Snowbird staybird

(Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories about “snowbirds” in the Valley of the Sun. The next story will appear in the July 30 issue of the AFN).

It has been almost a rite of summer in the Valley. As the mercury climbs, neighbors and friends who migrate here to escape frigid, windy, wet or snowy climes elsewhere, head back to those places to escape the Southwestern heat. Or do they, anymore?

While there are few solid indicators in terms of hard numbers — Arizona State University’s seasonal-resident surveys ended years ago — there is still a sense among various community sectors that a change might be in the air, and it’s not just the temperature.

“It seems like we have more people staying all year than in the past,” said the Recreation Centers of Sun City West’s Member Services Supervisor Sandy Jugenheimer.

In 2013, RCSCW’s member services office closed for remodeling and the facility was relocated to temporary quarters in the R.H. Johnson Lecture Hall. Work was done during the summer, when most residents are away, but Jugenheimer noted the anticipated dropoff in activity was not nearly as great as expected. But her assessment also is based on numbers of year-round tenant activity cards sold by RCSCW, which allow holders — usually renters or non-owners of residential units — access to any of the community’s facilities, including pools, bowling alley, fitness centers, and tennis and pickleball courts, to name a few.

A high number of cards are purchased in the month of January. As of Jan. 31, 2013, a total of 1,208 year-round cards had purchased. A year later, that figure was up to 1,292.

But Jugenheimer said she’s noticed what appears to be a trend for a few years, seeing more people in the member services office between June 1 and Oct. 1, when historically there was a large dropoff. There are still fewer people than during other times of the year, but the gap appears to be narrowing, said the supervisor, who has been with RCSCW for 19 years.

Others point to anecdotal indications of a higher year-round population.

Tracy Irwin, pre-hospital coordinator of emergency services at Banner Del E. Webb Medical Center in Sun City West, said emergency room visits have risen in the past year compared with a year prior. While she did not have exact figures, she said hospital officials have noted the trend and are beginning to explore potential reasons for it.

But how far do such figures and observations as Jugenheimer’s and Irwin’s go toward concluding the pattern has changed — a pattern that historically has prompted small businesses throughout the Valley, notably restaurants, to close, shorten hours and lay off staff for the summertime.

While they offer an indication on their own, such information would be bolstered with data such as seasonal delivery stop/starts by the U.S. Postal Service. But those figures simply are not available.

“Our post offices just don’t track that,” said Peter Hass, spokesman for USPS’ Arizona division, which includes the Grand Canyon State as well as New Mexico. “We don’t keep a record of anything like that. We wouldn’t need to,” he said.

The same could be said of utility shutoffs.

But the companies that deliver gas, electricity and water do not keep that kind of data.

“We don’t have reporting on a seasonal-shutoff basis,” said EPCOR Water spokeswoman Rebecca Stenholm.

What about demand?

“We know energy use is a lot higher in the summer,” said APS spokesman Steve Gottfried. But comparing peak demand versus nonpeak usage might not necessarily mean new customers or existing ones using more water and power.

So, where can one turn to for a clearer picture of current summertime population trends?

The U.S. Census Bureau might be one place.

The bureau tracks a figure known as “vacant housing held for seasonal (purposes).” These are homes held off the market or set aside for seasonal use. Part of the bureau’s overall housing stats, the seasonal vacant housing figure is a measurement within its vacant housing units.

In Maricopa County, there were 227,696 vacancies among the county’s 1,639,279 overall units. Of these 227,696 vacancies, 63,938 were listed as seasonal vacancies. The figures actually rose in the bureau’s 2012 measurement: 1,654,659 overall units; 230,266 vacancies, of which 77,315 were among seasonal set asides, or 33.5 percent of the vacancies. In 2010, the seasonal portion of vacancies was 28 percent.

In other words, the number of vacant homes held off the market for seasonal use rose by about 13,000 in two years.

But while there were large increases (about 3,000 in Phoenix; almost 4,000 in Scottsdale), there were decreases, too.

In Chandler and Mesa, for example, the figure dropped by almost 1,000 units.

Increases of between 1,000 and 2,000 were seen in Peoria, Surprise and Glendale.

Two of the highest percentages of seasonal housing that remained vacant were in the Northeast Valley.

Cave Creek’s rate of 43 percent is topped only by Carefree’s 70 percent figure.

While there is no firm reason that could be determined for these numbers, Anubhav Bagley, information services manager with the Maricopa Association of Governments, who has studied the data, said the drops could be attributed to an influx of Canadians seeking to permanently relocate here.

Arizona State University’s WP Carey School of Business used to track seasonal population directly, but stopped doing it a number of years ago.

“We haven’t had a request for that in some time,” said Tom Rex of the school’s center for business research. “When I first started in 2005, that used to be part of the (Census bureau) long form. They don’t really capture that anymore. I haven’t had any requests for that type of information,” he added.

That does not mean such data isn’t considered valuable.

“I wish we had that kind of information,” said Ab Jackson, Surprise Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO. “That would be really helpful to businesses.”

Bagley agreed.

A council of governments that serves as the regional agency for the metropolitan Phoenix area, MAG focuses on long-range planning and policy development on a regional scale. Bagley said information on seasonal population trends is vital to the agency’s mission.

“If you look at certain parts of our region, they are very in tune with this. Whether it’s restaurants service-oriented establishments, these are big on seasonal residents. We incorporate this in planning when we do long-range projects; highways. We ask,’what kind of impact do our residents get?’ What about transient population?’ A lot of our cities account for this in infrastructure planning, wastewater,” Bagley said.

So, while the question may not have a definitive overall answer at this point, there are indicators. And there are plenty of folks who would like to know more.

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