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After one-year blip, Florida's population to grow again

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 jharrington@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8242.

Pinellas and Hillsborough counties couldn't be closer geographically, or further apart on the growth-o-meter.

Population for a built-out Pinellas is expected to increase just 2 percent, or by about 12,700 new residents, over the next 25 years.

In contrast, Hillsborough's population is expected to grow by 39 percent over the same span. That would be 472,000 new Hillsborough residents, a growth spree second only to Orange County, which is projected to add 512,200 residents by the year 2035.

Stan Smith, director of the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research, noted that Pinellas County's population has actually slightly declined every year since 2006.

It largely boils down to lack of available land. "It's the most densely populated county in the state by far," Smith said.

Among other bay area counties, UF researchers forecast that by 2035, Pasco would add 219,700 residents (up 49.9 percent); Hernando would increase by 82,100 residents (up 49.6 percent) and Citrus' population would grow by 57,800 (up 40.5 percent).

Percentage-wise, the population leader over the next quarter century is expected to be Sumter County, home of the popular retirement mecca The Villages, which is projected to more than double (up 111 percent).

Only one county in Florida, Monroe, is expected to lose population over the long haul.

Jeff Harrington, Times Staff Writer

After one-year blip, Florida's population to grow again 03/02/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 4, 2010 2:04pm]

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