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What do we do in the exurbs, now that the exurbs aren't cool?

I happen to be sitting in one of Hernando County's most visible symbols of a time, not that long ago, when exurbs looked like the future.

Ten years ago this month, what was then the St. Petersburg Times opened a new building on State Road 50 near the Suncoast Parkway.

You've almost certainly seen it and probably been impressed, which was the point. It was intended to be a billboard of a workplace, a Hummer even — 30,000 square feet of floor space and a 40-foot-high entryway.

It didn't matter that it was more than an hour's drive from the paper's namesake city. With the recently completed parkway, commuters would make Hernando County the next big thing. Being close to that new road and all of the development it was supposed to bring seemed even more important than maintaining a base in the seat of county government, Brooksville. Heck, we could always just drive.

As much as I hate to admit it, I was as caught up in this kind of thinking as anyone. A story about the opening of the office back in February 2003 quoted me as calling it "gorgeous."

Still is, in a way.

But I miss being able to drop in to county offices a short walk from my old cubicle in Brooksville, picking up a few minutes of conversation, and maybe a tip, along with the documents I needed. I'd even go so far as to say these casual interactions helped make the job seem worthwhile.

Apparently, I'm not the only person who feels that way.

Exurbs are not the future anymore, not cool.

Cities are.

The latest proof comes in a report from state Bureau of Economic and Business Research released at the end of January: bebr.ufl.edu/population.

It shows what sales and building permit figures have already indicated — that the housing markets in Pasco and Hillsborough counties started heating up more than a year ago. And Hernando's did not.

Between the 2010 census and April 1, 2012, the BEBR report says, the population has grown 2.2 percent in Hillsborough, 0.8 percent in Pasco and 0.2 percent in Hernando.

Or, looked at another way, a county with a population of 173,000 added just 326 new residents.

Mostly, the story was the same throughout the state.

During this very slow period of growth, major cities added population. Counties farther from metro areas grew more slowly or not at all. Citrus County, to the north of us, actually lost population; Levy County, to the north of Citrus, lost at an even faster rate.

There are some exceptions to this pattern. Sumter County, for example, was the fastest-growing county in Florida during this period, mostly because of the massive Villages retirement community. Osceola County, with a surge of immigration from Puerto Rico, grew faster than nearby, more urban, Orange County.

It's also important to remember that although this is a comprehensive report, it's not that up to date. The housing market could have changed a lot since April 2012, and year-end sales statistics indicate that it almost certainly did.

The volume of sales in Hernando had increased by the end of December, and prices had either started to stabilize or even rise.

Some people have even told me that the hordes of investors who have been buying up lots in Hillsborough will be coming up here soon.

Maybe so, but rising gas prices are working against us. So are other market forces.

Factors that helped drive the flight from cities after World War II — crime and heavy industry — are no longer such big factors in urban areas.

Rates of home and car ownership among young people started dropping before the recession and have dropped even faster since, according to a story in last February's Atlantic magazine.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that home-building giants such as the Lennar Corp. are putting up mid-rise apartment buildings to meet increased demand for city living.

And the post-recession pattern of urban areas growing faster than suburbs is not just a Florida phenomenon, according to the census, but a national one.

So we're doomed, right?

No.

We should still get our fair share of retirees. We can build industry and try to attract tourists. And, even out here in the exurbs, we can encourage the growth of the urban cores we do have, Brooksville and Spring Hill.

New construction in those two areas would, and should, get deep discounts in impact fees, a consultant told the County Commission last month. Because the infrastructure there is already in place, it makes economic sense.

And other kinds of sense — a few more people in, say Brooksville, a few more restaurants, enough offices that you might be able to conveniently do more business on foot and face to face.

To me — to a lot of people — it sounds pretty cool.

Follow @ddewitttimes on Twitter and read his Quick Hits column Mondays at tampabay.com.

What do we do in the exurbs, now that the exurbs aren't cool? 02/16/13 [Last modified: Saturday, February 16, 2013 11:35am]
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