Gulf Coast Looks to Midwest 'Snowbirds'

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December 6, 2010 by   - () Leave a Comment

ORANGE BEACH, Ala. — For all the oil spill claims and cleanup work by BP, retirees from the Midwest may be the best survival bet for some Gulf Coast resort towns this winter, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

After a disastrous summer tourism season and a slower-than-normal fall, Midwestern and Northern visitors known as “snowbirds” already are flocking along the Gulf for the winter, filling up condo parking lots and campgrounds with cars and RVs from Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana.

This annual migration of the AARP set is worth millions to the coastal economy and typically serves a financial bridge for tourist-dependent condominiums, restaurants and stores between the holidays and spring break season, when business picks up again.

This year, snowbirds are critical for companies and property owners who have suffered because of the BP oil spill. Without the snowbirds, some businesses teetering on the edge of solvency may not make it until the weather warms up again.

Winter rates always are far less than summer prices, with many condo owners renting out their units to Midwest visitors for months at a time. Some condominiums and motels reduced their prices by two-thirds.

At the Gulf Breeze RV Resort in Gulf Shores, workers didn’t know whether snowbirds would be scared off by images of oil hitting beaches during the summer. Julie Kenney, who works at the RV park, was relieved to see campers from the Midwest begin arriving earlier than normal in late October.

“It would be really difficult if they don’t come,” said Kenney. “A lot of the snowbirds will travel over to Pensacola (Fla.) to go shopping, so it really helps the whole coast.”

Retirees Mark and Diane Schnabel of Linton, Ind., were worried about the oil spill but came anyway. They’re glad they did — the beaches are virtually oil-free, the seafood is tasty and a dry fall has made for mild days.

“We already have plans to come next year.” said Diane, relaxing on the beach with her husband.

Snowbirds are big business in Florida Panhandle communities like Panama City and Destin, where there was little impact from the oil spill. They matter even more in places that were affected by the oil like Perdido Key, Fla., and Alabama, which have a lot of condos and a reputation for lower prices.

“Those people tend to look more for bargain-basement deals, and those are more likely in areas with lots of condos,” said Fred Simmons, a real estate agent in Pensacola Beach, Fla.

Rick and Jean Neal have been coming to the Alabama coast for four or five years from their home in Linwood, Mich. This year, they have a corner condominium overlooking a beach dotted with heavy machines digging deep into the sand to remove the final traces of tar balls.

The oil spill was a worry, they said, and the cleaning machines are loud at times. But the Gulf water is still sparkling, and the weather is so much warmer than in Michigan.

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