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The once and future Florida

In the modern history of this big, important, interesting state, there is before World War II, there is after World War II, and now there is what feels like the start of … something new.

Florida grew and grew for 60 or so years after the war. Its elemental equation was a robust combination of tourism and retirement, affordable mobility and disposable income, rooftops in cow fields and orange groves and the intangible but still real sense of almost constant optimism. The Great Recession changed those variables.

The question, then: What now, Florida?

Some say there's been a fundamental change. They say an economy based primarily on population growth can't work. They say the current down moment is less a temporary dip and more a lasting reshuffling.

Others say that's too fatalistic and harsh. They say this has been a boom and bust state, and after boom comes bust, but after bust comes boom.

The Republican National Convention begins Monday in Tampa. The general election is coming in November.

It's a good time to think about this kind of stuff.

• • •

In his book The Great Reset, published in 2010, the year after the official end of the recession that nonetheless feels ongoing, Richard Florida described the "new consumption patterns that are less centered around houses and cars," which of course is precisely how Florida was built.

The American Dream is inextricably linked with the Florida Dream, and vice versa, but what's that mean when the Dream is so shaky?

Part of the Dream was a growing middle class. A growing middle class made modern Florida. It meant people kept moving here.

Up sprung places like Pasco County's Wesley Chapel, far from the city, covered with flimsy, fast-built houses that now aren't worth what they fetched less than a decade back. What will happen to the Wesley Chapels? Florida has a lot of Wesley Chapels.

Demographics are changing here. Certain parts of the state are getting older and whiter and other parts of the state are getting younger and browner. Are they going to get along? What if they don't?

Here come the baby boomers, too, all approximately 80 million of them, but how people retire, when they retire, where they retire, if they even can retire — that's changing, too.

By 2020, according to the McKinsey & Co. management consulting firm, the world will have a surplus of 93 million low-skilled workers and a shortage of 85 million high- and medium-skilled workers — workers adequately prepared to participate in a global information economy based on brains, not brawn. The future feels fuzzy, but this statement does not: It will belong to the smart, the trained and the educated. Florida, though, continues to cut funding for schools and universities. Higher education in the Sunshine State this year took a $300 million hit.

The state can't do better than that because it doesn't have enough money. It doesn't have enough money because it relies so heavily on property taxes. It relies so heavily on property taxes because it takes no income taxes. It takes no income taxes — Article VII of the state Constitution specifically forbids it — because it hopes in this way to keep people coming.

Which they're not. Not like they were.

• • •

The Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research last month released a report called "Florida: An Economic Overview." It laid out the crux of the issue in a dispassionate sequence.

Population growth is the state's primary economic engine.

Population growth from 1970 to 2005 was more than 3 percent a year. It's now a little less than 1 percent, where it will stay until 2014, when it will go up to a little more than 1 percent, where it will stay until 2030 and probably longer than that.

The future, the report deduced, will be different than the past.

No choice.

"Really, except for a few road bumps, it was an astonishing 60 years of uninterrupted progress and prosperity," said Gary Mormino, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg history professor who wrote Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida. "That's long gone."

"We've sold this state for 80 years on cheap land, cheap labor and cheap taxes," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "We told people to come down and they did. We were crack addicts for the real estate industry."

"How much of that is going to hold true in the 21st century in Florida?" said Peter Kageyama, the St. Petersburg urban thinker who wrote For the Love of Cities. "None of it."

More than half a million Florida mortgages are delinquent for 90 days or more. The state's about a million jobs short of peak employment. Construction's been hit particularly hard. University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith calls it "carnage."

"The collapse of the construction industry really demonstrated how far-reaching the tentacles were in our economy," former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said, "and how difficult it's going to be to build that back up."

And retirement?

Just under 70 percent of Floridian voters age 50 to 64 expect to delay retirement, according to an AARP survey this summer, and roughly half of the state's boomers fear they'll never be able to retire. More retirees and soon-to-be-retirees who live in other locales are opting to stay where they are.

"The question is about the future of retirement," said Michael Ford, the director of the Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University. "The plausibility of a great retirement in a place like Florida is diminishing."

At least tourism is fine — it's on pace for a second straight record year, partly because of international visitors, especially from Brazil — but other than that …

"The playbook for Florida has got to be completely rewritten," Kageyama said. "It's going to take some gutsy, smart, wild-haired leadership to make that happen."

Does Florida have that?

"I hope so," he said.

• • •

It's asking a lot.

Consider this passage in the book Fifty Feet in Paradise, written by David Nolan, published in 1984: "The 1920s boom was one of those episodic madnesses in history so concentrated and so colorful as to erase the memory of similar but less startling events. This is unfortunate because it consigns the madness merely to the past, whereas nothing is more certain than that it shall happen again."

Up and down, down and up, he wrote, "is in fact the basic pattern of Florida's growth."

The state, he said, sounds like this:

BOOM!

POP!

"Florida doesn't ever seem to learn its lesson," said Casey Blanton, a professor of English and humanities at Daytona State College and the editor in chief of the Journal of Florida Studies.

"The current leadership," Mormino said, "especially the governor and most of the business leaders, they're saying, 'Because of this, we've got to do everything we can to party like it's 1999.' Get rid of impact fees. Lower taxes. Offer these firms millions of dollars to come here."

Said Dick Beard, a longtime prominent Tampa businessman: "The development community, when there's demand, they're going to build."

And what might the state encourage instead?

More things like the Moffitt Cancer Center at the University of South Florida or the burgeoning Medical City in Orlando. Bioscience "clusters." Information technology.

Or even something such as the giant new Airbus factory set to open in Mobile, Ala., in 2015. That's about 1,000 jobs, modern manufacturing with middle-class pay, not low-wage jobs for people who mostly service tourists and seniors.

"How many different things are going to offer new options for employment and wealth?" said state history expert Canter Brown. "It's hard to put your finger on those things."

• • •

Who gets what when there's less stuff?

"Are we going to see this political divide and cultural divide between seniors and the rest of our population?" said David Colburn, the executive director of the Askew Institute on Politics and Society in Gainesville. "How is that going to play out?

"Their interests are so different," he said. "If there are limited resources, who gets them?"

"What's the economic vision of this new Florida going to be?" asked Mormino, the historian. Visitors and retirees with the majority of the rest working on their behalf? "That's a 19th century vision of Florida. People were serious in the 19th century that Florida just seemed such a worthless appendage to America. Why not develop Florida as a national sanatorium where the sick and infirm and tubercular would come?"

"What the next boom looks like, nobody knows," AARP state director Jeff Johnson said. "And is it right around the corner? Or is it 20 years out?"

"The one thing Florida's got going for it is it's still Florida," said Brown, the state history expert. "It has an aura, an aura it's never earned in practice, but we very successfully have created an image of Florida as a paradise."

Will that work?

Still?

Florida, Michael Paterniti wrote in 2002 in the New York Times Magazine, is "a pure creation of our demand," and he's right. And demand is a good word. In those 60 or so years after World War II, when the state's population went from 2.7 million in 1950 ... to 6.8 million in 1970 ... to almost 16 million in 2000 ... to closing in on 20 million, America got the Florida it wanted.

Then the Great Recession hit. Now what?

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter. His RNC blog, The Big Tent, is at tampabay.com/blogs/timesnews.

The once and future Florida 08/25/12 [Last modified: Saturday, August 25, 2012 5:30am]
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