Tim Ganley, right, leads a yoga session on an island off St. Petersburg.
Tim Ganley, right, leads a yoga session on an island off St. Petersburg.
Brent Harvey
Correction to This Article
A map with a Jan. 28 Travel article on St. Petersburg, Fla., incorrectly labeled U.S. Highway 92 as U.S. Highway 29.

A New Age: St. Pete's Fountain of Youth

St. Petersburg is getting younger, with hip nights with the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club and buff bods playing beach volleyball.
St. Petersburg is getting younger, with hip nights with the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club and buff bods playing beach volleyball. (Brent Harvey)

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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007

If God sticks around St. Petersburg, he's going to be waiting a while.

The Florida town once known as the last exit before the pearly gates is looking more youthful these days, thanks to an influx of younger people taking their place alongside the more senior residents. Indeed, in certain circles, white-blond is the new gray, "hip" has nothing to do with replacement surgery, and "social" now refers to partying, not a security check.

"It's been a huge change," said Tim Ganley, the energetic 40-year-old who runs a gym in town. "It's not like you're seeing only old people walking around anymore." (The 1985 movie "Cocoon," about seniors who are reinvigorated by alien pods, was filmed in St. Petersburg.)

What you will notice around the Gulf Coast town, depending on the hour and the area, are sinewy cyclists, in-line skaters and runners; punk rockers and avant-garde artists; and post-grads on permanent spring break. And while the elders haven't outright disappeared -- just go to the supermarket to witness a parade of Caddies -- the younger generations are certainly staking a claim on St. Petersburg.

As he took me on a quick tour of the city by car -- before picking up a mountain bike for a ride along Tampa Bay -- Ganley said that a few years ago, "we'd be doing 20 miles per hour, because we'd be behind someone going under the speed limit."

I peeked at the speedometer. He was doing 30.

* * *

St. Petersburg's shift from elderly to young gained ground in the 1990s, when the city received a shot of Botox right in its municipality. During that period, large corporations such as Raytheon moved to town, bringing newly minted engineers, computer hotshots and financial whizzes.

Low real estate prices also drew babies of the '70s and '80s who renovated and expanded bungalows once inhabited by retirees. Coinciding with this boom was a citywide cleanup that pulled down crack dens, patched up sidewalks and improved the quality of life for those who still get carded at bars. While some seedy sections along Central Avenue remain in dire need of a paint job and respectable tenants, an inviting downtown is buzzing with art galleries, outdoor cafes and shops.

"The focus was on 'What do young people need?' " Mayor Rick Baker, 50, said in a phone interview. "We are building the largest bike path system in the Southeast, and we built two skateboard parks and a lot of dog parks where people can exercise and socialize." Smart politician: Dogs are the now accessory.

Between 1970 and 1990, St. Pete's average age dropped more than 10 years, from over 50 to under 40, according to city statistics. Today, the average age of the city's quarter-million residents is 39, only two years older than the eternally youthful Miami. (In case you're wondering, as seniors leave, their numbers are not being replenished because of new retirement migration patterns across Florida and the Southeast.)

"On Friday nights," admitted Christine Page, a 36-year-old volunteer at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, "I'm one of the older people."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company


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