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Minnesota South

How Naples, Florida became the winter roost for our most notable snowbirds

Minnesota South
Photo by fotolia.com

Florida is best known for its sun, its citrus, and its beaches, but its most defining characteristic may be its allure to schemers.

It’s the place where people from elsewhere come to plant their crazy dreams in the sun-bleached sand, whether the Chicago-born Walt Disney’s fantasy park, the stretch of Miami Beach connected to the mainland by a New Jersey farmer, or the wholly planned Roman Catholic college town Ave Maria, launched by a pizza magnate from Michigan. Amid this cultural mishmash, at the edge of the Everglades, sits Naples, one of the state’s most opulent communities. With its manicured lawns and trimmed hedges, its tony shops and poky pace, Naples feels like the Florida equivalent of Wayzata.

The Naples-Wayzata similarity has become increasingly pronounced as more and more Minnesota transplants establish themselves here, as if part of some master plan to create a Gulf Coast colony for their home state. To the visiting Minnesotan, several Neapolitan landmarks induce a sense of déjà vu: the D’Amico & Sons, Campiello, and Lurcat restaurants; Traditions Classic Home Furnishings. But perhaps the place in town with the most familiar feel is the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club at 7:15 a.m. on a Friday morning, at a meeting of the Minnesota Men’s Breakfast group.

The Breakfast Club

While people back home are waking to another day of the polar vortex and the bitterest January in decades, the nearly 300 Minnesotans gathered at the hotel this morning are tanned, cheerful, and wearing enviably light jackets. The Gulf of Mexico sparkles outside as the sun rises over the sand, palm trees, and valet-parking attendants.

 Gene Frey, a congenial host in his 80s with a familiar Scandinavian cadence, stands at the front of the Sunset Terrace room, where the tables are set with pink conch shells, trying to impose order on the crowd. “This is the biggest group we’ve ever had for the opener,” he says into a microphone, launching the first meeting of the Breakfast’s 50th year.

Attendees, almost exclusively men over 60, many sitting on business fortunes, come in search of the familiar—longtime friends, mugs of weak coffee, and cultural touchstones such as a Grand View Lodge logo on a polo shirt. For half a century, all sorts of Minnesota dignitaries and titans—from former Governor Tim Pawlenty to Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor to today’s speaker, Cargill CEO David MacLennan—have been invited to address this influential group.

The early hour is a testament both to the legendary rising habits of seniors and the commitment they share to late-morning golf games. Frey, formerly of Edina, makes the mistake of suggesting there may not be enough bacon and eggs on hand, prompting two men seated at an out-of-the-way table dubbed “starvation corner” to jump the line at the buffet.

Frey relays news from home. The Gophers basketball team beat Ohio State in an upset. The Minnesota Orchestra lockout has ended. U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar will be here to speak next week. Then Frey tells a couple of Sven and Ole jokes, as he does every week, one of which has the two hapless Norwegians believing they’ve ordered flesh-and-blood women from a clothing catalog.

The breakfast has the feel of a Moose Lodge meeting, appropriate in a city residents repeatedly describe as “like a small town.” Everybody seems to know everybody. And that fact, as much as the sunshine, explains why so many Minnesotans come to Naples. They hear about it from other Minnesotans. They fly down and wind up contacting a real-estate agent. It’s an expat community of sorts—the modern version of Scandinavian immigrants homesteading the Midwestern prairie.

“It’s an easy place to live,” says Richard D’Amico, co-owner of the Twin Cities D’Amico dining empire, who resides here full-time with his wife and runs four Naples restaurants with his brother. “Naples is a Midwest destination. It has that feel, as opposed to Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, or Miami, which have an East Coast vibe. There, it’s hipper and faster.”


Campiello in Naples

It’s hard to know how many Minnesotans live or vacation in the Naples area, including Fort Myers, where the Twins run their spring training season, and Sanibel Island, where the Edina-based Jerry’s Foods operates a grocery store. The Men’s Breakfast roster includes the names of nearly 600 families. Collier County, where Naples is located, reports 2,200 local properties for which the tax bills are sent to owners in Minnesota.
In 1964, when a handful of Minnesotans launched the Breakfast, Naples was still a backwater. A hurricane had swept through four years prior and torn apart the city’s impressive and since-rebuilt ocean pier and destroyed many of the older houses and buildings.

Out of the wreckage grew the Naples of today, a hyper-landscaped enclave of million-dollar Mediterranean-style mansions and yachts bearing names such as “Happy Days” and “Pinch Me!” It’s one of the wealthiest cities in America, with a busy private-jet airport and a claim to more golf holes per capita than anywhere else in the country. It’s home, at least part-time, to Florida Governor Rick Scott and TV’s Judge Judy, as well as prominent Minnesotans including department-store heir Bob Dayton (Governor Mark Dayton’s cousin) and longtime Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Barbara Flanagan.

Standing at the end of the city pier, it’s easy to see why Naples appeals to Minnesotans of means. It’s a relaxed, orderly community on a stunning, miles-long stretch of sugar-white beach with a January average-high temperature of 75 degrees. Pelicans and white egrets fly overhead. Painters stand in alleyways immortalizing the scenery while golf carts zip up and down the streets.

“I call it La-La Land,” says Bob Elsholtz, a Men’s Breakfast attendee. “Nobody knows the value of a dollar here.” Elsholtz is a sportsman who lived on White Bear Lake before selling a trucking company several years ago and subsequently deciding to move south. He first visited this place as a kid. “I thought, ‘Naples—that would be a good place to go fishing.’” He laughs at the simplicity of that observation now.

Just three days ago, Elsholtz filed for his Florida residency, or “declaration of domicile.” The weather is one reason. Golfing is another. Yet another is the fact that, unlike Minnesota, Florida doesn’t have a state income tax. Minnesota exempts people who spend more than half the year elsewhere, a doughnut hole Governor Dayton has tried to close to no avail. “Every day, Minnesota loses millions of dollars from people leaving the state for Florida and Texas,” Elsholtz says, due to what he and many of his cohort believe are burdensome tax rates. This emigration, he adds, is especially hard on Minnesota charities.

Savvy Minnesota institutions actually follow their supporters to Naples for parties and fundraisers during the year, including the University of St. Thomas, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Minnesota Historical Society, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the University of Minnesota, which has an event planned the day after the Men’s Breakfast meeting. To serve its southern clientele, the prominent Minneapolis litigation firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi opened a Naples office in 2001.

“Everybody is here,” says Bob Groth, a lawyer who works with the local U of M alumni chapter, jovially chatting near the coffeemakers. “This is Minnesota south.”

THE OLD GUARD

Barbara Flanagan, the former columnist and enduring Twin Cities icon, tends to skip the Men’s Breakfast, which she describes as “men who talk over coffee about their golf.” She bought a condo in a fourplex near the heart of downtown Naples in 1984 and lives there up to five months of the year with her husband, Earl Sanford, a retired investment executive. Their location is “superb,” she says, seated on a tropically patterned sofa, her feet up on a pink coffee table near a flamingo tissue dispenser. “It sits in the middle of everything. Campiello is just down the street. We love it.”


Barbara Flanagan

Flanagan turned 90 in mid-January but hardly looks it in shorts and lipstick, her curly hair tucked into a headband. During decades as a newspaperwoman and book author, she advocated for many now-cherished aspects of Minneapolis’s civic life, such as outdoor cafés, refurbished historic buildings, and parks. Flanagan’s boosterism inspired Garrison Keillor to write a waltz about her, including the line, “Style and beauty is everyone’s duty…”

Flanagan’s favorite room in the Florida condo is a large, screened front porch, the anchor of what she calls “Nisswa at Naples,” a term that suggests her home state is never far from mind. “I love Minnesota,” Flanagan says. “I spent a lot of time as a reporter out in the cold. I decided in my old age, I didn’t need it.”

She remembers an early trip to Naples to visit friends—the typical way Minnesotans find this place. “When we first came, you could shoot a cannon down the street at 6 p.m. and nobody would be hit. Now everything is busy, busy, busy.” She and her husband were on the way to the airport when they spotted an open house at the fourplex, which happened to have been built by a man from Anoka. Other Minnesotans followed them to fill up the building, including Jack and Cathy Farrell of Haskell’s wine shop, who live downstairs.

Minnesota is still Flanagan’s home, including for tax purposes, and she says she’ll never live in Naples full-time, partly because she gets homesick by March. But during the winter months, she gets her dose of the North Star State at parties and dinners. “Basically,” she says, “Minnesotans are fairly clingy.”

THE NEW GUARD

Gene Frey drives his Bentley down Tamiami Trail, the highway connecting Tampa to Miami through Naples and the Everglades. The temperature outside has reached the low 60s, but Frey, in a sweater vest, has the heated seats on full blast.

Naples is a relatively new city, he says, noting that the area we’re in, Pelican Bay, didn’t even exist 45 years ago. It was just water and mangroves and a developer’s big idea. “Before air conditioning and mosquito control, this had to be a place for the hearty,” he says.

Frey and his wife, Mary, moved to Naples in 1996, around the time he sold his recycled-paperboard business, leaving the family foundation, which focuses on housing and education, in the hands of their children in Minneapolis. Now, the couple spends seven months of the year in a lavish penthouse overlooking the ocean. “Minnesota is a great place to come from,” Frey says. “I enjoyed Minnesota thoroughly. I enjoyed the people mainly.”

These days, he treats Naples like home, investing in institutions such as Artis-Naples, which houses the local philharmonic as well as a theater and art museum. Frey, who serves on the board, thinks this blooming cultural campus is yet another reason for people to move to Naples. “It has attracted people not only from Minneapolis, but all sorts of places where they are used to those kinds of luxuries in their life and maybe are ready to retire and want to continue it.”

It just so happens that for the past two-and-a half years, the person running Artis-Naples has been 37-year-old Kathleen van Bergen, who came here from Minnesota, where she was director of the Schubert Club, a century-old classical-music organization in St. Paul. Frey served on the selection committee that hired her.

Van Bergen has made changes, some controversial, such as renaming the organization, long known simply as “the Phil,” referring to the philharmonic, to better reflect its breadth of offerings. While that decision drew ire and even picketers (a local newspaper columnist deemed the name Artis-Naples more suited to “a New Age retreat for women to get in touch with their inner goddesses and call themselves by pseudo Latin names”), she’s also just landed a million-dollar gift from a donor and hired a prestigious new music director from Russia.

In populist Minnesota style, van Bergen is trying to broaden the institution’s appeal. She’s brought in touring Broadway shows, bluegrass jazz, and Jay Leno. She cites the Walker Art Center as a model for this sort of artistic cross-pollination. “I regularly reflect on the traditions of culture in the Twin Cities, which are amazing,” she says.

Van Bergen enjoys Naples’s collection of big personalities from all over the world. But she seems to relish Minnesotans especially. “There is something about the communal Minnesota culture that translates down here. Everybody has a Minnesota connection.”

THE VIEW FROM A BOAT

People in Naples like to get on a boat, just as they do in Minnesota. Mike Schumann, who owns Traditions Classic Home Furnishings with his wife, Suzanne, is lowering the shore station that holds his center-console speedboat, aptly named “St. Pauli Girl,” into the water. The Schumanns live much of the year in a one-story house on a canal just off Tamiami Trail, with a swimming pool and a lemon tree in the backyard.

The couple first visited Naples in 2002, during “the winter from hell,” 62-year-old Mike says. “There was a blizzard in Minnesota—a foot of snow. We got off here, and we’ve got palm trees and 72 degrees.” In short order, the two bought their house. And sensing a business opportunity, they opened a store in a former art gallery downtown (the couple’s other two Traditions are in St. Paul and St. Louis Park). The outlet, which counts many Minnesotans as customers, is filled with eclectic, high-end furniture. “Opening the Naples store was the best move we ever made,” Mike says, explaining that it recovered from the recession more quickly than their Twin Cities shops because, simply put, there is more money here. “If not for that, we probably wouldn’t be in business anymore.”


Suzanne and Mike Schumann

Richard D’Amico is similarly pleased with his Naples gambit. “I started coming down here in 1982,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is such a cute little town; someday it will be busy enough to have a restaurant.’” Today, he counts Naples as “extremely important” to the D’Amico empire. “We do significantly higher revenues in Naples than in Minneapolis,” he says. “That’s per store, concept by concept. Campiello—it’s insane. The best thing we ever did was open that store in Naples.”

Mike Schumann kicks up the motor and heads out into Naples Bay. Tourists wave as he cruises by. Presumably it’s just a friendly acknowledgement—but, who knows?—they could be fellow Minnesotans recognizing him as a face from back home while they’re getting their first look at Naples and thinking about researching moving companies.

Mike drives through dredged canals encrusted with palatial stucco homes, past older buildings that will inevitably be torn down, and briefly out into the open ocean before the wind forces him to turn back. He slows the boat at a spot where green mangroves stand relatively undisturbed and two herons perch on a stick of wood just above the water, which has turned silver in the late-day sun.

“I like it here,” he says. “I like Minnesota, but I go back and I’m not that connected to Minnesotans there anymore.” That’s because in this La-La Land of beaches and golf courses, friends tend to have time on their hands for sunny camaraderie and shared nostalgia, whereas at home, real life intrudes.

“I’m more tied into the Minnesota community here than when I’m in Minnesota,” Schumann adds. “I’m booked solid.”


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