statistics show that despite the belief that America's elderly are impoverished, senior citizens have cashed in on the high interest rates of the last decade. They now have twice the household wealth of the average family and nearly twice the discretionary income - dollars available for the recreational and entertainment opportunities many Idaho communities can provide.

There is a legitimate concern about the eventual failing health of seniors, potentially increasing the burden on the state's medical and social services systems. But, Gardner says, "Given the relative youth, good health and affluence of migrating retirees, the economic benefits to the receiving state are apt to far outweigh the costs."

In fact, he says, the states that saw the bulk of retiree migration in the 1970s credit that development with the economic turnaround of their rural areas.

The benefits to a community attracting migrating retirees are many. They range from stability for the local economy - since retiree income is not affected by business cycles or seasonal activity - to low public costs because they pay property taxes but do not add any burden to public schools.

"Many of their purchases are for labor-intensive services, meaning that a retirement strategy will have a greater secondary effect on local employment than growth in other industries," Gardner says.

An increased number of retirees opens the door for expanded health care services that can provide year-round, off-farm income critical to keeping some families on their small and mid-size farms. And their financial assets, normally transferred to local banks, can boost the amount of capital available for local investment.

But Gardner says luring retirees to Idaho's rural communities cannot be accomplished by simply launching an advertising campaign.

While that campaign is needed and could be coupled with the state's current marketing efforts for tourism and the statehood centennial, it has to be augmented by local improvements in senior services. Those include senior citizen centers, transportation networks and home care and home health-care services.

Possibly most important, however, Gardner says, "Residents must understand what these newcomers mean to the health of their area and welcome them into the community rather than shunning them as newcomers."

The marketing campaign should be conducted through publications aimed at senior citizens in states where some migration to Idaho has already been identified like California, Utah, Montana, Alaska and Nevada. It also should emphasize the low cost of living in Idaho, especially for housing, since retirees from many other areas can buy an Idaho home equivalent to the one they sell for less than half the price.

"A move to Idaho offers a big jump in standard of living, both financially and aesthetically," Gardner says.

"Attracting retirees is much less risky to the state because there are many more elderly than companies to locate in Idaho," he says. "Our existing elderly will benefit from the development of programs and services, . . . and the population of senior citizens is growing and will continue to grow for 40 years, so this strategy is very timely."

The question is how many retirees can the state lure and how long will it take. Gardner predicts that a sound marketing strategy could take two years or more and it might only increase the number of incoming retirees from the 400 a year during the late 1970s to 1,000 a year.