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More trek to other counties for work

Some Citrus County residents think it's a long haul from Crystal River to Inverness.

That's peanuts compared with Paul Strom's commute. Each week, the Homosassa man steers his silver Buick Century toward Lake County to work part time at Carroll Fulmer Logistics Corp. For a 60{-mile stretch of asphalt, it's just him and the country music piping from his radio.

Or so he thought. According to recently released census data, the number of people commuting from Citrus to Lake more than tripled _ from 125 to 400 _ between 1990 and 2000.

Couple that with three times as many residents _ from 220 to 675 _ driving to work in Sumter County, and it's obvious that eastbound morning traffic has thickened along Citrus roads during the past decade. In fact, on State Road 44 east of Gospel Island Road (County Road 470), there was a 9 percent increase in the average number of cars per day between 1990 and 2000.

The recent information isn't evidence of a daily mass exodus. But the numbers do show a slight decline in those who both live and work in Citrus. Almost 78 percent of Citrus workers, or 29,460 people, still worked in their home county. In 1990, about 83 percent of Citrus workers age 16 and older were employed within the county's borders.

Meanwhile, the number of exported workers rose by more than 5,000, the census figures showed.

The numbers ring true for Brett Wattles, executive director of the Citrus County Economic Development Council. About 60 percent of the county's workforce is employed in retail or service jobs, he said. People wanting better paying jobs often go elsewhere.

"If a person has a higher level of education, they are likely to seek employment outside the county," Wattles said. "But obviously we would like for more of the employment opportunities to exist in Citrus County."

The information on how many Citrus residents leave the county to go to work comes from the Census Bureau's long form survey of about one in six households nationwide. On April 1, 2000, surveyors asked, "Where did you work last week?" The survey results are subject to some sampling error.

Neighboring Marion and Hernando counties continued to pull the most workers out of Citrus. Eight percent of Citrus workers, or about 3,000 people, drove to Marion. In 2000, 1,500 people traveled to Hernando for work, about twice as many as in 1990.

Hillsborough County drew 470 people, nearly doubling the number from 10 years before.

A decade ago, Citrus residents commuting to Sumter or Lake counties each made up less than 1 percent of the county's workforce. In 2000, they totaled 3 percent of Citrus' 37,900 workers.

Officials in those counties attributed the increase to their ardent economic development efforts. Lake County commissioners have partnered with the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission to bring in new businesses. They also bought a commerce park to lure companies with affordable land and efficient permitting, said Greg Miharic, the county's director of economic development and tourism.

"We want to make it as easy as possible for people who want to locate their businesses in Lake County to do that," he said. "We're trying to stimulate job creation in Lake County as actively as possible."

Carroll Fulmer Logistics, a trucking company, was the first business to move into the Groveland business park. Strom, 68, drove a truck for the company for seven years before retiring and buying a home in western Citrus County.

But last October, he started working four days a week again in the company's shop. That meant driving an hour and five minutes to Lake County.

He's luckier than most long-distance commuters. His employer eases the grind by housing him rent-free in an apartment on company property three nights a week.

"Driving don't bother me a bit," said Strom, who put in between 150,000 and 170,000 miles a year as a truck driver. "I can't see selling my place here and moving over there. I like it over here on the west coast."

A preference for the quiet, coastline and rivers ranks among the reasons many who work in other counties opt to live in Citrus County. Yet, in some cases, the reason is that the counties they work in can't house them.

Sumter County is such a place, said its economic development director, Diana Lee. Citrus contractors, builders and corrections officers have flocked to job opportunities resulting from the expansions of Sumter's federal prison and the Villages, a large retirement community, she said.

The Coleman Federal Correctional Institute has more than 1,000 employees, including the approximately 300 hired in 2001 after its most recent expansion. Personnel staff couldn't provide the exact number of Citrus residents working there, but acknowledged their significant presence.

Other big pulls in Sumter include a state prison, which employs 74 Citrus residents, and the public school system, where 17 Citrus residents work.

However, Lee said the housing market hadn't kept pace with the explosion of commerce.

Sumter "didn't have enough affordable or available housing when they came to work here," she said. "So lots of people have bought homes in Lake, Marion or Citrus instead and commute to Sumter."

Citrus increasingly may be exporting its workers, but some commuters also are driving here. Progress Energy, the county's largest employer, is a likely draw.

Marion County sent 1,200 workers in 2000, the most of any nearby county. About 480 came to Citrus from Levy, 200 from Sumter and 100 from Lake. In addition, the number of Hernando residents commuting to Citrus increased from 750 to 940 between 1990 and 2000. Only 130 came from Pasco, down from 180 in 1990.

Larry Hopper, 62, is among the 330 Citrus workers who drive south on U.S. 19 toward Pasco County each day. The Inverness man spends more than two hours a day in his gray Dodge Intrepid to get to Hudson Middle School, where he teaches business education.

He usually manages to avoid both rush hours, leaving home at 5:40 a.m. and getting back on the road around 2:30 p.m. Even after five years of making the trip, he said it was worthwhile. Pasco school officials treat their educators fairly, particularly when doling out raises, he said.

He and his wife own a home in Inverness, and she teaches at Citrus High School. They have no intention of moving, ensuring for Hopper several more years of an inordinate amount of oil changes.

"If one of us had to commute, I would rather it be me," he said.

_ Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 860-7303 or