Snowbirds flock back north

9:45 AM, Apr 5, 2013   |    comments
Marsha Rowe, facing front, says goodbye to Teresa Lonsberry as she and her husband, Bill, prepare pull out Tuesday from the San Carlos RV Park and head back to Michigan. They spent the last four months on Fort Myers Beach.
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Fort Myers, Florida (News-Press) -- Three blasts from the air horn signaled the last of many goodbyes.

With that, the 40-foot motor home with Bill and Marsha Rowe and German wirehaired pointers Dieter and Gretchen lumbered away. Destination: New Boston, southwest of Detroit.

"We're all leaving: It's just a matter of time," said Dick Werning, a neighbor of the Rowes at San Carlos RV Park near Fort Myers Beach.

Werning and the Rowes are Southwest Florida snowbirds - that human species who help make the local economy purr between November and April.

This month, improving weather, family and business ties beckon them north. It's a bittersweet time for many snowbirds - and for the local businesses who count on their dollars during "season."

The week following Easter also marks the beginning of the end for local tourism's "high season,' when visitor demand is highest and hotel rates peak.

At stake: In Lee County, a $2.4 billion-a-year local industry that employs almost 43,000 people. In Collier County, a $1.4 billion industry accounting for an estimated 32,300 jobs.

By all accounts, Southwest Florida had a slam-dunk good season. Business leaders credit improving consumer confidence, decent weather here - and bouts of bitter temperatures in New England and the Midwest.

"Season started early, and stayed strong," said Gary Locke, operations director for SunStream Hotels & Resorts' six properties in Lee and Collier counties.

"We had an extraordinary amount of group business. And, our leisure business was up considerably over last year," said Hunter Hansen, managing director of the Waldorf Astoria Naples.

Billy's Rentals on Sanibel Island "had one of our best seasons," said owner Billy Kirkland, who estimated his business was up 8 percent year over year. Among the big contributors: families with small children who rented bicycles.

At the Ocean's Reach condominium complex on Sanibel Island, "we had 97 percent occupancy January through March," said manager Andy Boyle, adding: "Business was up more than 7 percent for the season. How high can you go?"

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