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Retiree Flow To Florida Slows

By MICHAEL SASSO, The Tampa Tribune
Published: December 20, 2007

SUN CITY CENTER - Retirees used to view Florida as the land of sun, golf and the good life. But these days, Florida sometimes gets a different reaction.

"What I hear from people is, 'Oh, I wouldn't move to Florida with all those hurricanes,'" said Paul Wheat, 69, president of the Sun City Center Community Association and a Florida fan.

If they're not complaining about Florida's hurricanes, Northern seniors occasionally cite concern about Florida's sinkholes, expensive housing, and high property taxes and insurance, Wheat said.

There may be something to his impromptu surveys. Florida has been losing ground as a retirement destination since at least 1980, but recent U.S. Census data suggest the state's appeal among retirees is starting to slip further.

Don Bradley, a sociologist at East Carolina University who has studied retirement migration, said in 2006 that Florida attracted an estimated 13 percent of people 56 and older who moved across state lines. That was down from about 16 percent in 2005. Figures from 2000 show that Florida received 19 percent of migrating seniors.

Until 2006, Florida had led the nation in the "net migration" of people 56 and older (people moving into the state minus people moving out), according to Bradley's analysis. However, in 2006 Florida fell to fourth in the nation in net migration of seniors, after Texas, Georgia and North Carolina. Florida fell because fewer seniors moved into the state last year than in previous year, while more seniors left the state.

While hurricanes and a higher cost of living have hurt Florida, other  Southern states appear to be picking off Florida's share of retirees through tax incentives, marketing plans and other incentives.

Other States Trying Harder

Florida developers continue to market to the retirement-minded. But Florida's state government has no formal effort to lure the coming wave of Baby Boomer retirees, according to calls to several Florida government agencies.

A big question: Even if Florida resolves its tax and insurance problems, has the retirement momentum shifted elsewhere for the long term?

"Florida's been sort of the big kid on the block for so long," said Charles Longino Jr., an expert on retirement migration at Wake Forest University. "But other states are trying harder now, so it's bound to affect the outcome."

There's debate about whether Florida even needs more retirees. The state now has about 4.1 million seniors, or about 23 percent of its population of 18 million, according to the Florida Department of Elder Affairs. That may swell as the Baby Boom generation retires.

The United States generated about 2 million new retirees in 2000, according to a report by David Denslow, an economist at the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research. That will grow to about 2.6 million per year in 2010 and swell to 3.5 million per year in 2025. That should increase demand for Florida, Denslow said.

Being a retiree haven hurts Florida's schools, some state economic development leaders say, because some seniors oppose tax increases to fund education. Denslow said retirees also create a demand for low-paying service jobs - with the exception of health care workers -and create less demand for high-paying scientists, engineers and managers. That's because those highly-paid professionals often work for companies that serve national and international markets, not local
markets, Denslow said.

Still, retirees are a plus for state economies, Denslow and other economists say. Retirees cost states money for Medicaid, but generally require less in state and local services. Generally, retirees provide $4 in revenue for every $3 they cost in government services, Denslow said.

With that in mind, neighboring state governments and private developers a re aggressively courting Baby Boomers. For example:

  • In Georgia. Gov. Sonny Perdue has been pushing the state's legislature to exempt income from retirement plans from Georgia's state income tax. Starting next year, the first $35,000 in retirement income will be exempt from the tax. Perdue wants the legislature to exempt all retirement income, said Bert Brantley, the governor's press secretary. "It's certainly meant to help attract retirees to the state," Brantley said. "The governor sees it as a revenue-positive idea."

  • In Tennessee, the state's economic development department has a new initiative called "Retire Tennessee." The state has chosen nine largely-rural communities that have amenities and lifestyles for retirees and is helping them market themselves as retirement destinations. Among them is Chattanooga. The state also is sending representatives to retirement-related trade shows nationwide and is advertising in Southern Living magazine.

  • In North Carolina one of the hottest retirement destinations is the Asheville region. Richard Lutovsky, president of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, estimated his area has up to 30 planned communities under development, half of which are estimated to have golf courses. Retirees may buy many of the homes, he said.

'Florida's Slipping'

One new Tennessee retiree is Laura Imboden, a 57-year-old from Colorado's ski country. In the past 18 months, she and her husband have toured the country in an RV, but come July, they will retire to Tellico Village, a planned community in eastern Tennessee. Tennessee's close to family across the Midwest and Northeast and has relatively low taxes, she said.

"Florida had entered our minds," Imboden said. "Most people from Colorado retire in Arizona, but we knew that Arizona was farther than where we wanted to be. And so is Florida. And it's just so hot there in the summer."

Developers that have retirement communities in Florida and actively market to retirees include Del Webb, a division of Pulte Homes, Inc., and WCI Communities, Inc. Company representatives did not return calls for this story.

How many other new retirees will pass over Florida is anyone's guess.

But William Haas, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, has studied Census data and found that in 2006 Georgia attracted 2.78 people aged 60 or older for every person who left the state. In contrast, Florida attracted 1.12 people aged 60 or older for every person who left the same year.

Haas' conclusion: "Florida's slipping."

Five years ago, former Gov. Jeb Bush created a commission called Destination Florida to find ways to keep the retiree pipeline flowing. Among its recommendations was freezing property tax increases for people 55 and older. The tax increases would be deferred until death, when the person's estate would pay the deferred amount.

It also recommended eliminating the intangibles tax on stocks and bonds, and having Florida's Department of Elder Affairs get more involved in the state's economic development arm, Enterprise Florida.

The state eventually nixed the intangibles tax, but commission Chairman T. O'Neal Douglas said most of its recommendations were never enacted. Douglas declined further comment.

Representatives of Enterprise Florida, Elder Affairs, and Visit Florida, the state's tourism agency, said their agencies have no marketing program to attract seniors, and it's not a formal economic development goal.

Douglas Beach, secretary of the Department of Elder Affairs, said the state is working with its cities and counties to make Florida more attractive for young and old alike, part of a program called Communities for a Lifetime. An example is putting in larger street signs to help seniors, Beach said. Also, Florida is starting an effort to attract out-of-state health care workers to the state, Beach said.

Back in Sun City Center, a handful of seniors were molding ceramics during a morning arts and crafts class. Their prediction: Florida will never lose its luster for retirees.

Even Atlanta is too cold for Nan Burgett, who moved here from Atlanta nine years ago. "I would never move back," she said. "I love the weather here." "We came down here because we fell in love with it," said Terri Wherle, who moved to Sun City Center two and a half years ago from Ohio. "I do not miss shoveling 20 foot of snow at all."

Reporter Michael Sasso can be reached at (813) 259-7865 or