Florida has a new motto: the slow-growth state.
The state should rebound this year from its first loss in population in more than half a century, though it's unlikely to return to an era of explosive growth anytime soon, according to new estimates.
Florida is expected to add about 23,000 residents between April 1, 2009, and April 1, 2010, following a loss of almost 57,000 residents the previous year, the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research reported Tuesday.
Last year's population drop startled a state that has feasted off steady, and sometimes meteoric, growth since World War II. Researchers now say last year appears to have been just a one-year blip.
"Based on changes in electric customer data, we believe Florida's population has increased slightly over the past year," said bureau director Stan Smith, who led the research. "This may be an indication the state's economy is no longer declining at the rate it had been before."
Historically, a flood of new residents into Florida has been the state's primary economic engine. During the housing boom years between 2003 and 2006, the state swelled by more than 400,000 people a year. Many of the newcomers came to feed off the jobs created by the construction boom.
The subsequent implosion in the housing market not only stifled home prices here, but it made it more difficult for retirees up North to sell their homes and move to Florida.
There are signs that the housing market is stabilizing, but with Florida's unemployment rate hovering at a near-record 11.8 percent, the state has lost its marketing cache as a jobs magnet. Anemic population growth this year was the result.
UF estimates the total number of state residents will grow from 18.75 million to 18.773 million between April 2009 and April 2010. Then comes a prolonged period of higher, but still slower growth than the boom years.
Within four or five years, the state may notch a few years of annual population gains nearing 300,000, but UF's Smith said that's likely as high as it will go. The state won't go back to years like 2004-2006, with increases of more than 400,000, anytime soon.
UF's longer-term forecast of slower growth mirrors other projections.
Orlando-based economist Hank Fishkind predicts Florida's population will increase by more than 100,000 in 2011 and by nearly 200,000 in 2012 and 2013.
Sean Snaith, an economist with the University of Central Florida, said slower growth is a "game-changer" for Florida. When the population was growing at up to 3.5 percent a year, "our economy was getting stronger almost by default."
The shifting demographic picture, he said, compels the state to invest more in education and new technologies — despite its current financial woes — if it wants to attract employers.
"This beats losing population, but it doesn't change the fact that one of our key drivers in the economy is basically providing no boost," Snaith said. "It's going to be a struggle to come out of this recession and growth is going to remain suppressed because of it."
Under UF's long-term projections, the state's population is expected to reach about 21.3 million by 2020.
Times staff writer James Thorner contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8242.