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Column | Robert Trigaux

Challenges big for Florida as exodus no longer anecdotal

I've got Tampa Bay friends, boomers mostly, who became empty nesters only to find themselves laid off from once-respectable, sustaining jobs.

Now they worry their savings won't keep up with their living expenses. They cast about for alternative, not-too-cold places to live. Tennessee — one of the nearby states aggressively wooing Floridians with "cheap" land, lakefront promises and smiling pitchmen like Eric "Ponch" Estrada of the old CHiPS TV show — seems as popular a place as any to resettle.

Texas also gets attention because its economy is relatively strong, housing prices have not swooned much and there are some jobs there.

The Florida exodus is no longer anecdotal.

As reported this week by St. Petersburg Times reporter James Thorner, a soon-to-be-unveiled report from the University of Florida shows the state lost 50,000 people from April 2008 to April 2009.

It's the first time since 1946 that Florida has been a net population loser.

That's quite a sea change from the boilerplate line — "A thousand people a day are moving to Florida" — cooked up in the heady 1980s. State leaders preached it well after it was no longer true.

Florida has avoided a big hurricane this season only to suffer a Category 5 economic howler. A drop in our population is like a day without sunshine, right?

Some in Florida will read these demographics and rejoice that, momentarily, the state gets a break from more sprawl, endless shopping centers and thicker traffic.

Some in Florida whose economic well-being relies on the next new resident, and then the next new resident, will lament. They are cities, developers, power companies, public school systems and, yes, newspapers that need new blood in order to expand.

St. Petersburg's Progress Energy Florida, in its second-quarter report, said it lost 8,000 customers. And Miami-based Florida Power & Light reported a decline of 16,000 in the same period ended June 30. That's 24,000 fewer Florida households just between those two utilities.

What else is driving the moving van departures? Surely those here who are "underwater" because they owe more on their homes than they can be sold for.

Bankers call it negative equity. It is plague in the state.

In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, 47 percent of all single-family homeowners were underwater as of June 30. In the Tampa Bay area, that percentage is lower.

But even nationally, 23 percent, or more than one in every five, of single-family homes with mortgages are underwater, according to Zillow Real Estate Market Reports.

Discouraged by years of falling home prices and the prospect of making hefty payments on an increasingly worthless asset, many Florida residents are walking away from their debts. Or they are trying to hold on, often face foreclosure, then leave.

Now demographic experts swear on a stack of AARP invitations that Florida's stumble is temporary.

They insist the sheer size of the retiring baby boomer wave will replenish hungry Florida and resurrect the Sunshine State's "thousand people" mantra.

That's the challenge ahead. We've got issues galore that won't be solved by another rising tide of older folks.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Challenges big for Florida as exodus no longer anecdotal 08/12/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 13, 2009 8:45am]

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