PUNTA GORDA, Fla.—With more than 900 people moving to Florida every day, Punta Gorda is one of many communities experiencing an influx of newcomers and the reverberations of booming growth. While day-to-day things, such as traffic, are an obvious concern, the conservative locals are concerned about more fundamental changes.
The small town on Florida’s gulf coast is home to many who fear that their way of life will be wiped out by “northern ideals” arriving in with the newcomers to the community. Punta Gorda is home to more than 21,000 full-time residents, not counting the thousands of annual winter visitors, whom the locals call “snowbirds.”
Lifelong residents see the migration pattern from the north as an inconvenience that, far from going away, is only getting worse.
Danielle Bengston of neighboring Fort Myers said the new residents are “clogging up the system,” making everyday life “miserable” for her. She recalled going to the tax collector’s office in August to get her car tag renewed.
“If I heard one more time, ‘Welcome to Florida’ from the lady at the front counter, I thought I was going to throw up,” Bengston said, stating that the she waited three hours for a process that usually takes 20 minutes.
Bengston said the vast majority at the tax collector’s office were out-of-state residents who were moving to Florida and transferring their registrations or getting their driver’s licenses updated.
“I get why these people want to come here,” she said. “The climate is nice about four months out of the year and our tax system is ideal, but they forget that when they’re not here, we manage to run a government, keep the roads paved, and educate our children.”
Jared Davis, 37, a father of five daughters and a third-generation Floridian, said he’s worried that his way of life and the life he envisions for his children will no longer exist if the area grows too rapidly. Davis owns the business founded by his grandfather in 1948, D.M. Construction.
With growth comes change, and Davis is concerned that the southern values he holds dear will disappear if too many people with more liberal ideas move the community and “stir the pot.”
“I worry about my lifestyle disappearing,” he said. “I have a T-shirt that I proudly wear that says: ‘Don’t New York my Florida.’ I think that this is a conservative area and people are moving here because they are mostly conservative and tired of what’s going on in their states—that’s what I’m hoping, anyway.”
As for the growth potential of the area, Davis said it’s good for his business.
“As a businessman, it’s a good thing. But as for someone who grew up here, I’m finding more and more that I do not know anyone here anymore,” he said. “This used to be a place that wherever you went, you saw someone you knew.
“I barely know anyone in the store where I used to see my neighbors and friends. They’re all people I have never seen before, strangers.”
As an avid hunter, Davis fears for the wildlife that’s synonymous with the Florida landscape. He blamed expansion for wildlife being “forced from their homes, so humans can have theirs.”
Black bears and other creatures that were only known to roam the southern portion of Florida are now coming north because they’re being “evicted” from their homes by development.
Bobby Gross Jr., 42, who has been a part of the community since he was 2 years old, has seen the area grow and mostly agrees with Davis’s assessment. He hopes that people who move there will respect what’s already in place—conservatism—and he hopes that it’ll stay that way.
Like Davis, Gross is in line to run his grandfather’s company, Sunland Paving, when his father retires. The population influx hasn’t helped with his hiring woes.
“The labor market here is still abysmal. I think, mostly, people who are retired are coming here to live instead of visit every year,” he said. “Everybody that is moving to Florida wants to be the last one to move here.”
Gross said he noticed a lot of diversity among the people coming. He said that Florida has a cultural melting pot all of its own.
Willie Campbell, 82, was born in Labelle, Florida, a small town southeast of Punta Gorda. Though Campbell made her fortune in buying and selling Florida real estate, she maintains that the population explosion isn’t necessarily a good thing.
“What is happening is frightening,” she said. “Some of these people who are moving here are just too aggressive.”
Campbell said she hopes the people who join the community will be “peace-loving” and share the conservative ideals the area holds dear. She believes that the people who are migrating to Florida want to regain their freedom after their home states were locked down over the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus pandemic.
“They saw how our governor opened things up and let people live their lives and make their own decisions,” she said. “But some of these people coming here want to change everything. We’re not ready for that.”
Punta Gorda real estate broker Matthew Patterson said there has always been an influx of people moving to the area.
“I think that COVID-19 moved forward clock on some of these people,” Patterson said. “Ten years ago, the median age of people moving here was 72 years of age, now it is closer to 50.”
Patterson said the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders gave many people an opportunity to “live where they want,” because they’re no longer chained to an office.
“People are working remotely,” he said. “They’re able to make a living from their computers in their home, thus allowing them to live anywhere they want, and a lot of them are choosing to live here.”
“The cost of living here is a lot less than other places. Plus, they keep their city salaries, which affords them a lot more of whatever they want.”