Fudgies of the South

Fudgies of the South

Snowbirds cause the same sort of excitement (and grief) in Naples as fudgies do here.

By Becky Kalajian

The same group that spends millions crowding Traverse City hotels, shops and restaurants during the summer heads south as soon as the leaves hit the ground.

And for year-round Florida residents, this seasonal influx brings with it a similar double-edged sword.

Snowbirds – a particular subspecies that in October takes I-75 south 'til it ends – are both the lifeblood and a burden for many Floridians, who welcome the cash but sigh at the traffic snarls, overbooked restaurants, and scarce tee time availability.

"They have a big impact on the economy, without a doubt," said JoNell Modys, communications manager for the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention & Visitors Bureau. "But there is a collective sigh of relief when they leave."

Naples, a quaint town of 20,000 or so just south of Ft. Myers, is a magnet for Michiganders and other Midwesterners fleeing the frost. More than 1.5 million visitors come the area each year, infusing more than $1.5 billion into the area's economy. Traditionally, Midwestern visitors have poured in through the I-75 corridor, a 60-or-so-year-old highway that starts in Sault Ste. Marie and ends in Tampa.

People who have always gone to Florida's west coast continue to do so, said Modys, regardless of choices now afforded them through air travel.

"Families have followed I-75 for decades, so a long-established tradition was set through the generations," said Modys, a third-generation Floridian.

Like Traverse City, Naples' downtown area was declining 20 years ago due to sprawl and an explosion of malls. An urban study recommended changing building heights from one story to three, increasing residential space. It also recommended free parking on the streets and in its two, four-story parking garages, said Modys.

"These decisions absolutely worked to create a walkable community," she said. "Downtown Naples is literally a promenade of people and autos in the winter months."

Although the 69,000 snowbirds – or seasonal residents – in the Naples area are primarily from Ohio and Minnesota, Michiganders have a very strong presence, too. No hard numbers are available, but according to some, those from the Great Lakes State make themselves known wherever they go.

"I can spot 'em a mile away," said Dave Osborn, deadline news editor for the Naples Daily News.

Osborn, a Michigan native, says that the Hawaiian shirts Michiganders wear are a dead giveaway, as well as shorts and flip-flops in 60-degree weather, a temperature much too cold for Southerners.

"I call [Naples] 'Midwest Florida' because so many people from Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota are here," he said.

Beyond the Miami Vice-style fashions, Michiganian snowbirds give themselves away with their speech, said Osborn.

"When I hear 'pop' instead of 'soda,' I know," he said. "When I hear people ending their sentences with a preposition, it's obvious."

Osborn echoed Modys' lament about traffic and other high season irritations.

"People drive horribly when they get here. They'll go 30 in a 55 mph zone, usually in the left hand lane, gawking, pointing, anything but driving," he said. "For them, it's a play land, so they lose sense of everything else. You really have to be on your toes."

Osborn, who enjoys striking up conversations with Michiganders, often wears sports regalia in support of either the Spartans, the Red Wings, the Lions, or the Tigers.

"I always get a comment from someone; today it was a woman in Target who liked my Sparty hat," said the MSU graduate. "People from Michigan are generally outgoing and very friendly."

And, like many sun-seeking Midwesterners, hungry for real estate. According to long-time Naples Realtor Yvonne Wood, average sales have hit a 57-month high and inventory is "very low."

"Last year the average home sales price was $385,000; now it's $435,000 and going up," she said.

Snowbirds are snapping up homes now that their northern homes are starting to sell, said Wood. While it's made the market tight, survival without the snowbird economy would be difficult, she said.

"People grumble, but it's just reality – it's how we survive," she said. "I think I can speak for all of Florida when I say we are very happy to have you all come down."