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Lakeland, city of the future

If the spending habits of the city reflect those of the nation in 20 years, as experts predict, expect a run on toupees and salmon-colored slacks.

Published June 12, 2005

LAKELAND - "Do you play golf?" Mike Phillips asks.

You're afraid to answer yes, because Phillips is showing you a steel casket screen-printed entirely with a hacker's landscape of rolling green turf stretching to a blue horizon.

It's called "Fairway to Heaven," and if you're visiting Phillips' casket store and funeral chapel in Lakeland, it could be your cart to the hereafter.

And at $2,863, the casket is a relative bargain, like the rest of Phillips' services. For funerals, you can rent his chapel cheap, especially if you BYOP, or bring your own preacher.

"Most funeral homes will meet you in a suit and tie. Believe it or not, you're paying for that. I meet you in a golf shirt," says Phillips, a blond-bearded guy with a firm handshake.

America: Observe your future. From the New Man Hair Replacement Center to the Patchwork Pig quilting store to Phillips' casket showroom off U.S. 98, Lakeland is a window into the economy of the not-so-distant future.

At least that's what a bunch of academics at Wake Forest University in North Carolina say.

In a study released last month, economists said Lakeland's percentages of elderly and middle-aged people (18 percent and 23 percent, respectively) jibe with the estimated percentage of such people in all of America in 2025.

The university reckons the spending habits of Lakeland today reflect the spending habits of the country in 20 years. That's when all of the baby boomers will have reached retirement age.

Lakeland, long ignored as the not-so-thrilling filling between the crusts of Orlando and Tampa, suddenly finds itself a trendsetter.

Churches, physicians, toupee dealers, golf apparel salesmen and all-you-can-eat buffet cooks: Prepare to reap thy bounty.

Lewis Coleman turned his barber shop near downtown Lakeland into a side business called the New Man Hair Replacement Center.

At 87, he's long past retirement age. Yet the follicle-deprived won't leave him in peace at his shop, at Parker and Mabel avenues.

First, a few facts: Gray hair toupees are his biggest sellers. You can get your rug in densities of gray from 10 percent to 90 percent. (The difference between Smokey and the Bandit Burt Reynolds and Boogie Nights Burt Reynolds.) Synthetic hair's better than real hair. The real stuff turns red in the sun.

"The hairpieces are the thing. They're perfect," raves Coleman, whose natural hair still grows out thick. "If they fit right, they're indistinguishable. You cannot tell them."

As befits its aging population, Lakeland staggers under a load of churches, doctors' offices, furniture stores and antiques dealers. Medical professionals herald their services from road signs, like this from a dermatologist: "Sunburn: Ignorance is Blister."

Greater Lakeland has 1,557 physicians, vs. 1,011 for other regions of equal size. The area's 929 churches suggest that older people, having dispensed with jobs and child-rearing, are "joiners."

But they're apparently not too keen on see-through pink panties.

That's what Denise Stocker displays in the window at Denise's Delicates in the city's Kentucky Avenue downtown shopping district.

Stocker's going out of business after nine months, packing up her things for the racier atmosphere of Daytona Beach. "Everything Must Go!" screams her sign.

She admits that baby doll lingerie and the like didn't appeal to an older clientele. For them, it's a different formula: less sexy satin, more matronly cottons.

"I get more traffic from the seniors in the winter for the warmer stuff like robes and pajamas. Summer's really slow," Stocker says, using a clothes hook to remove a black lace bra from an upper peg for a solitary customer.

The Wake Forest study predicts spending on clothes will dip in the next 20 years as the population ages and frees itself from the fetters of fashion.

But save room in the closet for salmon-colored slacks and kelly green blazers. Based on Lakeland, golfwear and accessories are tops. Wake Forest counted 74 golf courses.

Food spending is also supposed to take a hit in the future. The number of restaurants might increase, but the population will spend less per meal.

It's the perfect prognosis for the Dragon Buffet, north of town near the Lakeland mall. Five bucks gets you all you can eat from heaping steam tables of various meats in red and brown sauces.

This is food about which the local newspaper, in a not-so-glowing review, said, "Temperature and oiliness could be stumbling blocks."

No matter. About half the diners on a recent afternoon were gray-headed.

"I guess we like Chinese - too much," one older lady said as she topped off her sweet and sour pork with a dessert plate of ice cream and Chinese almond cookies. "You can't beat the price."

If you want to thrive in food service, you might want to dampen the hipness, too. Despite the Ethiopian brew and the sprinkling of pierced noses and purple hair, Mitchell's Coffee House on Kentucky Avenue doesn't overreach with the titles on its communal bookshelf.

Here's a few of them: The World of Cactus, Fatherhood by Bill Cosby, a novel by presidential daughter Margaret Truman, the comic stylings of Art Buchwald and the Holy Bible.

Still, younger people get a tad defensive when you suggest seniors set the tone in town.

"They really do try to bring the young people in here," says downtown waiter Josh Benton, mentioning the car shows held in a city park. "It's not all elderly."

(This from a guy waiting for early bird to begin at 4 p.m. at Cajun Harry's Seafood Bar & Grille.) Phillips, the discount funeral home guy, realizes there's money in what the study calls "death services," particular if you operate under the motto "Pay Your Respects, Not Your Life Savings."

For that he's resented. Competing funeral home directors predicted he'd last only one year. He has lasted five. One competitor gets up and leaves at Outback Steakhouse every time Phillips shows up.

He even grabs a share of the pet funeral market, "from hamsters to Great Danes." Don't expect your rodent to go first class, however. Phillips' hamster casket is a plastic, lidded box of the sort used to hold recipe cards.

"The other parlors hate me," Phillips says as traffic roars by his chapel in a strip center on Edgewood Drive. "But I'm not going away."

- James Thorner can be reached at 813 909-4613 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4613. His e-mail address is

[Last modified June 9, 2005, 11:33:04]

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