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Boomers next on the menu for state's appetite for retirees

Let's say you are one of 50 diners in a busy restaurant. Each time the waiter brings five meals out of the kitchen, you get one of them. The other four meals are fought over by the other 49 diners.

When it comes to gorging on retirees, Florida is that greedy diner. Every time five people retire and move away from their home states, one of them ends up in Florida. The other four are scattered among the remaining 49 states.

Now comes a panel, commissioned last summer by Gov. Jeb Bush, to spread the alarm that Florida's dominance as the No. 1 destination for relocating retirees is in jeopardy. Without fresh incentives to counter the recruiting surge by other states, Florida will see more relocating seniors choose other places for their late-in-life homes, warns the Destination Florida Commission. The panel's final report was unveiled last month.

"While Florida devotes resources to promote short stay tourism, it has not devoted the same attention to attracting retirees," the report says. "At the same time, other states such as Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia are devoting substantial marketing resources to eat into Florida's share of the market."

Cautions the report: If a portion of that steady flow of retirees to Florida is diverted elsewhere, the state will face "dramatic fiscal and quality of life implications."

Why wait until then? The Sunshine State already is struggling with those woes. About 59,000 "mature residents" left Florida in 2000.

But let's not hit the panic button just yet. The United States is on the front end of one of history's great migrations: the retirement of the baby boomers. This is a surge of graying population so vast _ and so wealthy, compared to past generations _ that Florida will be lucky if it is not overwhelmed.

Manageable growth? Good. A tidal wave of seniors? Bad.

Let the other states make their pitches to retirees. The boomer retirement pie is so big that after every state gets its slice, there still will be plenty of leftovers.

Sure, Florida could do a better job of attracting and retaining retirees. Clearly, more are becoming wary of Florida's overcrowding. Retirees who once dominated Tampa Bay and other Florida metro areas are fleeing north and inland to parts of the state where life is slower, roads less crazed and real estate prices more reasonable.

Absolutely, make retirees' stay in the state more pleasant, especially with better health services in their later years.

No question, other states are "discovering" that it makes strong economic sense to attract retirees, who tend to bring plenty of assets and fixed incomes that don't waver much in troubled times.

"As a group, retirees contribute more then they cost," says Mark Fagan, a sociology professor at Alabama's Jacksonville State University and a consultant to states on recruiting seniors. Retirees who choose to sell their homes and relocate tend to be wealthier, healthier and better educated than those who stay behind, he says. And baby boomers, the best traveled generation, will relocate more than ever.

Fagan sees a few retiree trends influenced by current events:

_ After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, more retirees will choose to settle in rural areas. Fewer will end up in concentrated metro areas.

_ Because of the weak national economy and the three-year bear stock market, more retirees will look to relocate to places with lower costs of living. That will reinforce the move to less expensive rural and smaller communities.

_ Continued fear of flying will discourage retirees from moving too far from friends and families. That will help those markets, such as the Carolinas and Virginia, that are less than a day's drive from highly populated areas in the Northeast and Midwest. And it may discourage some flow to Florida, especially the southern half.

Florida and Arizona don't have much to worry about yet from the increasing struggle for retirees. Warm climates, senior amenities established over generations and sheer word of mouth from current residents will keep these states dominating the retirement industry.

That won't stop the competing advertising campaigns and recruitment efforts aimed at relocating retirees. States such as North Carolina, California and Nevada are well-established retirement destinations. Mississippi began a clever program in the mid 1990s promoting "certified retirement cities" that met a list of retiree-friendly criteria.

Alabama _ hyping its Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail and mild winters _ and Virginia are gaining momentum. West Virginia and Kentucky recently have jumped in the game. Even Maine and Illinois, traditional sources of retirees in Florida, are trying to keep more of their own and lure a few seniors from afar.

In the 1990s, the Carolinas boasted they were gaining those northern retirees who first moved to Florida, didn't like it and then relocated halfway back home. The migration pattern became known as the "J curve."

Now another pattern may be emerging. As the Carolinas' high-end coastal communities, including Hilton Head and Kiawah Island, start to fill up, more people are relocating to the less crowded Florida Panhandle.

"Sales peaked in those Carolina communities in the late 1980s and mid 1990s, but similar beachfront sales in northwest Florida are rising," says Jerry Ray, spokesman for St. Joe Co., the dominant upscale developer on the Panhandle.

To chair his Destination Florida Commission on retirees, Gov. Bush picked T. O'Neal Douglas, who is a retired chairman of Jacksonville's American Heritage Life Insurance Co. Before he was elected governor in 1998, Bush was a director of American Heritage.

The commission relied, in part, on an earlier study that concluded retirees are no longer as likely to settle in the Sunshine State. That study was funded by one of Florida's big home builders, WCI Communities Inc. of Bonita Springs, which caters to retirees. WCI is run by Al Hoffman, who was finance chairman for the Jeb Bush re-election campaign last year.

To boost retiree recruiting, the Destination Florida Commission recommends that the state market itself more aggressively to out-of-state baby boomers, freeze property taxes for homeowners older than 55, improve mass transportation and invest more in home care programs.

Good luck. Florida's state budget is reeling from cutbacks and expensive constitutional amendments to build a rapid rail transportation system and reduce public school class sizes.

Not to worry. Old habits die slowly. Florida is sure to get more than its fair share of migrating retirees for the foreseeable future.

But we probably won't grab the lion's share of dinner anymore. The 15 fastest-growing retirement communities in the 1990s were in Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Missouri, Texas and South Carolina.

None were in Florida.

_ Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigauxsptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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