Engel and Limbach are among the many who couldn’t stay away. After 11 years in Washington, D.C., they returned together to the region Engel lovingly refers to as the “Redneck Riviera.” “It’s Southern, but without all the congestion and everything of Tampa and, God forbid, Orlando and Miami. It’s just really a laid-back community with friendly people,” she said. “It’s close to Mobile, close to New Orleans, so if we wanted that, it’s available. We knew there was a symphony here, a children’s chorus and a choral group, and the Pensacola Opera.” They live on a golf course for the sake of Limbach, an avid golfer, and have access to a good local Veterans Affairs clinic as well as Naval Hospital Pensacola. Engel occasionally shops at the on-base commissary, but usually sticks closer to home.
Of course, none of these are the main reason Engel and Limbach chose Pensacola. She likes to repeat her husband’s yarn: “He says he got on the phone and started making phone calls, particularly to hardware stores, and asked if they sold snow blowers. And the first store that said, ‘What’s a snow blower?’, he said, ‘That’s where we’re going.’ Of course that’s not really true. But it makes for a good story.”
It was a different story for Capt. Charles Nute (USN, retired), who moved to Gainesville, Fla., for one reason: his grandchildren. He was already retired and living in Pennsylvania, he said, when the grandchildren began to arrive. “And we said: ‘OK, life is too short. We’re going to quit the workforce and come south and join our daughter and her family and grow up with our grandchildren.’”
Without knowing it, Nute and his wife landed in one of the nation’s top-ranked communities for its quality of life – in fact, it’s No. 1 out of the 400 U.S. and Canadian cities ranked in the 2007 edition of Cities Ranked and Rated; one of the nation’s Best Places to Live and Play, according to a 2007 edition of National Geographic: Adventure; and one of the top medium-sized metro areas in the 2010 Best Places for Military Retirement ranking, conducted by Military.com and the United Services Automobile Association, commonly known as USAA.
Fifty-eight miles west of Jacksonville Naval Air Station, Gainesville is a college town, home to the University of Florida and the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center. Nute and his wife volunteer at the university and through their local church while they try to make all of their four grandchildren’s soccer games. “It’s just fun living down here,” Nute said. “It’s a nice area to live in. There’s a draw for entertainment, with the Center for Performing Arts at the university; sports, of course, through the university; and if one wants to go to the water here, it’s about an hour or hour-and-a-half to either the Gulf Coast or the Atlantic. But we’re driven by just kind of hanging around here in Gainesville and enjoying growing up with our grandchildren.”
The Gulf Coast and Central Florida
Also included in the list of 2010 Best Places for Military Retirement, in the large metro category, is the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area surrounding Tampa Bay, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. The region is home to MacDill Air Force Base, the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM); the largest Coast Guard Air Station in the nation, Air Station Clearwater; and the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital. The area hosts a thriving community of military retirees that continues to be served by the installations where many once worked – MacDill’s 6th Medical Group, for example, conducts an annual Military Retiree Health Seminar, briefing retirees on the facilities and procedures available to qualified retirees and their spouses.
Retired Air Force nurse Col. Phyllis Parcells served in many locations during her 26-year career, including Vietnam and Alaska. She came to MacDill directly from Homestead Air Force Base, and decided she didn’t want to leave her home in Palm Harbor, about a half-hour northwest of Tampa on the Pinellas County Coast. “I like the west coast [of Florida] a little better than the east,” she said. “It has a little more of a change of seasons. They have great theater in Tampa and in Clearwater, performing arts centers, anything you could possibly ask for. I would never think of going back north.”
A little farther inland, in the city of Lakeland, Chief Warrant Officer Joe McDonough (USA, retired), an Army aviator, retired a few years ago after serving an active Guard/Reserve stint at the regional airport, which was until 1999 home to an Aviation Support Facility of the Florida Army National Guard.
McDonough and his family moved there for the aviation instructor’s job; he’d had no idea of retiring to Florida. Once there, however, he began to recognize his good fortune: Lakeland, true to its name, sits amid an expanse stippled with inland lakes that links the Tampa and Orlando metropolitan areas – an expanse known as the Lightning Belt, for its frequent thunderstorms. “In central Florida, specifically Lakeland, we’ve got pretty much everything you’d ever want,” McDonough said. “I’m an hour-and-a-half away from the ocean. I’m 45 minutes away from Disney World and all the attractions in Orlando. You couldn’t beat the medical service we have – thanks primarily I guess to what we call snowbirds, the people who come down from the North for the summer. Thanks a lot to them, our medical facilities are top-notch.”
To his surprise, McDonough also found a thriving arts community centered in Lakeland. “We spend a lot of money of local tax dollars in the arts and in beautification of the town,” he said. “We’ve got [a] Broadway-quality theater here. As a matter of fact, some of the directors are actually working in Broadway or off- Broadway productions themselves.”
While one of his children is married and lives in another state, McDonough’s son still goes to school in Lakeland – at a magnet school for drama students. No longer working full-time, McDonough doesn’t think much about where he’ll retire – he used to think he wanted to live on the coast, but now he’s not so sure. He might, he said, look into buying or renting a small vacation home on the Gulf Coast. But would he ever leave his home in Lakeland permanently?
“I could,” he said. “But I would have to give up strong church ties, a whole cadre of friends and relatives, and associates that I’ve developed here over the last several years. It’s not worth it.”