Sarasota, Florida. I am aboard the Sea Gypsy again, interviewing manufactured home residents some days, being deckhand and cook on my friend’s trawler on others. But I admire the beauty of the Intracoastal Waterway every day.
Here on the Gulf coast, the ICW is lined with houses, docks and canals. Houses may not be the correct word. Many are more like small palaces and it is probably safe to say there are more Tuscan villas here than in all of Tuscany. But that’s another story.
Anna Maria Island is the west side of the ICW as you travel south from Tampa Bay toward Sarasota. It is connected to the mainland by two bascule bridges that are raised when necessary for passing boats. The bridge farthest south connects to a mainland area named Cortez. As we pass, a scan through the binoculars reveals something unexpected--- a ground hugging dockside. No Tuscan palaces.
It is another resident-owned manufactured home community. It is a small: a five-acre site with 79 homes. Find a place there and you can live very close to the water without spending a million (or way more), while still being close to the luxurious silence of the Longboat Key Club.
Places like Cortez Park are scarce, but others dot the coast. Miles to the south, for instance, you’ll find the Naples Land Yacht Harbor. It is resident-owned with 352 homes. The monthly homeowner fee is $205 a month for non-waterfront and $230 a month for waterfront.
We motor on, eager to reach Marina Jack’s and its easy access to downtown Sarasota. As we coast into our slip I hand Annie a spring line. She is a familiar face at the gas dock, with the deep tan that comes from years in the sun and a glistening, brilliant-red manicure. Perfect for a John D. MacDonald novel.
Thwarted by weather, I rent a car and drive to Fort Myers. A friend there is nearing 90 but still plays tennis three times a week. A former Fortune 500 executive, he and his wife live in a gated community and enjoy membership in a nearby yacht club.
When I mentioned manufactured homes he said, “One of my tennis buddies lives in a mobile home. We’ll go see him.”
We drive to nearby Siesta Bay. Tony Gless meets us at the park’s tennis courts. He asks us to follow his bicycle. Tony is tall, fit and cheerful. So is his wife Pat. Tony retired as a middle school math teacher to take care of his ailing mother just before he turned 60. His wife owned a small dress shop. They spend the winter in Fort Myers and then return to Kalamazoo, Michigan.
“We tried different places in Florida, but always returned to Fort Myers. We first rented a condo on Fort Myers Beach. But friends had a place here. We thought “trailer park,” but we rented for two months and bought this place before we left. There is so much to do.”
Pat ads, “Last night was the first night we didn’t do anything with other people in weeks.”
I asked about the economics. “We own some farmland (in Michigan) but we don’t have that much cash, so renting the land was a good thing. Our unit cost $35,000 and that was easy to manage,” Tony explained. Their land lease at Siesta Bay costs about $6,200 a year. Other expenses are small.
There were 150 tennis players and he was the coordinator, he noted. “At home I’m active and on boards, but here I hold back and have fun.”
Commenting on the back-and-forth lifestyle he says: “I’ve been able to keep continuity of relationships. And here I can raise a tennis group in a morning!”
I asked if having a second home was a stretch.
Tony smiled. “We’re careful. Think of us as urban Amish. We don’t use computers. We don’t have Internet service. Or cable. We have an inexpensive phone service.” They are careful with their spending.
Why am I telling you all this? Simple. It’s time to drop the “ick” when we say “trailer park.” These communities are low-cost, easy-living second homes for people who can afford to vacation five months of the year. Stretch occupancy to year-round and you’ve got a one-stop shopping retirement solution for millions of people destined to retire less well off than they thought.
Either way, it’s an interesting possibility.