Wisconsin snowbirds migrate to Arizona
PHOENIX -- You can't help but feel a little at home in Arizona if you are from Wisconsin.
Jim Boehm of Menomonee Falls has been driving to Phoenix in his RV for four years with his wife and two dachshunds. He initially came down because of his love of the Brewers but now sees his Arizona trip as a chance to escape winter for a few months.
"We left Jan. 17. It was 7 below," he says with a laugh. "We went as fast as we could south for three days."
Boehm's family is among the 27 million or so who visit Arizona annually, contributing about $12 billion to the state's economy.
Boehm says his friends are rightfully jealous, but he would never consider permanently leaving Wisconsin. Now that he is retired, he would consider keeping a second residence in Arizona but currently makes his home base in a Mesa RV park.
Boehm says he has met a lot of Wisconsinites who have moved down here permanently but finds most are like him and just escape from January to April. The temporary Arizona residents always get a warm welcome from the locals, Boehm says.
For Betty Willert of Pewaukee, it's now an annual ritual. She came to Arizona for a brief visit 20 years ago and has returned every year since. She and her husband now own a condominium in Scottsdale and return annually for a three-month stint.
A season-ticket holder at Maryvale Baseball Park, Willert says she now comes to the park before the spring training season starts because the players are more approachable.
"You are able to talk to the players. You can get pictures, have them signed. I feel like I know some of them personally. They'll say, 'Oh, I remember you from last year.'"
Willert says she always has her favorites, including former Brewer Mike Matheny, who she followed from minor league camp to County Stadium. Her current favorites are Dave Krynzel ("an absolute sweetheart") and Bill Hall ("a wonderful young man").
Willert says the enjoyment of Arizona still hasn't worn off, even after two decades as a "snowbird." She thinks many locals don't realize they are living in paradise, but those who travel from the cold Midwest don't take it for granted.
"It's so different than back home, so beautiful," she says. "And I love Wisconsin, and I'd never leave it. But coming here is such a thrill."
And it's not just retirees who make their way out West. Some prominent Wisconsinites, such as baseball commissioner Bud Selig and Brewers' radio announcer Bob Uecker, are among those who own second homes in the Phoenix area. Former Brewer star Robin Yount is a longtime resident of Paradise Valley.
Frank Lloyd Wright once split his time between Wisconsin and Arizona. For Taliesin West, featured in OMC last year, Arizona served as his winter home and workshop/school.
And there's plenty to do in the Phoenix area if you're looking for a taste from home.
Milwaukee custard king Karl Kopp owns an upscale restaurant called AZ88 in Scottsale, too. The menu is different, but there's no shortage of Wisconsinites who stop in to see what it's like.
"It's more similar (to Elsa's) in style than anything else," says manager Paul Martinez. "We have the same designer who takes care of all three restaurants."
If you are a Packers fan, there are several bars and restaurants in the Phoenix area that list themselves backers of the Green and Gold. The Buffalo Chip Saloon in Cave Creek was owned by Marla McGee, the daughter of Max, former Packers' wide receiver and radio color commentator.
Others include K.C. Jones in Phoenix, Kelly's Pub, Dr. Feelgood's and Mabel Murphy's in Scottsdale and McDuffy's in Tempe.
At one time, a bar called the G.B. Packers Sports Bar wooed those who love the Pack, but that establishment now is called Philthy Phil's. Apparently Philth has more staying power than even the Packers in this area. The building is still green and gold, however.
Minnesota may lead the northern tier states in visits to the state, making up 1.7 percent of Arizona's total tourism. But, Wisconsinites are down here in good numbers, as the Arizona Department of Tourism notes that many snowbirds might not be counted in tourism statistics because they might stay for longer periods of time and perhaps even own second homes in the state.
Drive around a little and it's hard not to notice several Wisconsin plates in parking lots at shopping malls, entertainment venues and sports events. Or, just strike up a conversation with Boehm.
"The weather is good. The people here are friendly. It's just a great experience," he says.
Boehm says he thinks most Wisconsinites, especially retirees, would winter in Arizona every year if they would just get that first taste.
His advice to those back home: "Work hard, get old and come down here."
-- Gregg Hoffmann contributed to this report.
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Bruni said: Hi, I've been reading all the comments on 'snowbirding' in arizona. I plan on writing an article for a German magazine about folks from 'cold' states in the USA migrating to the south during the winter months. I would very much enjoy your stories and/or recommendations where to go to in order to 'make contact' with the species ;-). Greatings from Germany, Hamlin (the Pied Piper town). Bruni
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