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Canadian Snow Birds Head South with Loonies

February 15, 2010 by   - () Leave a Comment

It isn’t just arctic blasts that the Canadians sweep into the United States this time of year. In Zephyrhills, Fla., the annual Snow Bird migration appears to have brought in more cash, too, according to the Tampa Tribune.

As in every other winter, this community in eastern Pasco County has swelled with silver-haired visitors escaping the blustery climes of Michigan, New York and Maine. A sizable, if hard-to-count, population also makes its way down the interstates from Ontario and Quebec, settling down in any of Zephyrhills’ dozens of Snow Bird mobile home parks.

It’s debatable if there are more Canadians in town this year: some restaurateurs insist they’re here in greater numbers, other locals don’t notice a trend. However, what is clear is that Canadians in Florida are enjoying some of their greatest spending power ever.

The Canadian dollar – dubbed the “Loonie” when it’s a coin – is trading for about 95 cents recently. That’s down from two years ago, when it exceeded the U.S. dollar, but it’s still way north of its level just a year ago, when it traded for 80 cents. Looking back further, it was worth just 65 cents in 2003. Anytime the currency rises, it means Canadians can buy more U.S. goods.

“The (Canadian) dollar’s really good,” said Chuck Edwards, 74, who is visiting with his wife from suburban Toronto. “I’m getting a lot (of repairs) done on my park model” mobile home.

Restaurants are benefiting, too.

“I like Applebee’s, Chili’s,” he said. “Last night we went and I ate a whole slab of ribs.”

There aren’t good numbers to show where Zephyrhills’ Snow Birds hail from, but locals involved in the mobile home industry say Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Ontario are big suppliers of winter visitors. Every year, the population of incorporated Zephyrhills and the surrounding areas swells from about 53,000 in the off-season to about 85,000 from November to April.

Zephyrhills has been a Snow Bird haven since at least the 1930s, said Madonna Wise, an author who has written about the city’s history. Other Florida cities also got their share of winter visitors, but decades ago Zephyrhills’ leadership really seized on Snow Birds as an economic opportunity and courted them, Wise said.

Locals have long since adjusted to the yearly influx.

Richard Hawthorne owns a small store on U.S. 301 here that sells lawn and garden equipment and a few golf carts for retirees. He loves breakfast above all other meals, he says, but knows that “If you don’t get into restaurants at 5 or 6 a.m., you’re not going to get a table.”

Some businesses here say they’re benefiting from the strong Canadian dollar. At Maine-ly New England, an established seafood house popular with Snow Birds, owner Mike Mira is enjoying his strongest year ever. The restaurant is bolstered in part by Canadian visitors, he says. Every year a group of Canadians hosts a big party at his restaurant and the party seems to be growing lately. Attendance has grown from 30 people two years ago to 42 people last year to 53 people this year, he said.

It’s impossible to know how many Canadians arrive each winter, but there is at least one sign that the overall Snow Bird population has rebounded a bit after falling off the last few years.

Every winter, Zephyrhills officials get a clue about their winter visitors by how many hook up to city utilities, said City Manager Steve Spina. In 2008, 2,069 customers hooked up to Zephyrhills utilities, most of whom were Snow Birds. The number rose to 3,048 customers last year, although it’s not clear how many were Canadians, Spina said.

Among other anecdotal signs of the strong Loonie:

  • More demand for RVs. Jason Crandell, who works at his family’s RV sales business here, said he sold few trailers to Canadians five years ago. But as the Canadian dollar strengthened, they began buying more. Today, about 35 people a day drive up to the family RV business, Jim Crandell RV Sales off Chancey Road. Slightly more than half are from Canada, he says.
  • Stronger interest in mobile home lots. Bill Gorman helps oversee about a dozen manufactured home communities around Florida for Lifestyle Choice Realty, in Zephyrhills, Apollo Beach, Orlando, Naples and elsewhere. His Zephyrhills park is relatively small, so he’s not able to spot much of a trend locally. But statewide, spending by Canadians seems to be up about 30%, he estimates. “I’d say there are more Canadians, and I’d say they’re spending significantly more,” Gorman said.
  • The Snowbird Extravaganza. This January, the big Snowbird Extravaganza trade show in Lakeland, put on by the Canadian Snowbird Association, had about 40,000 attendees. That was up about 5,000 people from last year, said Mike MacKenzie, the group’s communications director.

“The (Canadian) dollar drives everything,” MacKenzie said. “If you have a dollar north of 90 cents you’re going to have more people going to Florida.”

Around 5 p.m. Thursday, as a line of seniors waited for a table at Maine-ly New England, Bob and Betty Jolin were enjoying the relative warmth of Florida in a restaurant booth. Back home on Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada, the temperature was around freezing, Betty estimated. They would’ve come even if the Canadian dollar was depressed, but with its strength, “it’s more spending power for us,” she notes.

Canada is not without economic worries, despite its strong currency, said Peter Dungan, an economist at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. The country endured a tough recession. But, Canada’s unemployment rate never got as bad as America’s, Dungan said.

Before the recession began, about 6% of Canadians were already out of work. So, when unemployment hit its recessionary peak of 8.7%, it wasn’t that sharp of an increase, Dungan said. By comparison, the U.S. jobless rate more than doubled during the recession, rising from 4.5% to 10% this winter. It has since fallen to 9.7%.

Driving around Zephyrhills, it’s easy to spot mobile home parks flying both the American flag and the Canadian red-and-white maple leaf. However, there are still many more Michigan and New York license plates here than Ontario and Quebec ones. And, some mobile home park owners say sales are down for Americans and Canadians alike.

Still, other locals insist Canadians are here in force this year and spending. At Two Minutes, a kitschy diner run by an engaging Thai immigrant with a fondness for John Wayne portraits and the Cleveland Indians, Canadians have begun asking the owner for recommendations on where to buy a mobile home lot.

“Today, I had two different people, Canadians, asking me which park they should buy in,” said owner Kurth Sombutmai.

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