ST. PETERSBURG — Last year the city lost about 420 residents out of a population of 244,753. That means the city lost 0.2 percent of its population.
That doesn't seem like such a big deal — except that Detroit lost the same percentage of its residents.
A shrinking city is not a prosperous city, some experts say. Those numbers give them reason to fear for St. Petersburg's future.
St. Petersburg joins such economically hard-hit Rust Belt cities as Flint, Cleveland, Buffalo and Detroit — cities that led the nation in population loss from 2008 to 2009, according to U.S. census estimates.
"It isn't a good sign for any area to be losing population," said Florida economist Hank Fishkind. "It erodes the demand for all goods and services."
Others say losing population isn't all bad, if it's managed well. Mayor Bill Foster said the city's population has long held steady between 240,000 to 250,000 residents, so he's not too worried.
"I don't think St. Pete has ever been of a mind-set that bigger is better," Foster said.
In fact, estimates show that St. Petersburg shrank by 1.8 percent this past decade, going from 249,000 residents to about 244,000. Clearwater suffered a sharper decline of 3.2 percent from 2000 to 2009. That's a loss of 3,400 residents out of a city of 109,000. But Clearwater also rebounded with 0.3 percent growth in 2009.
The census estimates aren't based on 2010 data, which is still being collected. It's based on the 2000 census updated with new boundaries, building permits and birth, death and migration records.
Experts say a shrinking St. Petersburg is the result of several dominoes falling onto the city at once:
• St. Petersburg has long chafed at its reputation as a retirement destination. But those seem like the good old days now.
Aging northerners can't afford to retire and can't sell their properties in this economy, so they can't come to Florida. But the competition for those who can afford to retire and move is fierce.
Arizona, North Carolina and Texas are all battling Florida to land the next generation of retirees: baby boomers.
"Boomers interested in relocating have other options to consider," said Florida AARP director Lori Parham in an e-mail. "We can't continue to sell warm weather and cheap land alone. We need to find new opportunities to spur growth and embrace them."
• Like the rest of Florida, the city may be losing people because there are no jobs to keep them here.
In May the state's unemployment rate was 11.7 — the same rate in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area, according to the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation.
St. Petersburg real estate broker Helen Torres said buyers are comparing Florida to better economies in Tennessee and Texas.
"They've got better jobs," she said. "They have to go where their bread is buttered."
• Cities like St. Petersburg are struggling in part because they can't find new residents to replace the old ones, said demographer Mark Mather with the Population Reference Bureau.
"It has a relatively old population and not a lot of new births compared to some cities," Mather said, "and there's just not a lot of migrants moving in to replace them."
One way to reverse that trend comes with way too much political baggage: increased immigration. "If you want your population to grow," he said, "immigration is a good way to do it."
• The foreclosure and housing crises also hit the city hard, according to Justin Hollander, an assistant professor for urban planning at Tufts University. He said 13 of the city's 16 ZIP codes lost residents from 2006 to 2009. But it's the same throughout the Sun Belt.
"Wide swaths of the Sun Belt are used to just growing all the time," he said. "But a large number of these places are just shrinking."
But Foster said the city's greatest limitation is natural: It's on a peninsula that's pretty much built out. But he said St. Petersburg doesn't need to rely on development like other Florida cities.
Instead, the mayor said he's focused on bringing in medical, banking and finance jobs to the city.
"I would measure the economic sustainability of a city by quality jobs paying living wages," Foster said.
And not all growth is good, said Hollander, if it means more demands on the environment, on resources, on government.
"There's no reason why we have to keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger," he said. "My advice: Just go with it. Manage that change, get smaller, but get better."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.