Census data: If Pinellas, St. Petersburg are shrinking, how do they fit in a "growth" state?
Wake up and good morning. Some major Census figures came out Thursday showing Florida attracted 2.8 million new residents in the last decade, despite the impact of high unemployment and the burst housing bubble. As the New York Times notes: "Florida’s census data tells the story of two distinctly different economic cycles. In the first half of the decade, the state’s booming economy attracted huge numbers of new people to the state, and those gains were not erased when the economy came crashing down in 2007 and 2008 with high unemployment and a record number of foreclosures."
Still, the census figures show some clear trends, most notably for Tampa Bay the ongoing boom of Hillsborough County and the actual decline in population of Pinellas County and, within that county, of St. Petersburg. Here's the St. Petersburg Times coverage of the census report. That story includes this comment about Pinellas County's lack of growth: "It's very important when a place — especially a coastal community — loses population," said Orlando economist Hank Fishkind (photo, above). "It means the place is less attractive in a competitive setting and it loses jobs." Other growth experts were less alarmed, the story says. Pinellas County is mostly built out and a flat rate was expected.
To me, it begs the question: What is shrinking Pinellas County's strategy for economic prosperity (and the same can be asked of shrinking St. Petersburg) in a state historically obsessed with new population to spur its growth? Is it okay for Pinellas to flatline, population-wise, while adding value to its economy via better paying jobs and redeveloping existing properties in decline (and there's plenty to choose from) with improved, in-fill development?
It's not that Pinellas faces such an unusual challenge. Many parts of the aging Northeast, for example, are faced with tired and old manufacturing plants made irrelevant by the passage of time. But Pinellas sits in Florida and is surrounded by other counties still enjoying plenty of undeveloped land and still obsessed with the old Florida formula of giving land away cheap for more strip malls and rubber-tamped housing developments. Could Pinellas get tarred, as economist Fishkind suggests above, as a "loser" county, full of too many dying old people and apparently incapable of adding to its population despite being on the coast with miles and miles of beaches?
In an interview with WUSF, Dr. Stan Smith (photo, right), director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida, explains how important the census figures are, calling them the "gold standard" for projecting population and understanding more about he people who live here. Smith is asked why Pinellas is one of two counties (the other being Monroe County in the Keys) to lose population. Listen to his remarks here.
Smith is asked if Florida, now the No. 4 state in population will ever catch No. 3 New York? Yes, he says, probably within the next five years.
-- Robert Trigaux, Business Columnist, St. Petersburg Times