Nebraska "Snowbirds" Go South to Stay Warm

Non-native palm trees tower above RVs and mobile homes at the Valle de Oro RV resort. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
The RV park draws retirees from many states and Canada. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
Amenities for snowbirds include bocce ball fields, shuffle board, a pool, and much more. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
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December 28, 2017 - 8:45am

When the weather turns cold in Nebraska, many state residents head south—for a few weeks or even a few months. “Snowbirds” as they’re often called, migrate to several states, and southern Arizona’s warm climate attracts a large number of Nebraskans.

Just north of the intersection of highways 202 and 60 in Mesa, Arizona, sits a large RV resort. Non-native palm trees tower above row after row of large RVs and mobile homes. Residents cruise around on golf carts or bikes. Car license plates include Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Canada.

This is Valle de Oro, one of many RV parks in the greater Phoenix metro area. Omaha native Ray Mattox has a home in the park. He moved to Arizona permanently 18 years ago, and said he was drawn to the climate.

“I moved away from there and I says, if it snows here, I'm going further south,” Mattox said.

He and his wife also have a house in northern Arizona but spend a lot of their time here. Valle de Oro has it all: a put-put course, bocce ball, shuffle board, a pool, salon, fitness rooms, and more.

“I do lapidary, silver smith, wood working, line dancing. I belong to the camera club. There's just everything to do here,” he said with a laugh.

Sun City, Arizona, built in a Phoenix suburb in 1960, was the nation’s first official retirement community, limited to residents 55 and older. Today there are countless retirement communities across southern Arizona.

Sunland Village in Mesa is just one of many retirement communities in the greater Phoenix metro area.

(Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

Ed Bracht is a native of West Point, Nebraska, where he lives most of the year. For the last decade he and his wife have spent the heart of winter in Mesa.

“She and I never had a chance to take a vacation in the summertime, so the middle of winter we would try to get away for a week and for 3 or 4 years we came down here with friends,” Bracht said.

His wife liked it so much they bought a home in the Sunland Village retirement community. Though she passed away two years ago, Bracht continues to head south for a few months to escape the cold, now that his sons manage the family farming operations.

“And the thing that I enjoy so much here--I need some exercise, need to keep going, and I shouldn’t say the sun shines every day but awful close to it. And you just get out and walk,” Bracht said. “It's good retirement.”

And he doesn’t have to travel far to find other Nebraskans. Friends and acquaintances from West Point also have homes in the area, and Bracht says they often get together.

Susan Tonkin, also from northeast Nebraska, moved to Arizona in 1997. She said Nebraskans recognize each other from county-numbered license plates while driving or out wearing Husker gear, leading to occasional cries of “Go Big Red!” at the grocery store.

Susan Tonkin's buffet at her home in Mesa. Originally from northeast Nebraska, she's lived in Arizona since 1997 and looks forward to connecting with people from home during the snowbird season.

(Photo courtesy Susan Tonkin)

Phoenix and Tucson (a city about 100 miles south) have Nebraska alumni groups that cater to permanent residents. They organize watch parties for Husker football games. The Tucson chapter hosts some watch parties at a local bar and restaurant that even makes runza-type sandwiches for the Nebraska crowd.

Nebraska data agencies don’t track snowbirds. But they have an idea how many Nebraskans move permanently to warm-weather states like Arizona, Texas and Florida. During the recession, the net outflow to those states dropped. But it’s picked up again in the last several years as more Nebraskans have been leaving the state.

But Nebraskans are only a small fraction of the snowbirds that visit Arizona. Many more come from the Great Lakes region and from Canada, said Dan Gibson, communications director with Tucson’s tourism bureau. Gibson said while they don’t market to Nebraska directly, they aim to attract tourists from all kinds of places that experience real winter.

“If you're in a market that has a direct flight to Tucson and that has terrible weather, in the winter you'll likely see an ad on weather dot com that's targeted to the temperature. If it falls below 30 degrees you'll see an ad for Tucson,” Gibson said.

Snowbird economics are really hard to track. Some stay for weeks, some for months. Some rent homes, some buy, while others travel in RVs. So there aren’t hard numbers on how many snowbirds come from any given area, how long they stay or how much they spend. But Gibson said snowbirds represent a large part of Tucson’s total tourism—a $2 billion industry.

“It's a big business here. If you counted it as an industry on its own it would be the first or second largest industry in Tucson,” Gibson said.

At the Valle de Oro happy hour, friends Virginia Kasper of Coeur d’Aleine, Idaho and Nancy Couch of Elwood, Illinois, drink beer and eat popcorn while a three-piece band plays classics. When asked how they spend their time in Arizona, Kasper said, “Mostly party. We like to do happy hour and get together with our group and play cards, and just have fun, go out to dinner.”

For many snowbirds, their southern sojourn is a second community. Kasper and Couch said they stay in touch throughout the year, and attribute their close friendships to the concentrated time they spend together in Mesa. 

Dancers enjoy the music of The Calhouns during happy hour at Valle de Oro.

(Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

But not everyone comes to Arizona to relax. The band playing Valle de Oro’s happy hour is from North Platte, Nebraska. Singer and guitarist Jim Calhoun says this is the seventh year he’s made the trip to Arizona. A major car accident years ago left him with severe arthritis. 

“When I come down here in the winter I can function. When I stay in North Platte I make myself function but it really hurts,” Calhoun said.

There’s also a lot more winter work as a musician in Arizona, Calhoun said. When they’re home in North Platte, they mostly play country and western standards. Here, they play for people from all over.

“They don't necessarily listen to all country music. So when we come down here, our core is still country but we pretty well match that song for song with what I call baby boomer rock music,” Calhoun said.

This is one of many winter shows they’ll play in Arizona, mostly at RV parks like Valle de Oro. Calhoun enjoys traveling but said as touring musicians it’s a working trip rather than vacation. And come March, Calhoun gets itchy to get back to his farm and sheep.

“I love Arizona but it turns into a desert and being from Nebraska and farming, the farming areas of Arizona are amazing, the alfalfa fields, the cotton fields. But it’s not home,” Calhoun said.

So like the snowbirds, as winter turns to spring, Calhoun and his band will head back home to Nebraska.

Editor's note: This story is part of our "Best of 2017" Signature Story report.  The story originally aired and was published in January.



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