Baby Boomers flush with cash and a persistent wanderlust are flocking to Florida’s Lee County’s recreational vehicle parks in record numbers.
For a crippled economy, the revival of the RV industry with the hundreds of millions of dollars it brings to Southwest Florida comes at a good time, according to the Fort Myers, News-Press.
In 2009, about 37,000 RV/campground users in Lee County poured $228 million into the local economy — an increase of 35% over 2008. It’s the only area of tourism that grew over the prior year, according to the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau.
From December 2009 through March, RVers added $123 million to the local economy.
The days of “trailer trash” are over, said Linda Profaizer, president and CEO of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC). “That’s old, historic thinking. Today’s parks are upscale and filled with people who have been successful in life.”
Lee County’s 79 RV resorts — home for a few days or year-round for residents — also contribute almost $300,000 annually to Lee’s tax base from license fees. They add a portion of an estimated $25 million to the county’s bed tax, which is used for beach renourishment and tourism promotion.
Figures also show:
- The number of tourists who came to Lee County in RVs doubled from February 2009 to February 2010. Four percent of all tourists this February came in RVs.
- Occupancy in RV parks rose by 5.4% in the months of December through March.
- The majority of motor homes now dominating parks fetch $500,000 and up.
Parks are catering to wealthy Baby Boomers who no longer want to be tied to one vacation home.
“The thing that’s great about RVing is that you go where you want to go, and if you don’t like it, you can go somewhere else,” said Eric Higgins, a 63-year-old car dealership owner from Bridgewater, Nova Scotia.
Every fall, Higgins and his wife pack their dog, clothes and food in their $700,000 RV and travel 2,700 miles to spend almost six months of the year at the upscale Cypress Woods RV Resort in Fort Myers.
While resort-style RV parks are the new rage among touring Baby Boomers, RV parks that became permanent homes for Lee County’s poor may have indirectly benefitted from natural and man-made disasters during the past decade. Hurricanes, floods and a collapsing economy have ended up a blessing for the parks.
Ten years ago, RV parks were on the brink of extinction. In the late 1990s and early last decade, park owners were selling their acreage to residential and commercial developers. The property was in demand.
So were the RVs, because Lee County’s poor had few other housing options. With property values at an all-time high in 2004, rent for one-bedroom apartments was $600 and up. A shortage of affordable housing in Bonita Springs and Pine Island made RV parks one of the few viable options.
Soon, parks such as Manna Christian just outside Bonita Springs and Pink Citrus on Pine Island became so overcrowded that Lee County commissioners and code enforcement had no solutions.
Mother Nature, however, did.
Ty Young, 34, has lived in the Pink Citrus RV Park for 10 years. He has seen it at its worst — before Hurricane Charley and immediately after.
“Back then it wasn’t uncommon to find five to 10 people sharing a trailer,” he said during a break at the Bocilla Island Seaport restaurant.
“After the storm, the county came in and started to clean it out. They started cracking down on the add-ons and got rid of a lot of the real shabby looking trailers,” he said.
“It’s a lot better than it was,” he said.
Money to spare
While Manna Christian and Pink Citrus remain as no-frills RV parks for low-income residents, many of Lee County’s RV parks have set themselves up to be attractive destinations.
“(Baby Boomers) like having upscale things and the parks had to find ways to provide them,” Profaizer said.
Winter season this year was so successful the owners of Fort Myers’ Cypress Woods RV Resort decided to expand by 130 sites, said Dick O’Connell, the resort’s sales director.
“If we had another 100 sites in February, we could have filled them all,” he said. “We have a waiting list.”
With less money spent on lodging, RVers have more to spend at attractions and restaurants.
On the move
“The amount they spend on lodging is less, but the amount they spend elsewhere is a significant component of visitor expenditures,” said Tamara Pigott, the executive director of the VCB.
RVers spent 35% more in 2009 than 2008. Visitors at hotels, motels and resorts spent 10.8% less and those staying at condos, cottages and vacation homes spent 9.9% less, according to the VCB.
“They’re a significant segment of our tourism,” Pigott said. “RV parks represent 20% of our occupied room nights.”
Patti and Charles Donahue spent more than two months at $115 a night for a beachfront space at Red Coconut RV park.
“If we wanted to have a beachfront hotel room in Naples, we’d be spending about $350 a night,” said Patti Donahue, 66. “By doing what we’re doing – sleeping in our own beds and cooking our own meals — we can stay on vacation longer.”
Improvements to many of the county’s RV parks now include resort-style swimming pools, fitness centers and spas.
For people such as the Donahues, shuffleboard and bingo nights aren’t a draw.
“The idea of being able to pick up and go whenever you want is what attracted me to it,” Charles Donahue said from inside his RV, which includes granite countertops, flat screen TVs and an assortment of other bells and whistles.
“When I retired ,I thought, ‘If you sit down in that rocking chair in New England, soon you won’t be able to get out of it.'”