FORT MYERS, Fla.–For the past 25 years, most of the visitors to southwest Florida from the eastern seaboard were Boston baseball fans who flooded this once-quiet community every spring to get an early look at the latest rendition of their beloved Red Sox. A Midwest flavor was added with the arrival of the Minnesota Twins in 1991.

Now, relocating baby boomers and other second-home buyers looking for more affordable property and a laid-back atmosphere have targeted the Gulf of Mexico side of Florida, turning the five-county area between Sarasota and Naples into one of the fastest-growing areas of the country. Three of those counties–Charlotte, Lee and Collier–are projected to lead the state in percentage of population growth over the next 15 years, growing by more than 70 percent with a regional employment rate more than double the state’s average.

“You still have the East Coast people tending to follow Interstate 95 down to the east coast of Florida,” said Brian Lucas, regional vice president for the Bonita Bay Group, one of the largest residential developers in the region. “But southwest Florida is drawing those folks from the mid-and upper-Midwest–Illinois, Michigan, Indiana–who follow Interstate 75 straight south to the sunshine.”

And home prices are showing the signs of that popularity. Five years ago, older homes in the $80,000 range are now selling for a minimum of $200,000. Builders and developers can’t put up $300,000 new homes fast enough to satisfy the demand, while a majority of the new product averages greater than $400,000 and is at least a 10-minute drive to a sandy beach. Rising home prices are causing the typical concerns–public employees and others in the service industry can’t afford to live close to work.

While the bulk of “The Greatest Generation” chose to retire on the east side of the state, boomers will not necessarily follow in their parents’ footsteps, which comes as no great surprise. The tug to Florida will continue as an estimated 4 million boomers are expected to relocate to the Sunshine State when they retire–double the number of their parents’ generation. And, a greater percentage will “audition” retirement homes as second residences before they make the permanent move.

Perhaps they first came to comb the shell beaches of Captiva and Sanibel Islands off the coast of Florida, bask in the curious cosmopolitan oasis that is Naples or avoid the monumental crush of Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale, less than a two-hour drive away on the East Coast. However, regional analysts point to three prime reasons why southwest Florida is the vibrant lure it is today:

Interstate 75–In the early 1970s, I-75 was extended south from Tampa to Naples and then east across “Alligator Alley” connecting the north and east to Florida’s developing west coast. Today, I-75 is in the process of a $400 million, six-lane expansion to be completed by 2009.

“I think you can still say the prices in southwest Florida are at least $75,000-$50,000 less to a comparable home on the east side of the state,” said Janet Watermeier, who leads a building and property services consulting company and is a member of the Florida Transportation Commission. “But years ago, you could subtract $50,000 from a home’s value for every 20 miles you drove north of Naples. You can’t do that anymore.”

Southwest Florida International Airport–Established in the early 1980s just southeast of the city of Fort Myers, the expanded facility recently completed a $450 million overall and hosted 7 million passengers in 2005. The airport experienced 14 percent annual growth, double the national average.

Florida Gulf Coast University–The first public university to be created in the state in the past 25 years also kept many local students from heading out of the region. In addition, the school has been an attractive plus to boomers seeking to broaden their educational backgrounds.

How can you tell that southwest Florida truly has arrived–maybe even mentioned in the same breath as Palm Beach? Last fall, Fort Myers hosted the nation’s first baby boomer beauty pageant with 25 finalists from around the country.You can hear the East Coast purists groaning from here.

Next week: A developer with a consistent eye on stewardship.

Tom Kelly’s new book, “Real Estate for Boomers and Beyond,” (Kaplan Publishing) is now available at local retail outlets and on www.amazon.com.

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