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Low tide in Florida

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MITCH TRAPHAGEN PHOTO
It may well be low tide in Florida but, as it always does, the tide is rushing back in. Florida remains a dream for millions and the economy hasn’t changed that dream.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

mitch01In the lobby of the Embassy Suites hotel in downtown Des Moines, there are two live palm trees. Almost certainly, these are the only two living palm trees in Iowa. I can’t decide if they are sad about living far outside of their normal environment or are happy that they don’t have to face the harsh elements outside.

There is a billboard for the Surf Ballroom in rural northern Iowa that has a palm tree with the sun setting over the water and the beach. We take this image for granted in the Tampa Bay area, but it is as exotic as anything could be in northern Iowa where farms heavily outnumber towns.

In western North Dakota, where highway signs provide warnings about the limited availability of fuel stops and services due to the sparse population, the Palm Tavern has long-since closed but the sign remains. The sign, painted on the front of what was once a community auditorium, includes a prominent, hand-painted palm tree. It is a safe bet that this is the only vestige of a palm tree in western North Dakota.

If you have watched the news recently, you might think that Florida is doomed for the foreclosures and unemployment that have seemingly become unmanageable. Ironically, the news doesn’t provide the full story. Taken in bits and pieces, yes, things look bad. If you are out of work, things almost certainly look horrific. But seeing the big picture, it is clear that the future is as bright as the Florida sunshine.

Last week I made another of several trips to the Midwest. In previous drives, I noticed a good number of northbound-moving trucks. On this drive, however, there were so many southbound moving trucks that I lost count. The trucks merged with hundreds of southbound RVs carrying the snowbirds to their winter homes.

While the state of Florida may well be at a low tide mark, the tide is coming back in — just as it always does. The tide is more powerful than we are. We can’t stop it, we can’t change it, and sometimes we just have to wait for it. Personally, I love the smell of low tide -- the non-metaphorical low tide, that is. I’m certain that many of you wonder how anyone could enjoy the smell of mud and muck; but to me and to others who love the water, it is truly a heavenly scent. It fills me up with dreams and reminds me of happy days.

During a two-year break from Florida, the Midwestern town I lived in suffered devastating floods. No one enjoyed the repercussions of that, but to me there was a silver lining. As the floodwaters receded, I noticed the smell left behind was similar to that of low tide in Florida. So there I was, for the few days it lasted, standing on a flooded Iowa riverbank taking in the scent. For a few moments, standing among the cornfields, I was back in Florida, back on the boat, living my dream. It was wonderful.

People everywhere dream of what is all too easy to take for granted in Florida. Why would a hotel in Des Moines plant and maintain palm trees? Because they make people feel better. Why would a ballroom in one of the most rural parts of America paint tropical images on a billboard? Because what we have in Florida is a dream for millions of people. The state of the economy hasn’t changed that dream. People are still coming to the Sunshine State to live it — either permanently or temporarily. They are opening their wallets to live their dreams.

With the southbound-moving trucks beginning to flood the border, the tide is coming back in for Florida. As the metaphorical waters rush back in, opportunities abound to find affordable property, to open businesses and to live dreams.

A story I wrote last week about Dooley Groves rising from the ashes is a case in point. In the real Florida, without the housing bubble, agriculture has always played a role second only to tourism as the business of the state and it has historically defined South Hillsborough. It will take at least three years for Mike and Diane Houghtaling, the owners of Dooley Groves, to see a return on their investment. And that is exactly what it is — an investment, not only in their business but also in South Hillsborough itself. Their confidence and determination is the part of the story that is rarely reported by the doom-and-gloom news media. As their citrus grove flourishes, jobs will be created and revenue from the grove will spread through the area with increased spending at everything from hardware stores to increased property taxes. What has been vacant land for the past few years due to the threat of citrus canker is now growing into the sustainable future of this corner of paradise.

Standing on that flooded Iowa riverbank, I knew then I would return to the place I love most. I knew then, as I know now, that the dream of Florida is alive and well. It is a dream shared by millions of people. Florida isn’t down and out, it is up and coming. The tide is coming back in.

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