Melissa Zehr was in the midst of a midlife crisis.
It was days after her 40th birthday and her company was about to lay her off.
She had spent her whole life in Bloomington, Ill., but the Tampa Bay area, where she had vacationed since she was a little girl, was the place of her dreams.
“I have been miserable here my whole life,” Zehr said she thought at the time. “My favorite place to be is down there. Why not go live where I love to vacation?”
So in late October, Zehr took the plunge. She moved down without a job but found a position in five days that actually paid more than her job in Bloomington.
Today, Zehr could be the poster-child for the satisfied Tampa Bay resident.
She’s not alone. When Zehr started her job, she found two female coworkers in the same situation. They’ve become fast friends.
“We just chose to change our lives and move here and ended up at the same company,” Zehr said.
Stories like Zehr’s are not unusual. The link between tourists who vacation here and those who move here is well documented, said Kenneth Strickland. As the director of research and air service development for Tampa International Airport, part of Strickland’s job require him to study who comes in and out of the Tampa Bay area through its largest airport and provide that information to airlines.
Strickland calls this link between tourism and moving here the “I-75 effect.”
“People who vacationed here as kids and drove down I-75 to the beaches, they retire here as pensioners,” Strickland said.
In fact, in a study of what factors drew international companies to the Tampa Bay area, Strickland found one of the key qualities was simply that the company owner had a personal tie to the Tampa Bay area. One company owner told Strickland that he had a boat here. Another said his wife enjoyed vacationing on Clearwater Beach. Often it was a personal link that led them to move part of their company here, Strickland said.
More business tends to usher in younger professionals, a fact backed up by the data at least in part, Strickland said.
About 40 percent of Tampa airport’s passengers are 55 years of age or older, Strickland said. Compare that with the North American average of 26 percent, and it’s clear that Florida’s reputation as a state for the oldest among us isn’t based completely on stereotypes.
But airport numbers have also shown that a younger demographic is moving to the area. Young professionals, in the age bracket of 25 to 34 years old, have really “popped” in a way that they haven’t in the past, Strickland noted.
28-year-old Saxon Baum considers himself one of those young professionals. At 22, he moved to Tampa from Ohio in the hopes of jump-starting his video-sharing business venture with the financial support of local investors.
Six months, he told himself. But two years later, he realized that it wouldn’t be only a few months. He was here for the long haul.
The first few years were a bit of a struggle, Baum admitted. He didn’t feel entirely comfortable in the Tampa Bay area--he couldn’t find the right group of people or the right places to go out.
But in 2015, he moved in with two friends who were more accustomed to the scene and the city. He saw Tampa evolve and mature, almost in tandem with him, following his trajectory from a young adult right out of college to a mid-to-late-20s professional with real income streaming in and a desire to explore restaurants and bars in lieu of dollar-beer nights.
Slowly, he saw his friends from other states start to ask questions and express interest in visiting.
“I started having people from outside of Tampa say, ‘Hey, we just saw an article in the New York Times about Tampa, is this really happening down there?’” Baum said. “And the answer is absolutely yes.”
The Tampa Bay area’s lower cost of living relative to other cities combined with its urban atmosphere and relaxed environment, Baum said, make it an ideal place for young professionals to live and work.
Strickland echoed those same thoughts.
“Tampa just stands out as being unique within Florida,” Strickland said. “They’re surprised by the extent to which the culture has developed, the culinary scene. It’s a lot easier for these folks to leave New York having such a multitude of tremendous restaurants and cultural opportunities and come to Tampa."
What our survey found
When the Tampa Bay Times called for responses to our survey about why people move here, nearly 300 readers responded directly to our form and about 150 gave us answers on Facebook.
While we are hesitant to say the data reflects regional trends, as 300 is a small fraction of the region’s estimated 3.1 million total residents, the answers offer an interesting story. Here are some of the highlights.
1. The Tampa Bay area is filled with transplants.
About 83 percent, or 240, of our survey-takers said they were not born in Florida. 49 said they were.
2. Many came to the state as adults.
About three-quarters of people who responded said they came to the state in their adulthood, something we defined as 22 years of age or older. The least common age range to come to the state? Young adulthood, or 19 to 21 years of age. Only 15 people said they moved to the state at that age, meaning likely many of you who responded did not move to Florida for college.
3. A large swath of you came from the Northeast.
About 38 percent, or 90 respondents, said they came from the Northeast. The second-highest region fell to the Midwest, which had about 28 percent or 66 respondents hailing from the area.
4. Many of you came for a job, although that was closely followed by family and weather.
My job and the weather coupled with an unlimited amount of things to do— Sean Clark (@alwaysbob33) March 19, 2019
About 22 percent of you said you came for a new job, but that number was closely followed by 21 percent of you who said you came for family. About 16 percent said they came for the good weather. Some of you couldn’t pick just one reason and listed a combination of many of these in the comments.
5. Most of you love Florida’s sunny, warm climate.
Seriously. You all love the weather. When asked about your favorite part of living in Tampa Bay, a large percentage of you said some combination of the weather and the beaches.
6. Most of you hate the traffic.
We’ve written extensively about how Florida is not exactly the best state to be a driver. We’ve got some of the country’s most dangerous roads, most aggressive drivers and a tragic trend toward wrong-way crashes locally.
So what do you all hate the most about living in Florida? The traffic.
7. Another unusual factor you love about Florida: no state income tax.
A number of you mentioned no state income taxes or Florida’s low taxes as a selling point for the state. Only seven states in the U.S. have no state income tax, according to TurboTax. Florida and Texas are among the largest states to have no personal income tax.
8. There’s just something about Florida. It calls to some of you.
For some of you, like Melissa Zehr, Florida was a dream, a sort of siren call after years of vacationing there and living in colder climates. Some of you, like Facebook commenter Fallon Kubecka, made the decision to move to the state without even seeing your future city first.
Others, like Facebook commenter Heather, made the decision after life circumstances changed. Either way, they had one thing in common: Florida was a major draw.
9. We all know one person who won’t stop talking about how much they hate Florida--but won’t leave.
Our survey turned up those curmudgeons you know. They might be your next-door neighbors or the person next to you in the Publix line. They want to let you know how much they hate Florida, but they haven’t left yet, for a variety of reasons. It serves as an important reminder: For many, Florida is not a personal paradise.
10. But many of you are happy here.
It’s hard to say whether online surveys are self-selecting, but an overwhelming number of you said you were happy living in the Tampa Bay area. About 92 percent of survey respondents, or 264 people, said they were happy living in the area. Only 24 said they were not.
What more should we be asking?
And yes, many of you said we were asking the wrong question altogether. What we should have been asking, in your words, was why people are leaving Tampa Bay. Thanks to your feedback, we may take that up next.
Hi, Elizabeth 👋!— Smelton “Familia” Longmired (@tommythefamily) March 19, 2019
Perhaps a follow-up story on the droves of natives who fled our home state/ TB/ St Pete?
Surely, a pattern will glaringly make itself apparent.
Understanding, of course, that third world governments dislike introspection.
Let us know in the comments what you love or hate about the Tampa Bay area. Did we miss any other questions? Drop us a line.