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Florida loses population for the first time since World War II

The growth state is officially shrinking.

Hit by a double-whammy of the housing crash and the recession, Florida has lost population for the first time since the demobilization of hundreds of thousands of soldiers after World War II.

University of Florida demographers will report Friday that the state shed about 50,000 residents between April 2008 and April 2009. That should knock the number of Floridians down a notch from the previously reported 18.3 million.

It's the first time since 1946 that Florida has been a net population loser. Even during the Great Depression, new residents swept into the state in search of work and leisure. But the severe housing contraction, combined with the sputtering of Florida's job creation machine, has eclipsed the state's former gravitational pull.

"You've had families with kids move out when housing prices went up too high," said UF economist David Denslow. "And with construction down, immigrant workers have left."

The university's Bureau of Economic and Business Research relies mainly on electric company connections and disconnections, supplemented by building permit data, to estimate population changes.

In the Tampa Bay area, St. Petersburg's Progress Energy reported a net loss of 8,000 electric customers from the first three months of 2008 to the same period in 2009. Tampa Electric lost about 2,200 customers in the first half of this year compared with a year earlier. UF tweaked the numbers on the theory that some of the lost customers didn't leave the state but moved in with friends or family.

"We've got plenty of rooftops to spare. We just don't have the bodies to put in them,'' said University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith.

The latest population numbers back up a trend noted earlier by the U.S. census. Using estimates through July 2008, the federal government said Florida had a net loss of 9,286 domestic residents. If it hadn't been for 77,427 immigrants, mainly from Latin America, the state's population would have fallen last year.

Those immigrants haven't shown up in the same numbers this year, Denslow said. Not only have thousands of Mexican construction workers left, but Colombians who fled violence and instability in their county in the 1980s and '90s have been returning to South America.

Most economic forecasters expect Florida's population dip to be short-lived. Scott Brown, chief economist for Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg, sees it as a one-year anomaly. But it's a stunning one in a state that has been so reliant on surging population.

"We used to say the growth industry in Florida has been growth, kind of as a joke," he said.

In a state with no income tax, state and local governments count heavily on migrating retirees to boost revenue and create jobs. In fact, the lack of an income tax is part of the allure.

The recession-fueled collapse of stock prices last year stopped some of that. Retirees wanting to move to Florida either couldn't sell their homes up north or lacked a mortgage down payment after investment accounts took a pounding.

"That engine shuts off and you wonder where you're going to raise funds. There's no state income tax you can tweak. You can cut, cut and cut till people get fed up," Brown said.

Overall, the U.S. population is growing about 1 percent annually, and Sun Belt states like Florida should grow a bit faster than that starting in 2010 or 2011. Some forecasts show the state's population crossing the 20 million barrier around 2016. By 2040, the state could hold as many as 30 million people.

But Snaith points to charts showing a slowing rate of population growth going back to 1969. Considering its relatively high housing and property insurance prices, Florida has gradually lost its reputation as a bargain destination.

"The demographics of the state have changed. Coming out of this recession we won't have what we've had to pull us through recessions before. One of those things has been population growth," Snaith said. "We've kind of lost that mantle of being the cheap place to live.''

UF won't release specific population data for Florida's cities and counties until Friday. But previous reports have already pegged Pinellas County as a population loser.

The university said Florida's last population decline occurred from 1945 to 1946, when America defeated the Nazis and Japan. The state had housed hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen in places like Drew and McDill airfields in Tampa and Camp Blanding near Gainesville. Many military men and their dependents departed at the end of the war.

Even during the real estate bust of the late 1920s and the economic cataclysm of the 1930s, the population continued to rise. You would have to go back to 1916-18 to find the next instance of a population decline.

Times staff writer Jeff Harrington contributed to this report. James Thorner can be reached at jthorner@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3313.

Florida loses population for the first time since World War II 08/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 3:47pm]
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