The young join the old in Florida city

Jobs and weather attract more singles to live in Naples

March 28, 2004|By John-Thor Dahlburg | John-Thor Dahlburg,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NAPLES, Fla. - It has been hours since the last early-bird specials of grilled chicken penne and bamboo steamed salmon were dished up at Zoe's. Midnight on Florida's Gulf Coast is approaching, and like Cinderella's coach, this city is undergoing a fast transformation.

The tribute band that played on a downtown street corner is gone, as are the silver-haired strollers the musicians cajoled into gyrating to "Twist and Shout." Now, South Fifth Avenue belongs mostly to the young: teens, people in their 20s and 30s, here to mingle and party.

At one outdoor bar, Ronan O'Malley, 21, sips a rum and cola. Naples, insists O'Malley, isn't just for grandma and grandpa anymore.

"You've got the beach a block away, plus good bars," says the Irish-born cook. "It's paradise."

Since the late 1960s, Naples has been a retirement destination of choice for the well-heeled and golf-mad, a mostly Republican, largely Midwestern and well-behaved retreat on Florida's southwestern coast. With seven miles of white, sandy beaches and more than 100 golf courses, the city has also provided a discreet and sunny pied-a-terre for well-known snowbirds such as sports greats Larry Byrd and Mike Ditka, author Robin Cook and television's Judge Judy.

"We used to be a mecca for retired golf-crazy senior citizens, let me put it that way," Mayor Bill Barnett said. "And the golf crazy are still here. But more and more, young attorneys, real estate agents, engineers, you name it - they're here too."

The most recent U.S. Census found this city of 21,000 and surrounding Collier County have been acquiring young, single, college-educated residents at a faster clip than any other part of the United States.

What's more, from 1990 to 2000, the overall population of the Naples area grew by 65 percent, to just over a quarter-million people, a frenetic rate bested only by Las Vegas.

"The image of Naples, and Florida, as one giant retirement community is out," said Roger Weatherburn-Baker, who owns an art gallery specializing in contemporary painters and sculptors. "Young people are attracted to vacation here, and they are even more attracted to move here."

One of the most tempting lures for the young is employment - from jobs in companies catering to the needs of well-to-do seasonal residents and retirees to new ventures based in and around Naples that have won national, even international, clients and reputations.

Employment enticed Gianna Vivo, 26, three years ago from up North. Now in her second job, as marketing project manager for ASG, a Naples-based software company with customers worldwide, Vivo has done well enough to buy a three-bedroom house. "I don't think I could have had this quality of life if I'd stayed in New York or Chicago," said Vivo, who is originally from Youngstown, Ohio.

The balmy weather is also a powerful magnet. The sun shines on Naples more than 330 days a year, and temperatures average 75 degrees, though summers can be downright steamy with monsoon-like cloudbursts each day.

Retirees began streaming here at the end of the 1970s, when waterfront lots in posh developments such as Port Royal sold for $40,000 (today they may fetch $7 million).

Younger people began coming at the same time, to build houses, pump gasoline and provide other services for the retired and wealthy. Every upscale community like The Estuary at Grey Oaks or Fiddlers Creek meant jobs for landscape engineers, clubhouse food and beverage managers, fitness trainers, golf and tennis instructors.

Over the years, the colony of retirees and snowbirds also attracted a small army of bankers, financial advisers, stockbrokers and other professionals eager to manage their money. By mid-2002, deposits in Naples area banks had reached $5.8 billion, a 70 percent increase in five years.

"Collier County got to a point where the consumers outnumbered the producers. Now the producers have caught up, and the producers tend to be young people," said Bill Schiller, communications manager for the Naples Area Chamber of Commerce.

But many opportunities these days have little or nothing to do with meeting the demands of older folks or the multimillionaires who may live here a few weeks a year. Entrepreneurs, many relatively young, have been moving to Naples and its environs to launch companies in telecommunications, software, marketing and other fields.

Joseph Buckheit, 33, a graduate of Naples High School, jokes that he returned home from New York City in 1996 after catching himself pushing old ladies out of the way when he was late to work. MediaBrains, a company Buckheit founded to track the effectiveness of magazine advertising, has 35 employees, many of them young, single transplants. "They're saying, `I don't want to retire here. I want to live here now,' " Buckheit said.

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