|By Rachel Pleasant, The Ledger, Lakeland,
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 26, 2006 - It's wintertime, and our winter visitors have once again flown their coops in the northern U.S. and Canada and temporarily relocated to Polk County.
While it's undeniable that snowbirds are here -- increased traffic on local roads is one testament -- there is evidence that perhaps the volume of these winter residents is lighter this year than in the past.
A count of snowbirds who come to the area -- or even to the state -- is difficult to obtain because there is no registry, census or other official way of tracking them.
A study by the University of Florida in 2004, which included surveys of 500 households during a three-year period, put into perspective the tremendous annual impact snowbirds have on this state.
The study found that approximately 920,000 temporary residents live in Florida during peak winter months.
The typical snowbird, the study found, is 55 or older and in most cases comes south from New York, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania or Canada.
The most popular snowbird destinations are Lee, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, Collier, Broward, Pinellas, Sarasota, Pasco, Hillsborough and Polk counties.
To get an idea of the snowbirds' impact on Polk County this season, The Ledger looked at a number of criteria -- some statistical, some anecdotal. The conclusion: Snowbirds are definitely here but there may not be quite as many as there have been in the past, and it just may be the hurricanes of 2004 that are to blame.
First of all, about the traffic: According to local police departments, this year is no different in terms of traffic volume. Snowbirds are here; there are more cars on the road, just like so many years before.
But snowbirds' impact goes well beyond the road.
These winter visitors also bring plenty of cash to the area.
According to the Polk County Tax Collector's office, revenue from tourism equated to $10.5 million in November, down 18 percent from $12.8 million in November 2004. But it must be noted that in 2004, the county was handling a large number of hurricane evacuees, which adds to the disparity between the two months. The figures refer to hotel and vacation-home rentals for the previous month, in this case October.
The Ledger also looked at the number of customers having their electrical service reinstated or upgraded at the start of the snowbird season.
At Progress Energy, for instance, winter residents can choose a seasonal rate plan, which requires that they are not in their homes for at least three months between March and October. The plan allows them to pay for a minimal use of electricity, which may be just enough to power security alarms or other equipment they might want to leave on during their absence.
When snowbirds return, they switch over to full service. Progress Energy saw a 5 percent increase of seasonal rate customers across the state between January 2005 and January of this year.
However, at the company's Lake Wales operations center, which handles service for the bulk of the company's Polk County customers, there was a 6.3 percent decline in seasonal customers during the same time period.
That decline equates to 400 fewer customers, from 6,300 to 5,900, said Cherie Jacobs, company spokeswoman.
"That surprised me, especially because of the statewide number," said Jacobs, who added that Progress Energy's data doesn't analyze why the number of customers dropped.
At Lakeland Electric, winter residents don't have the option of switching to a seasonal plan.
Unless they choose to disconnect electricity to their homes internally, which Lakeland Electric has no knowledge of, they must have their power completely disconnected and reinstated when they return, just as if they're moving in for the first time.
Move-in orders at Lakeland Electric, which would include both seasonal and new full-time residents, are steady, according to information provided by Kevin Cook, director of communications for the City of Lakeland.
In October 2004, there were 3,728 move-in orders, compared to 3,475 in October 2005, a year-to-year decline of 6.8 percent during a popular month for snowbirds to migrate south.
But other months showed a move-in order increase. In November 2004, the number of move-in orders was 3,255, compared with 3,392 in November 2005, an increase of 4.2 percent. In December 2004, the number was 2,774, compared with 3,011 in December 2005, an increase of 8.5 percent. Move-in orders also jumped in January, from 2,527 in 2005 to 2,683 in 2006, an increase of 6.2 percent.
TECO, meanwhile, which also serves customers in Polk County, has no way of tracking seasonal customers, said Ross Bannister, spokesman.
Seasonal residents also are likely to forward their mail to their Florida addresses during the winter.
According to Lesley Corban, customer relations manager for the post office's 338 ZIP codes, which includes all of Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties, of the 370,000 addresses where mail is delivered every day, 30,000 are listed as seasonal -- equating to about 8 percent of the total.
The ratio of permanent to seasonal addresses has remained constant, according to the post office, but that's not to say there hasn't been some shuffling.
"As the population is maturing, we find that a lot of people who have been going back and forth either come to stay permanently or go up north, where their family is," said Michael McCullough, postmaster, in a statement relayed by Corban.
Corban said that despite the fact that older snowbirds may decide to leave the area, they are being replaced by younger winter residents, keeping the ratio consistent.
In addition to electric and mail services, snowbirds also need medical care. The Ledger looked at hospital patient volumes.
Winter Haven Hospital reported 3 percent more patients in 2005 than in 2004, including the portion of the year when snowbirds are in town. Heart of Florida Regional Medica!
l Center, Bartow Regional Medical Center and Watson Clinic also report ed increased patient volumes. None of these institutions, however, could say what portion of their increased patient volumes is accounted for by seasonal rather than permanent residents.
Lakeland Regional Medical Center, on the other hand, hasn't seen the spike in patients it normally does this time of the year.
"Our volumes have not increased as much as we had anticipated for this time of the year, but we can't definitively say that's because of snowbirds," said spokeswoman Jennifer Olivier.
LRMC reported 10,067 outpatient visits in October through December 2005, almost 400 fewer than the 10,460 recorded for those months in 2004. LRMC budgeted 10,623 for the last three months of 2005.
The number of patients discharged, 9,125 in October through December 2005, was slightly higher than the 9,079 in the same period for 2004 but lower than the 9,284 budgeted.
LRMC may not be able to pinpoint a slump in snowbird visits but according to the Flori!
da Hospital Association, many Florida hospitals are seeing fewer snowbird patients this year than last.
While he could offer no official data, FHA spokesman Rich Rasmussen said that at least anecdotally, he's heard of other Florida hospitals that are seeing fewer winter residents in their emergency rooms and patient beds this year. He mentioned Lee Memorial Health System in South Florida as a particular example, but no one from the health system returned The Ledger's calls.
"You see snowbirds in Polk, Osceola and Orange, but Fort Myers, Sarasota and Palm Beach are the areas that really see a lot of seasonal fluctuations," Rasmussen said.
"Many hospitals have commented that they've seen fewer seasonal patients than in the past. The perception is that it may be because of recent hurricanes and a warmer-than-normal winter."
The hurricanes, a warm winter -- January was the warmest on record -- and higher gas prices may all contribute to snowbirds' de
cision to forgo their annual migration, said Tim Brady, a permanent Lakeland resident and secretary and treasurer of the Trumbull County, Ohio Association.
Brady said his numbers for this year's annual Trumbull County banquet were down slightly. Brady had 300 attendees at the Feb. 19 picnic, down from 335 the year before.
"It's down just a little bit," he said. "We used to get close to 500."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Brady said, there have been fewer banquet attendees.
Brady can't say for sure why he saw fewer banquet attendees this year, but he said he does know that some winter residents are returning only now to the area because their winter homes were damaged in the hurricanes of 2004 and took months to repair.
Some, he said, may have decided to steer clear of the state completely, fearing any weather wrath.
"I'm sure there are some people like that. Maybe the oldest of the people who had to go to a shelter might just say, 'Let's stay where the family is,' but they might have done that in a year or two because of health issues anyway," he said.
June Clark, a permanent Lakeland resident who helps organize the annual South Dakota picnic for seasonal and permanent residents in the area, said she too has noticed fewer snowbirds at her church and she thinks if anything is to blame, it's the hurricanes.
"It's the fear. They figure if they can sell their house or their mobile home, they're going back north," Clark said.
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Copyright (c) 2006, The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla.
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