It's a breathtaking number: 20 million residents. The announcement by the U.S. Census Bureau that Florida has passed that milestone reflects the state's lure for new beginnings. The Sunshine State has long been a coveted destination for its weather, beaches and low cost of living. But now it is attracting younger residents looking to make a mark, foreign emigres looking to take a chance, and professionals and retirees drawn to booming downtowns, top medical care and world-class cultural venues. That allure presents challenges — and remarkable potential.
The climb to become the third-largest state is not surprising. In the 1980s and '90s, more than 800 people moved to Florida every day, according to census figures. While that pace slowed over the past decade as the recession took hold, the state had already laid a groundwork with its large tourism industry, expanding suburbs and growing retirement villages. The census estimates Tuesday show that Florida is adding more than 1,000 people a day, a pace faster than last year, and is up nearly a half-million people on New York. The half-century migration from the Snow Belt continues. And it presents more than bragging rights.
The first step in ensuring Florida grows in a more responsible way is for leaders to recognize why people are moving here in the first place. The state has long attracted tourists and retirees for its climate and natural beauty, and businesses and transplants for the favorable tax climate and affordable living. But the large metropolitan regions, from South Florida to the Tampa Bay area, from Jacksonville to Orlando, also have revitalized their downtowns and diversified their employment bases.
Florida no longer has a one-dimensional identity, whether it was citrus or theme parks, tract housing or sun-soaked beaches. The state is still filled with many picturesque towns — from Mount Dora to Cocoa Beach — fresh out of travel brochures from the past. But it is growing next-generation industries in space exploration, biomedicine and other advanced fields. And those dynamics are bringing new growth and energy to the urban areas, as Miami, St. Petersburg, Tampa and other cities enjoy a downtown building boom.
Nothing is free, though, and the distinction of growing at such a notable clip brings with it an obligation. State and local leaders have made key investments in protecting the environment, ensuring adequate water supplies and preparing the workforce for a global economy. But the state has not adequately modernized its transportation system, prepared for the effects of climate change or addressed racial and income disparities in housing and education. Progress won't happen on its own. It starts with a governor who will lead, a Legislature that is responsive and local leaders who will follow through.
Still, it's nice to be liked. Population growth beats the declines seen in the old Rust Belt. It brings added political clout in Washington, a higher profile worldwide and a sense of pride for Floridians. Within a few hours' drive, Florida offers it all — the international flavor of Miami, the Midwestern sensibilities of Tampa Bay, the fantasy of the theme parks in Orlando. Let's celebrate the 20 million mark, preserve our assets, unleash our potential — and remain the land of hope and dreams.