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Snowbirds, sun rise for annual breakfast

January 12, 2002|By RICHARD MONTENEGRO, Staff Writer

The free breakfast was nice — those munching on hot cakes and ham steaks will admit as much — but the sun was the star of Saturday morning's 17th annual "Welcome Snowbirds Breakfast" at Stark Field in El Centro.

Hundreds of snowbirds sported thin jackets, light sweaters and short-sleeved shirts as the sun's warming rays reminded those running from their native chilly climes why the Imperial Valley is the place to spend the winter.

"It's beautiful weather. That's the best seller," said Gordon Dombrowski, a Denver resident spending his fourth winter in the Imperial Valley.

With his arms raised toward the sky and a huge grin on his face, Dombrowski proclaimed, "The sun. I follow the sun."

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Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, resident and 12-year Valley visitor Audry Hamel chuckled when asked such a silly question as "What do you like about the Imperial Valley?"

"The weather's what you come for," Hamel said.

"The weather's fantastic today," chimed in snowbird June Osborne of Naramata, British Columbia, "They chose a good time to have this."

They, as in the El Centro Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, sponsors of the yearly breakfast, bank on the Valley's sunny and mild winters to keep the snowbirds coming back. Supplying the Valley's economy with a healthy infusion of cash in the way of gasoline pumped, restaurants dined in, RV parks slept at and all the other goods and services paid for, some consider snowbirds the Valley's best friends.

"Everybody realizes the importance of the snowbirds. They're the ideal visitors. They come and spend their money here. They have little demand in the way of services," El Centro Mayor Larry Grogan said.

According to chamber Executive Director Cathy Kennerson, during their average four-month stay snowbirds spend between $300 and $1,000 a month. Multiply those numbers by the 12,000 to 15,000 snowbirds that flock to the Valley every year and that's a lot of money.

As a way to say thanks, for 17 years the chamber along with services clubs from all over the Valley, businesses and volunteers have been serving a free breakfast to any snowbird who cares to show up.

Said El Centro chamber president-elect and special events committee chairman Richard Acosta: "It's our thanks to the snowbirds for coming to the community, filling our RV parks, using our gas stations.

"And, it seems to be getting bigger and bigger every year," he added.

Chamber director Don Thompson, in charge of making sure the victuals get into the mouths of hungry snowbirds, said Saturday's breakfast consisted of 350 pounds of ham, 300 pounds of hot cake batter, 50 gallons of syrup, 125 gallons of coffee, 2,000 cups of orange juice and, most important perhaps, more than 40 volunteers to serve up the fresh eats.

Calgary, Alberta, Canada resident June Reid said, "I had a very nice breakfast."

Her husband, Hank, interrupted, "… an excellent breakfast."

June nodded in agreement.

As an added bonus for 'birds, this year's appreciation breakfast again featured entertainment and informational booths spread out over one of Stark's soccer fields.

Southwest High choir teacher Anita Slobig of El Centro helped kick off the day's festivities singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America" as the Naval Air Facility El Centro color guard presented the U.S. flag. Local groups Fiddle-Fare and the Jugless Jug Band also performed.

Banks, RV parks, stores, the Imperial County Sheriff's Office and other organizations and businesses set up booths to inform winter visitors as to what's out there.

"It's great. This gets us informed on what's available in El Centro," Barbara Bowen of Carnwood, Alberta, said.

George Ferguson of Niagara Fall, Ontario, Canada, added the displays were interesting.

As a large number of snowbirds milled from booth to booth after finishing breakfast, by 9 a.m. more visitors continued to stream in for their meals.

Acosta said talk around town was snowbird numbers are down in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on this nation.

"From the indication of this crowd, I'm not seeing it," Acosta concluded.

Kennerson said the number of snowbirds visiting this winter is down but not to the extent some may think.

"We called all the RV parks and the BLM," she said. "We're down a bit.

"But I think we're doing pretty good," Kennerson said, adding the number of visitors is off only by about 10 to 15 percent.

Lloyd Mabrey of Grand Junction, Colo., said coming off "9-11" and the escalating price of gasoline, he was surprised so many snowbirds had come back to the Valley.

Ferguson added the attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York City didn't hamper his travel plans.

"Life goes on. You don't stop living on account of that," he said.

Traveling, seeing old friends and talking in the warm sunlight may be what the doctor ordered for many visiting snowbirds, at least that's the impression given by the snowbirds themselves.

"It's really outstanding to get people together like this," Mabrey said. "This lets us meet one another from different RV parks.

"We really enjoy coming down to meet all these people, and maybe get together after and have a drink," he added.

Ferguson said, "I think it's a very sociable thing. It's very interesting."

Hank Reid said, "I've met a lot of people from other parks you don't normally see."

"It's kind of like being at home," said Bowen. "It's a lot the same because it shows community spirit."

Under Saturday's warm winter sun, longtime Imperial Valley residents and their visiting cold-weather brethren were one happy family united in community spirit.

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