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Eyeing competition, Florida increases efforts to lure retirees

But critics say: First, a better infrastructure

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Forget about the crowded canasta tables in Boca Raton. Never mind the early-bird specials at Miami Beach diners. To hear state officials tell it, Florida just can't seem to attract enough senior citizens.

The gray-haired set continues to flock to the state in droves -- fully 20 percent of all retirement moves are to Florida, according to recent census figures. But with aggressive competition from such upstarts as Georgia, North Carolina, and other warm-weather states, Florida is no longer willing to rest on its senior-friendly reputation alone.

Governor Jeb Bush has created a new branch of state government called the Office of Destination Florida, part of the existing Department of Elder Affairs. Its mission: persuade more retirees to plant roots in a place already referred to -- only half-jokingly -- as "God's waiting room."

"We have 76 million boomers sitting out there evaluating where they're going to spend the rest of their lives," said Chris Pool, a former United Way fund-raiser who now heads the office.

The office was formed earlier this year under modest circumstances: Pool is its sole employee, and it had to rely upon a partial annual budget of $100,000 provided by another state agency after missing out on the legislative funding cycle.

Now, though, the office wants Bush and legislators to approve an aggressive, $1.5 million marketing campaign in the coming fiscal year, with radio, TV, and magazine ads touting "mature Floridians" as the state's "secret weapon" and proclaiming Florida as "A place to play, a place to stay."

Critics say the state needs to do a better job taking care of its existing residents before rolling out the red carpet for newcomers. They cite increased demands on roads, hospitals, and water supplies, along with the state's tight fiscal climate. They also question the economic development statistics used to bolster the new agency's creation.

"If you're going to attract people to Florida because they have income to invest, you have to put the infrastructure in place first," said Gema Hernandez, a former Elder Affairs secretary. "The assumption of Destination Florida is that once a person gets frail, that person is going to move back to Boston or Michigan. That's the wrong assumption."

The new state agency had its origins in an appeal to Bush by developer Al Hoffman Jr., chief executive officer of WCI Communities Inc. and a major fund-raiser for the governor.

Hoffman commissioned his own study, which led to the creation of a 15-member state panel whose final report led to the governor's decision.

A Hoffman spokesman said the recruitment effort will benefit the entire state, not just developers, in areas ranging from increased community service to charitable donations.

"The benefits retirees bring to the state of Florida extend beyond real estate," said Ken Plonski," a WCI Communities vice president. "The state recognizes it's in its best interest to protect that leadership role and the economic benefits that flow from retirees."

Plonski joined the Florida developer after 20 years with the Del Webb Corp., developer of the Sun City communities in Arizona. That state too created a government entity to lure affluent seniors, but its efforts were curtailed after sharp criticism by cost-conscious legislators.

Supporters of the Destination Florida effort acknowledge that more needs to be done for the state's current retirees. Proposals call for elimination of the state's intangibles tax and a cap on property tax increases for low-income seniors.

The senior recruiters also want to extol some of the state's less well-known areas in hopes of sharing the economic wealth, including Ocala in central Florida and the Panhandle region to the north. Baby boomers want an untouched area. They want that small-town atmosphere," Pool said. "This is an opportunity to take growth into areas that can use that economic boost."

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