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Greetings from Florida; why aren't you here?

The Florida dream isn't dead.

But it is in trouble.

The latest evidence: In the past five years, the number of out-of-state residents applying for Florida drivers' licenses tumbled from almost 600,000 to barely more than 400,000, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

People aren't coming here like they used to. Because Florida is not what it used to be.

The recession is not just putting people out of work and making it tough for them to keep their homes. It is unraveling the very myth that drove Florida's growth: that it's an affordable paradise where people can reinvent themselves or retire in the sunshine.

The Florida dream was the American dream, only in sharp, blue-sky focus. The iconic images of the Sunshine State used to be bountiful boxes of citrus, or a pelican flying through the sunset over the bay, all in pastel-postcard chic.

Now they're sad, still photos of forlorn, foreclosed homes.

"I think Florida's at a real crossroads right now," said Gary Mormino, a Florida studies professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and the author of the 2005 book Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams. "We need to step back and think about what kind of state we want to be."

• • •

The engine of the Florida dream, always, was the people who chased it.

The state's population in 1950 was only 2.7 million. Then it started to swell, with people who after World War II found themselves with time, money and dreams of a modest, comfortable retirement. That growth continued, basically unbroken, for 60 years.

In 2000, the population was almost 16 million, and it's almost 19 million now.

But it's slowing.

Population growth was between 2 and 2.5 percent for most of the past decade.

It dropped to 0.7 percent last year.

The foundations of the dream — good weather, plentiful work, inexpensive housing — have been undermined by hurricanes, the building bust and now the mortgage crisis.

Last year, United Van Lines and Allied Van Lines took more people out of Florida than they brought in. Retirees are going instead to Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arizona.

The state's unemployment rate is the highest it has been in 16 years.

The foreclosure rate is second-worst in the country.

Insurance? State Farm stopped writing new property coverage last year and wants out of its 1.2 million policies in Florida. The cost of property insurance has exploded.

Tourism is down for the first time in seven years.

Even Disney's theme-park profit in the fiscal first quarter dropped 24 percent.

The Magic Kingdom is offering buyouts.

Last year Time called Florida the Sunset State.

• • •

Can you still work a lifetime on an assembly line in Michigan and retire with a pension to New Port Richey?

Can you still leave Long Island and buy a house in Spring Hill and make a living as a nurse?

Used to be, said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida, the Florida dream was this: "Joe Lunch Bucket can retire from Jersey and live in a trailer by the sea."

Now?

Joe Lunch Bucket might still come to Florida, and he might still live in his trailer, but his trailer won't be by the sea. It might be in Lakeland or Ocala.

Baby Boomers are still out there. But maybe they're waiting to move here because they don't have the money right now.

Eventually, though, they will retire.

"They've got to go somewhere," Snaith said, "and they're not going to North Dakota."

"We've overspent, we've overconsumed, and now we're being forced to reconcile," said Bruce Stephenson, a professor of environmental studies at Rollins College in Winter Park.

"I don't think the dream is dead. It's just being reinvented."

"The Florida dream may be mildewed," said Mormino, the USF professor, "but there's still something remarkable about the sunset over Fort DeSoto."

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Greetings from Florida; why aren't you here? 02/19/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 21, 2009 9:55am]
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