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Livin' large

Millionaires. Lots of them, the census shows. They're rapidly transforming the fishing village of Bonita Springs into a playground of the rich.


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 2, 2002

Millionaires. Lots of them, the census shows. They're rapidly transforming the fishing village of Bonita Springs into a playground of the rich.

BONITA SPRINGS -- Along the prairie-flat highways of Florida, from Flagler County on the east coast to Wildwood in the heartland to the skinny pines that line Interstate 75 south of Bradenton, the billboards are everywhere.

Come enjoy the Florida lifestyle, they beckon. Villas from $60,000. Homes in the $100,000s. Estates for $250,000. Sunny new neighborhoods of pools and pastels and fairways carved out of cow pastures and citrus fields.

Travel farther south, however, to the once-modest fishing village of Bonita Springs, and you enter the stratosphere.

Here, there are home sites that start at $500,000.

That buys the land at Mediterra, a brand-new development not far from I-75. Your Italian-style home with red tile roof and marble sinks and a pair of two-car garages will cost an additional $2-million to $5-million. A villa with 3,500 square feet will run from $700,000 to $1.5-million. The golf deposit alone is $175,000 plus annual dues of $7,900.

For an extra fee, the Mediterra staff will find locals to cut the lawn, clean the pool, dust the marble, even let in visitors while the owners are away in Europe or on Martha's Vineyard.

"At this level," says Mediterra sales associate Bill Westman, "you don't want to do anything."

Such homes are selling faster than workers can build them, one reason why the city stands out in a ranking of recently released census figures. Among "places" of 10,000 or more, Bonita Springs led the state in new arrivals with household incomes of $150,000 and above. The increase from 1990 to 2000 was an eye-popping 6,273 percent, and it is part of what made Florida a wealthier place in the 1990s, according to the census.

Bonita Springs also mirrors the state in another important way. The arrival of the rich has done little to bring poor residents out of poverty. Of the 17 percent of Bonita Springs residents who are Hispanic, most are migrant workers from Mexico and Guatemala who stayed after the tomato fields were converted over the last decade to upscale malls and gated communities.

Today, they construct the multimillion-dollar homes of their Anglo neighbors. They tend to their golf greens, stock the shelves of their grocery stores and wash the dishes in their restaurants.

And with most of the land going to accommodate the influx of millionaires, there is little left for affordable housing. Most of these workers are consigned to older parts of the city, where families and young men who send their earnings back home crowd into 30-year-old homes with as many as 10 to 15 people.

In one camp just east of the city, families of five, six and seven people squeeze into old recreational vehicles with little more space than a walk-in closet at Mediterra.

City and civic officials readily acknowledge the problem as one they wish they had addressed years ago. They say they are working on it, but activist Meg Hutchins wishes they would move faster.

"Without their contributions to the economy, Bonita would not have happened," she said of the workers. "They were here and they were willing to do the work and they were willing to do it for very small pay."

To descend off the Bonita Springs exit ramp is to hear the rumble of dump trucks on their way to Mediterra and other nearby developments. A new Publix and a new Albertson's are rising from giant dirt parking lots within a mile of each other.

Similar scenes take place every day in the many corners of Florida where urban sprawl is winning the day. But few cities have witnessed an accumulation of wealth like this -- a growth so astounding and so fast that residents can hardly believe it themselves.

"In 23 years in the real estate business here, it still amazes me the prices they get," said Andy DeSalvo, a real estate broker who is chairman of the chamber of commerce. "And it still amazes me where all the money comes from. And I do this for a living."

By all accounts, the new arrivals are a combination of business owners, entrepreneurs and high-powered CEOs from major American companies such as General Electric, General Motors, Kodak and Pfizer Inc. Some are retired, some are not.

Harlan C. Parrish, a regional CEO of Colonial Bank, cites a figure from last year's best-selling book, The Millionaire Next Door, which says the number of people in the United States with investable assets of $1-million or more rose from 1.9-million in 1990 to 7.1-million in 1998.

"A large percentage of these people in this million-dollar and up category are folks that are small-business owners that have done very well," he said. "They were thrifty; they saved money. They could have bought a BMW or a Jaguar but they didn't."

* * *

In 1990, Bonita Springs was home to 23 households with incomes of $150,000 or more. Much of the city was still pasture or tomato fields, with a few unremarkable restaurants, stores and strip malls.

By 2000, the number of households earning $150,000 and up was almost 1,500. Florida, by contrast, has just over 260,000 households with $150,000 or more in 2000, an increase of 229 percent.

The influx of wealth to Bonita Springs has dramatically changed the nature of a town once known as a place where you could rent a tiny fishing cottage and pull snook from the cozy banks of the Imperial River.

"No one ever came here," said Ben Nelson, 48, who has lived in Bonita Springs 42 years and was elected to the City Council after the town was incorporated in 1999.

"When you said you were from Bonita Springs, they thought you were barefoot and had a piece of hay hanging from your mouth and you smelled like fish," he said. "We thought we were blessed when we got a Dairy Queen."

Now, he says, the reaction is something akin to what residents of nearby Naples are accustomed to hearing: "Oh, Bonita Springs!"

Just in the two years since the 2000 census, the city has swelled from about 25,000 to 38,000.

The open fields along U.S. 41 have been covered with Oriental rug stores, art galleries, jewelry stores, a new movie complex, home design houses and many world-class restaurants.

Ten years ago, a small group of women held art classes at the modest community center. No one imagined the new $3-million arts center that is largely the work of the wives of Northern millionaires who brought with them a talent for fundraising galas.

"They drew in people who also had experience in reaching out to where the money was," said Midge LePree, a worker at the new center.

At the Promenade, an exclusive new shopping center on U.S. 41, the signature restaurant is Roy's (for chef Roy Yamaguchi), where the salads are $9 and the list of Hawaiian-themed $25 entrees includes "Japanese Style Misa Yaki Butterfish." The hot dog-free kids menu offers "Hibachi Style Mahi Mahi with Rice and Green Beans."

Just down the road at the regional headquarters of Colonial Bank, Parrish, the CEO, has opened a room off the lobby with marble pillars, a wet bar and streaming stock quotes. There, the bank's new private banking division pampers customers with investable assets of $300,000 or more -- not including home equity.

Parrish, his own income well north of the Census Bureau's $150,000 figure, was transferred to southwest Florida in 1999 and decided to center the bank in Bonita Springs. Though he could have afforded much more, he bought a five-bedroom, $300,000 home in a gated community, and is among the local business people who have set their sights on solving the affordable housing crisis.

"I'm just always very conservative, was raised that way," said Parrish, 43. "My dad was in the military and I'm not going to be house rich and cash poor. I want to be able to travel and do things."

At Mediterra, meanwhile, the sales staff is still buzzing about the month they had this spring when five $5-million homes were sold.

Among the customers was a couple who decided to buy in three days. Another couple from California rode into town in an RV and purchased a home 48 hours later.

* * *

At the worker camp outside of town, Maribel Vazquez, 32, lives with her husband and three young children in a very different RV.

The double bed takes up all the available floor space in one room. The couch is only inches from the TV. A person can enter the front door and reach the kitchen sink in three steps.

The couple has tried for better housing. But in a city elbowing out space for the world's millionaires, the best they can find are $1,000-a-month apartments. Vazquez's husband takes home $525 a week as the grounds manager at a nearby golf course.

"We want a better future," she said.

Nelson, the City Council member, said the new wealth should generate taxes that soon will allow the city to take better care of its less fortunate residents. For now, though, he and others in Bonita Springs are still in a kind of daze over the promise and peril that the 1990s have set at their feet.

"I never left my town," Nelson said. "My town left me."

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