ORLANDO, Fla. – After two decades as a high-powered marketing executive, Scott Relf and his six-figure income moved from the cold of suburban Kansas City to the Florida coast. Because he could.
Relf, 48, became a self-employed consultant in Naples for companies inventing new products and said he still makes close to the $250,000 he earned as a corporate executive.
He's among high-income earners who have gravitated to states like Florida, Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming over the past decade, residing in resort towns and mountain getaways once reserved for vacations and second homes, according to an Associated Press analysis of newly released personal income data.
"If your clients are spread around the country, and it doesn't really matter where you live since you're going to be flying to most of them anyway, then why not live in paradise?" Relf said.
Just a decade earlier, higher income earners were concentrated in counties with large numbers of financial, real estate and professional jobs. But the Internet, wireless technology, and the ability to fly commercial in and out of almost any airport in the country have freed them to move elsewhere in significant numbers.
"It's become increasingly easier to do the kind of work you want in the place you want to live and as that has happened, you've seen this big growth in the incomes of these communities," said Jonathan Schechter, executive director of the Charture Institute, a Jackson Hole, Wyo.-based think tank that studies growth and sustainability issues.
The top 100 counties had an average per capita income of $58,691. The county-level, per-capita income estimates from 2007, released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis last month, offer a snapshot of the distribution of wealth in the United States before the recession began in December 2007, the stock market tanked and unemployment skyrocketed.
Although many Americans are poorer now than at the end of 2007, the geographic distribution of wealth likely hasn't changed much because there have been fewer Americans moving. The number relocating last year reached its lowest percentage in 60 years.
"The numbers are going to be ratcheted down but I don't think the trends will change," Schechter said.
Traditional financial centers continued to dominate the list of highest-income counties. New York was ranked No. 2, followed by white-collar areas like San Francisco (No. 10) and Washington, D.C. (No. 22), and their surrounding suburbs. Soaring energy prices in oil and natural gas centers, and high crop prices in farming towns, also boosted prosperity in some counties.
In 2007, the percentage of a county's work force in the recreation and tourism sector became a predictor for high personal income, meaning tourist towns were becoming more wealthy, according to the AP analysis of the 100 counties with the highest per capita income.
The analysis looked at the influence the different types of jobs had on per capita income. A statistically significant influence didn't necessarily mean that workers in those fields were earning high incomes, although that was possible, but only that those well-off were living in the counties.
For example, Teton County, Wyo., home to Jackson Hole, ranked No. 1 in the country for the third year in a row with a per capita income of $132,728. In the past decade, wealthy visitors who might have just purchased a second home there instead become full-time residents to enjoy its nearby ski resorts and national parks. Teton County's labor force grew by more than 75 percent during the decade.
"The saying here is, 'The billionaires have driven the millionaires out of Teton County,"' cracked Janet Montgomery, assessor for Sublette County, Wyo., which is about 75 miles away with a population of 6,900.
Tim Green and his wife, Loretta, got the urge to move to Marathon, Fla., in the Florida Keys from a Detroit suburb less than a decade ago while watching a television beer commercial that showed palm trees lit with Christmas lights. They brought with them their multimillion-dollar company that develops software for broadband Web streaming.
"It's great to bring clients down here," Green said. "When you say you're in the Keys and your clients are up north, it's not too hard to get them to come visit you to see what your offer is."