When Gina Guadagnino moved from New York City to Palm Beach Gardens in 2010, she wanted her son to be raised around family there. “Also, when you have to lug a stroller up subway steps, everyone on the subway looks at you and you can tell they hate you.”
Just two years later, Guadagnino, 35, husband Aaron and son Finnegan were back in Manhattan, annoyed subway riders notwithstanding.
“I hate the humidity, and I couldn’t get into the political climate,” says Guadagnino, an administrator at New York University. “I’m used to being in a place with deep history, to being able to go to all of these museums and shows..And I found that a lot of friends (in Florida) were wrapped up in their own families, so it was hard to connect the way I had in New York.”
Florida remains one of the most popular states for people to relocate to, and there are still more people moving here than moving out. But when residents like Guadagnino say adios to the Sunshine State, they list everything from the weather to the economy to a lack of cultural or personal opportunities.
“Florida is still growing like gangbusters,” says Tim Chapin, dean of Florida State University’s College of Social Sciences and Public Policy. “We’re still seeing a net positive, in terms of international and domestic migration. From 1960-2010, the state’s population grew an average of 300,000 a year. While we lose lots of people, we are a net winner in the population game, year after year.”
Still, “there is a substantial out-migration (from Florida),” Chapin says, for reasons like “economic opportunity and (wanting to be close) to family and friends, a social connection.”
So where are former Floridians migrating to?
Chapin says some become “half-backs,” which is when “people move from Michigan or New York to Florida, and then move (away) to places like Nashville or Atlanta, which is halfway back to where they came from. And some are quarter-backs, who go from, say, South Florida to Jacksonville or the Panhandle.”
Ultimately, the decision to either move to or leave Florida “very much ebbs and flows with the economy,” Chapin says. “When (it’s) strong, there is much greater net migration, because there are jobs, and people have the means to move. There was a point where the state more or less stopped growing for a year of two. The valve turned off.”
And that, he believes, “is why we lose hundreds or thousands of people every year to places like Charlotte, Nashville, Birmingham and Atlanta.”
Economics played heavily into Kim Shepheard’s decision to move from West Palm Beach to Colorado in 2009 , after “three things happened all at the same time,” she says. Her long-term romantic relationship ended, she was losing money on a rental property she owned and “I got the news that my company was being bought out. I tried to stick it out, but no one was hiring. But I didn’t know how long the recession was going to last, and all my friends were moving.”
After a fateful trip to visit a friend in Colorado during which she fell in love with the tranquility and the sight of “a million stars in the sky,” the New York native and massage therapist left “without hesitation and never regretted it. I think that if all of those things hadn’t happened I probably would have stayed (in Florida). But it didn’t seem like a real place (like) the Northeast. That was a place that had a heart.”
After five years in Palm Beach Gardens, former Palm Beach Illustrated managing editor Michelle Havich returned to Atlanta, where her sister and other friends were, because “it always felt more like a home to me than Florida ever did.” She’s taken “a chance on a new state (because) the job sounded exciting. I was younger, single and child-free, so why not?”
While she loved her job and made good friends, off the clock she struggled to “fit in,” she says. “I wasn’t in the Junior League. If you wanted to see a sporting event or big-name concert, you’d have to go to Sunrise….I needed a season other than summer. I wasn’t a Florida girl. I would get legitimately angry when they would give you a boating forecast on the morning news. Because I wasn’t going boating, I was going to work!”
FSU’s Chapin says that connection isn’t just a factor for younger Floridians. Some of those leaving are “active healthy retirees, who, as they age, chose to move out of state because they want to go home and die in their home town,” he says. “They have an active retirement here and want to spent their sunset years back with their friends and families. When they’re 85, they wind up leaving.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee that leaving Florida will make one any happier. Philip Henry, professor of counseling at Palm Beach Atlantic University’s The School of Education and Behavioral Studies, says that research shows that “we’re not good at predicting what will make us happy…We think ‘How could anyone be depressed (in Florida), it’s so sunny and warm.’ And then you get down here and have a hurricane and think ‘Oh, my God, now I’m here and I’m not happy.’..We can put so much weight on a thing, like a place, to make you happy.”
Before Georgia native Ike McFadden settled in Lake Worth, Florida was a place you went “for summer vacations. So even from a young age, the idea of living in such a place full-time seemed like a dream come true.”
So when he finally moved here in the mid 1990s for work as a television writer, that dream became a reality, because “physically, I think it’s one of the prettiest places on the planet…I had a great group of friends. West Palm Beach especially had a tight knit group of young professionals and media people back before the big real estate boom hit.”
But after a while, McFadden says he found himself traveling a lot for work, “and as the trips got longer and longer, my return to South Florida got shorter and shorter. I was also very aware that my original group of friends and colleagues was shrinking dramatically…I think there was one year, around 2012, when I realized I’d spent maybe a total of two months in my condo. I figured if I was more or less starting from scratch with making friends, I might as well do that exercise in a larger city, like Atlanta (which is) a lot more diverse than South Florida, both culturally and racially.”
He’s not the only person who found more diversity of opinions and culture elsewhere. Gina Guadagnino cites the 2012 presidential election, in which President Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term against Mitt Romney, as “a real eye-opener. There was so much more bigotry than expected, and I was shocked and upset to see my neighbors and colleagues expressing these sentiments about Obama and his family. It was really hard. To hear that political rhetoric was very isolating, and I really didn’t want to be around people who felt that way.”
Finding a place to fit in also figured prominently in the decision to leave for Rebecca Rose, now a columnist for the Santa Maria Sun in southern California. She moved to Palm Beach as a child in 1979 “after Hurricane Frederick wiped out the town I was born in, Fairhope, Alabama,” and her mother worked as a live-in housekeeper and cook, so “we were always living with wealthy people, consumed by their decadence, surrounded by opulence. It was a very awkward way for me to grow up because I never really fit in… The rich kids looked down on me, or didn’t know how to relate to me, and other kids just thought I was another snobby spoiled kid…Now it seems so dumb but as a kid, you just don’t know how to navigate being different. So I grew up isolated and constantly wanting out.”
When Rose finally did get out in the 1990s, she moved to Chicago and fell “in love with the aesthetic of big, huge, grimy, crazy wild cities. I wanted that life of living in a city and walking everywhere or taking the subway. I didn’t care that it was cold and snowing or there wasn’t a big sprawling beach. I was done with sand. So I transferred schools and never looked back.”
And she’s not alone among her classmates who “all moved to New York, Los Angeles, Boston, etc. Florida just wasn’t for us Gen Xers, I think.” While she misses certain things about Florida like warm blue water and the Keys, she hasn’t come back in about 15 years because “a lot has changed and that always breaks my heart. I don’t want to see a mini-mall in a field where I used to catch dragonflies.”
So what can Florida do to widen that net? Chapin says not to discount views like Rose’s about changes in Florida’s environment. “I’m a firm believer that quality of life (is important) in a community that people want to live in. Is there clean air? Are there great beaches (accessible) to all income levels? Are they protecting special places?”
Many of those interviewed still miss things about Florida, like the weather, and visit friends and family. Gina Guadagnino and her family ” go down there several times a year.”
But most feel that their move from Florida is permanent, barring some unforeseen circumstance.
“I would consider moving back if I hit the lotto or sold the next ‘Harry Potter’ book,” Rose says. “I’d buy a big beach house and drink pina coladas all day and live like a Jackie Collins heroine, for sure.”