After attending a week-long Elderhostel course in Southwest Florida, I came home with new information and revised images of life in the Sunshine State. There were several outdated ideas about Florida I had to give up. My general idea was that it had the ideal climate for retirement living and was affordable for the middle class, but you needed to be careful about investing in land there. I recalled that comedians like Red Skelton favored the punchline, “If you believe that story, I’ve got some land I’d like to sell you in Florida.”


The town of Naples, where we stayed, illustrated the point about bad investments because the developers who first purchased the townsite in the 1880s went broke by 1900, and the same thing happened to their successors in the 1930s. In fact it was not until the 1960s that Naples really became a boomtown.


Currently it is one of our wealthiest cities, with the sixth highest per capita income in America, and the second highest proportion of millionaires per capita. Real estate is among the most expensive in the country, with houses for sale in excess of $40 million. The middle class workers of Naples have to commute from considerable distances because they cannot afford to live in the town.


One reason Naples has so many millionaires is that anyone who purchased a home there before the turn of the 21st century could now sell it for more than $1 million — to someone who would tear it down to make way for a new mega-mansion. The leader of our Elderhostel had recently purchased a modest home considered a “tear down” for the bargain price of $330,000 (only to learn that it had recently been flooded). She plans to live in it for the forseeable future.


Another of my outdated ideas about South Florida was that much of it consisted of swampland in the Everglades. In the 1880s efforts to “drain the swamp” for agriculture and homebuilding began but made little headway until massive canal building projects were initiated after WWII. As a result the ecosystems in Everglades National Park (dedicated in 1947) have suffered significantly from human activity, and today restoration of the Everglades is a politically charged issue in South Florida.


We learned that the Conservancy of Southwest Florida plays an active role in wildlife rehabilitation and the pursuit of environmental science and policies to preserve the land, water and wildlife of the region. They operate an animal hospital that handles an average of ten cases a day, ranging from pelicans entangled in fishing lines and hooks to sick raccoons and possums harmed by unsecured garbage. They also work to preserve threatened species like the Florida panther, which is nearly extinct due to loss of habitat.


The population of Naples doubles when the “snowbirds” fleeing ice and snow in northern states descend upon it. After Easter, however, most of them head north again to avoid the scorching heat and oppressive humidity of summertime. One interesting detail is that in order to claim residence in Florida (which has no income tax), quite a few snowbirds make sure to remain there for six months and one day, the statutory requirement.


In short, I decided to forget retiring to Florida or investing in swampland because I can’t afford either one.


Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches senior citizens how to write their life stories. A new class begins at Grayson College on March 8. Email him at jlincecum@me.com.