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Snowbirds ready to fly away

The chill in the air and dusting of snow on the mountains are signs the annual snowbird migration is on.

In Utah, that means recreational vehicle dealers are seeing a rush of customers whose rigs need checkups before retirees flee the greatest snow on earth for warmer climes to the south.

In Arizona, it means trailer and RV parks that have been mostly empty during the blistering summer months will start to fill, traffic congestion will increase and sheriff's deputies in Maricopa County, which includes the greater Phoenix area, soon will be investigating three accidents a week — involving golf carts.

"People will drive them five miles to get to the store," said sheriff's Lt. Chad Brackman. "They can be licensed so they're legal on the road, but cars don't see them."

The snowbird crowd otherwise puts few demands on law enforcement, Brackman said. Providers of other government services concur: Most snowbirds have health insurance and healthy bank accounts, and the state for decades has recognized its seasonal residents as a significant boon to the economy.

Dan Taylor, executive director of Mesa Senior Services, said the three senior centers under his jurisdiction see a 25 percent jump in participation during winter months. "It starts in October, gets higher in November and peaks in January," he said.

The most amazing transformation, Taylor said, occurs 20 miles east of the California border in Quartzite. There, arid land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management sees a massive in-migration of RVs occupied by snowbirds who have little need for the infrastructure of society.

"It's an amazing thing to see," Taylor said. "Quartzite goes from this dirt ground to a thriving community."

Quartzite's permanent population hovers at about 3,200 people. The RV crowd takes the population to between 50,000 and 80,000, according to Arizona State University professor Steve Happel, who has spent 20 years researching the economic impact snowbirds have on the state. He likens Quartzite to a "geriatric Woodstock."

Snowbirds go to rock shows, not rock concerts. They hold square dances in the desert, not rave parties.

"All things considered, you couldn't ask for a better industry for the valley. They come in, they spend money, they don't commit crimes," Happel said. The down side: "They do congest the roads." Happel knows about the golf-cart traffic.

At Motor Sportsland in Murray, service manager Chad Street has been observing the seasonal migration for 32 years. "There's a pretty large influx of people" to the dealership, he said. Most are willing to tell stories of the road, either on their way out of town or when they come back. Street has never seen the mobile communities in places like Quartzite, Yuma or farther south in Mexico, but he hears a lot about them.

"I hear about their favorite things to do or their favorite thing to see. Probably the most interesting thing I've heard is how cheap they can live in their RV in Mexico," Street said.

But there are changes in the wind.

First, some of the seasonal migrants take exception to being called "snowbirds," preferring to be called "winter visitors." Still, many more online resources for the winter wanderers pop up when searching the term "snowbird" than anything else.

Other changes are more concerning to business communities that thrive on the snowbirds.

The population of Apache Junction, just east of Mesa, swells from 42,000 to more than twice that once the snowbirds arrive. Skyrocketing real estate prices have resulted in many of the junction's RV parks being plowed under or crowded by housing and commercial development.

"Now instead of being out in the middle of the desert, the RV parks are surrounded by houses. It's a much different feel," said Gordon Hill, a staff member with the Apache Junction Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to the land squeeze, Hill is observing a cultural shift. "When the current flock of snowbirds dies off, the feeling around here is that their children do not want that kind of lifestyle; they want something a little more sophisticated."

ASU's Happel also sees evidence the snowbird culture is changing. "When I talked to the older crowd and asked if baby boomers were coming in, they would just laugh and say, 'Not my kids."'