The sights, sounds and smells of Florida are etched into my soul forever. I would not trade them for any amount of money or fame. I was born there and never intended to leave.
The day that I turned 16 in January 1967, I borrowed a green 1960 Corvair and drove it to the old Highway Patrol station on E Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa. After passing my written and driving tests, they issued me a folded piece of reddish-colored paper that stated in bold type that I could drive motorcycles, cars and just about anything else save an 18-wheeler in Florida. I took full advantage for the next 41 years. Of course, the area beaches were regular destinations.
Up until the mid 1970s, beach bum bars and aging cottages lined the shores along Gulf Boulevard from Indian Rocks Beach to Boca Ciega Bay. My friends and I spent many Saturday afternoons on the gulf beaches admiring the latest swimwear for girls or giggling at heavier ladies who seemed unaware of their size as it related to their choice in swimsuits. Far funnier were the aging pot-bellied men with scrawny legs striding down the beach in Speedos as though they were Charles Atlas.
Saturday nights building bonfires on the beach and listening to the Ravens, Tampa Bay's most famous '60s almost-made-it-big garage band, slowly gave way to the '70s. During the 1970s and '80s, high-rise condominiums began replacing beach cottages and beach bums were seen less often than vacationing lawyers rapping on their car phones. Through it all, the muscle men and scantily clad girls still cause dads to don dark shades and moms to pretend they didn't notice the buff guy walk by. The Florida beat goes on.
I quickly resettled in Florida after serving in the U.S. Army for three years, including a tour in Vietnam. Eventually, I became established as an outside sales representative for a couple of large companies. This allowed me to spend a lot of time on the road in Florida. The thought of being tied to a desk in a state that offers gorgeous year-round mobility never appealed to me.
Then came the 21st century, and change. Sure, I still remember the Seabreeze restaurant, the original Silver Ring in Ybor City, and eating smoked mullet on the causeway. Florida is still a beautiful place that I love. But I had to leave, just as tens of thousands before me and no telling how many after.
Home insurance rates and property taxes are threatening to make Florida home to the rich and poor, or the rich and those who serve the rich. The middle-class and the young are being forced to leave Florida in growing numbers to protect their economic future and that of their children.
Florida's governor is a smooth politician but has done little to solve the insurance and tax noose choking Florida homeowners. Meanwhile, mortgage payments are forever going up despite lower interest rates simply because insurance rates are ascending faster than the sparks from one of those midnight bonfires. The people leaving Florida are not the poorest, those who pay little or no taxes. They are the educated; people who can see into the future and realize what it will cost to retire in Florida as opposed to North Carolina, north Georgia or Utah, for that matter.
What's worse is that the next insurance debacle is just a storm away. Unless insurance companies are forced to count their overall profits made in Florida, instead of crying about the potential effects of global warming when raising rates or dropping coverage on homeowners, the housing industry will remain stalled. Until property tax assessments are based on something lower than what the actual real estate market will return on investment, growth will not return. Eventually, the service sector job growth will follow the people leaving Florida and left are the rich and very poor.
Take my case. I hold a bachelor's degree from Eckerd College and have been a homeowner, paying all Florida property tax increases, since 1983. My income has been good, as was my wife's for many years.
Around the age of 57, it was originally my plan to downsize on a rural river lot or lake from where I would eventually ease into retirement and become a (famous) Florida freelance writer. I never intended to leave. But that isn't going to happen, now. Instead, Georgia will benefit from my future earnings and life savings, and I will write just as passionately about the Appalachians that I now call home.
Meanwhile, more and more educated, middle class Floridians are showing up in nearby states where there is beautiful nature and retirement-friendly taxes and insurance rates.
Norm, at the Jasper, Ga., Home Depot, is from Vero Beach, and Debra, our real estate agent, is from Lakeland. Our first night in the mountains we stayed in a hotel. The counter clerk was from Tampa and his daughter lives in Land O'Lakes, but is moving to the mountains soon.
Larry Clifton recently moved from Land O'Lakes to Jasper, Ga. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.