There are a lot people who already know – or think they know – about the state of Florida. For one thing, many retirees live there. More than 17 percent of the state’s population is 65 years or older – and the state is, unsurprisingly, one of the most common destinations for military retirees. According to the Military Officers Association of America, a nonprofit service and advocacy organization, just under 10 percent of the nation’s military retirees choose to live in Florida. The reason for such a high percentage might seem obvious: Florida is built for leisure. It is, on average, among the warmest and sunniest states, with South Florida comprising the only tropical climate zone in the continental United States. Aside from Alaska, no other state has more coastline, and the state has by far more golf courses than any other.
Sunshine was a big factor in where many of Florida’s military retirees chose to settle, but for some, it had nothing to do with it. For service members seeking a second career in the public or private sectors – surprisingly, despite a 10.6 percent unemployment rate (as of May 2011 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and a recent decline in statewide population – Florida offers many economic incentives: It’s one of very few states that has no income tax of any kind, and no taxes on retirement incomes or inheritances. Florida’s estate tax is, compared to other states, limited.
In mid-April 2011, a report by financial services giant Wells Fargo predicted a bright future for Florida’s job market – in fact, it leads the nation in its potential to grow jobs, not only in the traditional sectors of hospitality and tourism but, as its population continues to age, in the growing life sciences industry, with cutting-edge research facilities pulling in abundant public and private funding.
Service members’ reasons for choosing retirement in Florida – and for choosing where, specifically, to retire within the state – are, like the state itself, more diverse and surprising than many Americans might think.
The Atlantic/Gold Coast
As in other states, military retirees in Florida tend to settle near existing bases, where they get discounted rates at commissaries and exchanges and, if they choose, receive medical or pharmacy services at on-base facilities. In Florida, one of the largest populations of military retirees lives in or near the metropolitan area of its largest city: Jacksonville. Three major installations – Jacksonville Naval Air Station (23,000 civilian and active-duty personnel), Naval Station Mayport (home to the Navy’s 4th Fleet and the third-largest Naval fleet concentration in the United States), and, just across the adjacent Georgia state line, Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay (homeport to the Atlantic Fleet’s ballistic-missile nuclear submarines – are nearby.
A smaller enclave, largely composed of retired Air Force personnel, lives a little farther down the coast, near the barrier island town of Cocoa Beach, between the facilities of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center, at Cape Canaveral, and Patrick Air Force Base, home of the 45th Space Wing.
Florida doesn’t keep statistics on military retirees, but some circumstantial evidence – for example, the number of veterans’ clubs or organizations in the area relative to other parts of the state – suggests that relatively few have chosen to settle in its most populous and vibrant cultural center: the southeastern Atlantic coast from Miami to Palm Beach. With its tropical climate, strong economy, and thriving sporting and performing arts scenes, it would seem an ideal retirement spot for many – and it is. But according to William Wright, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel living in South Miami, several factors combine to give others pause. For one thing, there is no longer a large military base in the area, though there used to be. “Hurricane Andrew, in 1992, blew away the Homestead Air Force Base [south of Miami]. It was never replaced,” Wright said. “All there is now is just a small group of people who service the Reserve squadron. All the retirees in the Homestead area left, and no hospital, no post exchange … remained available. So I would say there are very few people, relatively speaking, who seek retirement here.”
Compared to other Florida communities, the Gold Coast – initially named for the thousands of doubloons spilled offshore from a fleet of hurricane-tossed Spanish galleons, but now more ironically referring to the area’s ritzy real estate developments – is also an expensive place to live, Wright said. There is also the reality that the region’s population hub is in the midst of a sweeping cultural change: Since the early 2000s, around 60 percent of Miami-Dade County’s residents have been foreign-born, a larger percentage than anywhere else in the nation. For older retirees such as himself, said Wright – a native Floridian whose ancestors came to Florida in 1565 and helped found the state’s first city, St. Augustine – such changes are not always comfortable. But they’re not enough to make him want to move, either: “This was a great place to grow up. Some of us look upon it as a sort of Camelot back in those years. I’m 87, and one of those people still here who love it and probably won’t move.”
The End of the South: Northern Florida
Northern Florida, from Jacksonville west across the panhandle, is often called the “End of the South,” for two reasons: first, its climate. Technically classified as “humid subtropical,” the climate is warm here, with mild winters – but they’re still winters. Retirees from other parts of the country enjoy the change of seasons and the fall foliage. They also enjoy a slower-paced lifestyle with few urban pressures.
Rear Adm. Joan Engel (USN, retired), a former director of the Navy Nurse Corps, was stationed at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in the late 1980s – she and her husband, Lt. Col. Walter Limbach (U.S. Marine Corps, retired), went through flight school there – and never forgot it.
There is no typical Florida city, but Pensacola is the one that does the most to defy stereotypes. At the very tip of the Florida panhandle, it has much more in common with nearby Mobile, Ala., than with Florida’s urban centers. It’s also a big draw for retired military, with Pensacola Naval Air Station to the west and Eglin Air Force Base to the east.