2014-02-13 / Top News

Florida population growth returns to form

BY EVAN WILLIAMS

After growth screeched to a halt during the recession, people are moving back to Florida. Researchers project 192,091 new faces will arrive in Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties over the next seven years. The coastal stretch is already home to an estimated 1.1 million people.

Lee County leads the way, growing 20.2 percent — twice the rate of Florida as a whole — to reach 773,500 people by 2020. Collier will absorb 49,537 new residents and Charlotte 12,421.

The projections from the University of Florida are based on past growth. They’re a conservative estimate between the lowest and highest estimates. Population increases fuel economic development but also pose infrastructure and environmental challenges.

“(It) puts more demand on schools, roads, water supply, water runoff, buildings that may be subject to sea level rise,” said Charles Pattison, president of 1000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit that promotes conservation and environmentally friendly development.

Waterfront property and activities are top selling points driving people to Florida, points out David Crawford, principal planner with Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, a state mandated planning group with officials representing six counties and all their cities.

Water — for drinking, swimming, fishing, but first of all for our natural habitat — is key to a healthy economy.

“(It) runs the whole engine,” Mr. Crawford said. “If we don’t have that, the beaches turn nasty, the water goes bad, retirees stop coming because the place is vile, tourists don’t come, the hotels don’t get occupied, people lose their jobs and the whole system crashes.”

People move to Florida for a wide variety of reasons. It’s known as a place where they come to retire or start over, for instance. And as more arrive, housing inventory is being reduced and construction is picking up. That in turn attracts new residents.

“Those people will need jobs and they may be coming for jobs,” said Tom Patton, Charlotte County economic development director. “The construction trade is our fastest growing industry right now.”

There is also no personal income tax in the state.

“Some people are coming to Florida just simply to minimize the state income tax hit,” said Kenny Goodman, a Naplesbased tax and estate-planning attorney.

Year-round sunshine is always at the top of the list of reasons why people move here. That was driven home for Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson, who recently visited Atlanta, Ga., where biting weather kept him inside most of the trip.

“I know why people are coming here and it’s not going to stop,” he said.

Surpassing New York

Florida lost a small percent of its pop- ulation because of the recession. Now the state is on track to surpass New York this year if it hasn’t yet already. That would make it the third most populous state behind California and Texas.

Through 2020, Florida is projected to absorb some 1.9 million new people, pushing the population past 21.1 million.

“Assuming the estimates are correct, Florida should pass New York in the near future,” said Stefan Rayer, Ph.D., a demographer at UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. “But there’s really no way of telling exactly when that’s going to happen.”

Population estimates are based on building permits, electric connections and other data. They are more accurate for larger areas such as the state as a whole than at the county or city level and are subject to change from major economic events such as a housing industry meltdown.

Going forward

For now growth is trending steadily upwards in Southwest Florida, albeit not at the breakneck pace seen in the early to mid-2000s.

Cape Coral, the region’s most populous city, grew by 6,764 people between 2010 and 2013, UF estimates show. Nearly 160,000 reside in the Cape.

“Just before the recession Cape Coral was one of the top five fastest growing cities in America,” recalls Kevin Pickett, a Lee County-based broker associate with Right Choice Realty. “With all the new construction, the availability of land to do new construction, we’re starting to see it come back to that.”

Many homebuyers are baby boomer retirees from the Midwest and Northeast, but a surprising number are younger, Mr. Pickett said. His office sampled 100 recent buyers and found that 60 percent were between age 35 and 45.

He suggested that recent college graduates who had tough luck in a weak job market moved back in with family. As more jobs became available they ended up staying and are now buying homes.

But with all the growth, is Southwest Florida gearing up for another precarious real estate bubble? Lee County was often cited as a “ground zero” for the housing meltdown that preceded the recession.

“I believe we’re going to see sustained growth in more of a normal market,” Mr. Pickett said.

As once vacant homes and properties left untended during the recession fill up, “that makes it a lot safer for the buyer.” ¦

Long-term population projections

Collier County
2013: 333,663
2020: 383,200
Change: 49,537
Percent change: 14.8

Lee County
2013: 643, 367
2020: 773,500
Change: 130,133
Percent change: 20.2

Florida
2013: 19,259,543
2020: 21,141,300
Change: 1,881,757
Percent change: 9.8

Source: University of Florida Bureau of
Economic and Business Research,
U.S. Census Bureau

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