Now that Thanksgiving is upon us and winter residents and seasonal visitors have begun to return to our seaside patch of paradise, allow me to take you on a nostalgic journey back to an earlier era when Vero Beach’s year-round population didn’t need a calendar to mark the time.
Allow me to take you back to 1980, when I was fresh out of Washington & Lee University and embarking on a newspaper career that has endured well into its fourth decade, bringing me back to the place where it began.
Allow me to take you back to my first summer in town.
There was nobody here. Well, almost nobody.
The snowbirds, as they are affectionately known, had already migrated north, most of them having departed shortly after the Los Angeles Dodgers finished that year’s spring training and headed west.
And those seasonal folks were a sizeable segment of the community: If my memory serves me correctly, the circulation of the then-local Press Journal, which was delivered to about 70 percent of the county’s homes, plummeted from 20,000 during the winter months to 13,000 in the summer.
To this day, I vividly remember going out for lunch at noon, walking across U.S. 1 – the stretch between 17th Street and State Road 60 – and not seeing a car on the road.
Obviously, a lot has changed since then.
Vero Beach still has its “season,” as we locals call it, and the postcard-perfect winter months continue to produce a surge in population, traffic and business for our hotels, restaurants and merchants.
But the disparity between our busy season, which now begins as early as October and runs into May, and the offseason isn’t nearly as noticeable as it was 30-plus years ago – or even 10 years ago.
According to census statistics provided by Phil Matson, staff director of the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, seasonal residents account for just 22 percent of the island population and only about 8 percent of the mainland population.
The mainland community does see an increase in traffic congestion, diners and retail customers, but most of that can be attributed to tourists, short-term vacation renters and the barrier island’s winter residents.
Florida Department of Transportation statistics for 2016 showed that traffic along U.S. 1 and State Road A1A was 20 percent higher during the busy season. The seasonal increase on the mainland, however, was closer to 10 percent,
Which makes sense.
“In a growth trend, such as the one we’re in, there are still peaks and valleys, but the valleys aren’t nearly as deep and we’re peaking from a higher base,” Matson said.
“That also makes the peaks look not quite as high as they really are, but that’s only because, as Vero Beach continues to grow, the summer valley can actually be higher than the winter peak from the previous year,” he added.
“In reality, though, the seasonal peaks keep getting higher.”
In other words: The Vero Beach area is still attracting noticeable numbers of seasonal residents and visitors, but more people are living here on a year-round basis, too, as the county’s population has doubled in the past 30 years.
Stan Boling, the county’s community development director, said the transformation of the Vero Beach area’s population into a less-seasonal, more full-time community has been a “gradual change.”
As the U.S. and local economies continue to rally from recession, the county’s population continues to grow – it now exceeds 150,000 – and is attracting more national chain stores and restaurants.
That, too, has made Vero Beach a more appealing place to live year-round, especially to retirees and empty-nesters from the Northeast and Midwest.
“As much as I love the mom-and-pops, out-of-state folks like to see the franchise names,” said Helene Caseltine, economic development director at the county’s Chamber of Commerce. “Those places make it easier to live here year-round now. Whatever you’re looking for, we can accommodate you.”
Conversely, Caseltine said these national chains are doing their due diligence and wouldn’t be moving here if there weren’t a full-time population large enough to support their businesses on a year-round basis.
“The calls for service have been pretty much consistent throughout the year,” Sheriff Deryl Loar said. “I used to see a noticeable increase during the winter months, but not anymore.
“With the economy improving and the county’s population continuing to grow, we’re going to see those numbers go up,” he added. “If the economy stays strong, you’re going to see residential development west of I-95 in the next decade.”
If the recent trend continues, more of the people moving here will be year-round residents – or seasonal residents who choose to stay longer.
“Some of them are still seasonal, but more and more of them are discovering that Vero Beach is a nice place to live year-round.
And it is.
But allow me to offer one bit of advice: Be careful when crossing U.S. 1, even in the summertime. Unlike 1980, there’s traffic now.