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A Fount of Youth in Florida

Naples, known as a placid Gold Coast haven for retirees, livens up with fresh faces. 'It's paradise' for those who are just starting out.

March 27, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

NAPLES, Fla. — It's been hours since the last early-bird specials of grilled chicken penne and bamboo steamed salmon were dished up at Zoe's. Midnight on Florida's Gulf Coast is approaching and, like Cinderella's coach, this city is undergoing a fast transformation.

The tribute band that played on a downtown street corner is gone, as are the silver-haired strollers the musicians cajoled into gyrating to "Twist and Shout." Now, 5th Avenue South belongs mostly to the young: teens, people in their 20s and 30s, here to mingle and party.

At one outdoor bar, Ronan O'Malley, 21, sips a rum and cola. Naples, insists O'Malley, isn't just for Grandma and Grandpa anymore.

"You've got the beach a block away, plus good bars," says the Irish-born cook. "It's paradise."

Since the late 1960s, Naples has been a retirement destination of choice for the well-heeled and golf-mad, a mostly Republican, largely Midwestern and well-behaved retreat on Florida's southwestern coast. With seven miles of white, sandy beaches and more than 100 golf courses, the city has also provided a discreet and sunny pied-a-terre for well-known snowbirds like sports greats Larry Byrd and Mike Ditka, author Robin Cook and television's Judge Judy.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Naples -- An article in Section A on Saturday about the changing population of Naples, Fla., misspelled the name of basketball great Larry Bird as Larry Byrd.

"We used to be a mecca for retired golf-crazy senior citizens, let me put it that way," Mayor Bill Barnett said. "And the golf-crazy are still here. But more and more, young attorneys, real estate agents, engineers, you name it -- they're here too."

In fact, the most recent U.S. census found that this city of 21,000 and surrounding Collier County have been acquiring young, single, college-educated residents at a faster clip than any other part of the United States. What's more, from 1990 to 2000, the overall population of the Naples area grew by 65%, to just over a quarter of a million people, a frenetic rate bested only by Las Vegas.

"The image of Naples, and Florida, as one giant retirement community is out," said Roger Weatherburn-Baker, who owns a local art gallery specializing in contemporary painters and sculptors. "Young people are attracted to vacation here, and they are even more attracted to move here. Once, they may have sold the home their parents retired to. Now, they may move in."

In an important way, this municipality is representative of Florida as a whole: It has become a lodestone for Americans who have decided to pull up stakes and try life elsewhere. The Sunshine State, which had only about half a million residents a century ago, is now home to more than 17 million, and gains more through migration than any other state.

In the 12 months ending last July, and not counting the increase in population due to births, Florida added an estimated 355,000 residents, nearly the equivalent of the population of Miami. If migratory trends continue, Florida, which surpassed Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois in the 1980s to become the fourth most populous state in the nation, should reach another milestone in 15 years or so, when it overtakes New York. Only California and Texas will have more people.

"The largest number of people moving to Florida are in their 20s and 30s," said Stan Smith, director of the Bureau of Economics and Business Research at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "It's because these people are just starting out."

One of the most tempting lures for the young is employment -- from jobs in companies catering to the needs of well-to-do seasonal residents and retirees to new ventures based in and around Naples that have won national, even international, clients and reputations.

Employment enticed Gianna Vivo, 26, three years ago from up north. Now in her second job, as marketing project manager for ASG, a Naples-based software company with customers worldwide, Vivo has done well enough to buy a three-bedroom house. "I don't think I could have had this quality of life if I'd stayed in New York or Chicago," said Vivo, who is originally from Youngstown, Ohio.

The balmy weather, naturally, is also a powerful magnet. The sun shines on Naples more than 330 days a year, and temperatures average 75 degrees, though summers can be downright steamy with monsoon-like cloudbursts each day.

As far back as the late 1800s, this seaside locale was being touted as every bit as sun-blessed and beautiful as its namesake in southern Italy.

America's Naples also benefited from hunting lodges, a fishing industry and the word that spread among the nation's elite and affluent about its being a fine place to spend the coldest months of the year.

According to local historians, the Naples Hotel played host during the first half of the 20th century to such luminaries as Thomas Edison, Greta Garbo, Hedy Lamarr and Gary Cooper. Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, had a retreat a little farther up the coast, on Sanibel Island, and would come to Naples to pick up supplies.

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