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Shrinking Florida faces tough choices as residents flee, jobs vanish
Rick Desrochers is leaving. And he's not coming back.
He and his wife are moving in with her parents in Michigan after the couple lost their jobs, their Hunter's Creek home to foreclosure, and everything else to bankruptcy. The trauma of going broke in the Sunshine State has convinced them that when the good times return to Orlando, they won't.
"I've talked to a lot of people who say they aren't coming back," said Desrochers, 39, who moved to Orlando nine years ago from Hilton Head, S.C.
Later this month, Rick and Connie Desrochers will join a migration out of Florida that began before the housing market collapsed and the recession kicked in. In 2009, more than 500,000 people like them will leave. And for the first time since World War II, Florida's population will actually shrink -- by about 60,000 residents, state demographers estimate.
Growth has slowed in many places across the country as the recession stifles Americans' ability to sell their homes and move. But in many ways, the slowdown is worse here because Florida's economy has long been built on rapid growth.
In fact, a study last week by the Pew Center on the States identified Florida as one of the states at risk of fiscal calamity and cited its reliance on population growth as contributing to its economic woes.
"Florida's population is shrinking -- a disturbing trend for a state that has built its economy, and structured its state budget, on the assumption that throngs of new residents will move to its sunny shores each year," said the report released Wednesday.
To be sure, Florida will attract new residents again with its warm climate and low taxes, demographers and economists say. And the state is still on track to surpass New York in the 2010 census as the nation's third-largest state.
But Florida's growth moving forward will likely be slower than in the past. And demographers say that's not necessarily a bad thing. The hiatus could give leaders -- and residents -- the opportunity to rethink the state's economic diversity and tax structure, preserve more of its environment, change its patterns of development, improve its schools and enhance the quality of life.
"What this will do is make a lot of people think about what rapid growth means, both the downside and the upside," said William Frey, a demographer with The Brookings Institution in Washington.
University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith thinks the recession simply accelerated a longer trend of declining growth. The state, he said, simply could not sustain the high rate of growth of the past and should expect lower growth in the future.
"These gaudy rates of population growth we've seen of 4 or 5 percent in decades gone by are not coming back," said Snaith, director of UCF's Institute for Economic Competitiveness.
Expert: Growth to return
Florida has little to worry about in terms of future growth, contends Carl Haub, a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau in Washington. Traditional growth states such as Florida, Texas, California, Arizona and Nevada will continue to attract new residents because they remain better places to live than Idaho, Nebraska, Michigan and Iowa.
"The United States is growing by 3 million a year, and they are not going to North Dakota," Haub said.
State demographers at the University of Florida predict that once the recession ends, Florida can expect to grow by as much as 200,000 people a year -- fewer than the 300,000 a year the state averaged during the past three decades but enough to make other states jealous.
What might seem like slow growth for Florida is still higher than in much of the rest of the nation, Frey said. Even if Florida growth slows to 2 percent a year, that's still twice the national average.
But this current demographic downshift, planners say, will give the state a chance to reassess whether an economy dependent upon attracting larger and larger numbers of people is sustainable. The model that worked so well in the past -- marketing Florida as a low-cost Walmart of America -- won't work in the future, Snaith argues.
"It was economic development for dummies. It was climate and a low cost of living that attracted people to Florida," Snaith said. "We need either a new book altogether or a new chapter as we go forward in terms of the state's economic development."
That new chapter, economists contend, must include greater efforts to diversify the state's economy. That is already under way, evidenced by the partnership among UCF, Burnham Institute and the city of Orlando to create a biotech hub at the "Medical City" complex. Florida has the ports and airports to become an epicenter for worldwide shipping and international business, experts said. And it could become a leader in green technology.
Arizona and Nevada, two other states with growth-based economies, are already starting to talk about doing things differently when the recession ends, said Robert E. Lang, co-director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech in Alexandria, Va. Leaders in those states are looking now at ways to broaden their economies to avoid relying so heavily on population growth in the future.
Can boomers save state?
Lang predicts Florida's population will rise again from 2015 to 2020. Some of that increase will be the pent-up desire to move from states such as New York and New Jersey that have traditionally fed Florida's growth. And some of it will come from retiring baby boomers.
But Lang cautions against the belief that the rising tide of retirees will save Florida's future. How, where and when the boomers retire is all the more uncertain with the loss of value in their 401(k) retirement plans and their homes.
"Florida isn't the only choice for retirement," Lang said. "You can bet on some of that, but I wouldn't bet my whole future economic development on that."
For many, a growth slowdown is not undesirable. It affords time to take a break from overcrowded schools spilling into portable classrooms and enables residents to enjoy a little less traffic congestion on their way to work. It's the chance to rediscover what attracted them to Florida in the first place: lower cost of living; the temperate winters; the natural beauty of beaches, lakes and spring-fed rivers.
Nimesh Bhavsar hopes the future Florida is a greener Florida, like the one he remembers from growing up in Gainesville.
"Florida needs to get back to its real self before people start coming back," said Bhavsar, 39, an Orlando civil engineer.
In Central Florida, the slowdown is helping to ease panic among environmentalists and cities and counties over who gets to claim last drops of a shrinking water supply. Utilities can use this pause in explosive growth to focus more on sharing -- and less on lawsuits -- in what had been an escalating war over water in the past several years.
What lies ahead?
In some ways, planning for the Sunshine State slowdown has meant contemplating the unthinkable: how dependent Florida's economy has become on attracting more and more people, and what might happen if they stop coming.
"The only way Florida worked was for continued, uninterrupted growth. I don't recall anyone speculating what would happen if the growth suddenly stopped," said Gary R. Mormino, professor of history at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "What happens is the state is paralyzed."
If slower growth is the future of Florida, the state will adjust. It has reinvented itself before, Mormino said, from the land of groves and ranches to the working man's retirement retreat to a premiere vacation destination to the Ellis Island of the Caribbean and South America.
"The Florida dream is always changing," he said. "But if you think Florida is the unhurried lifestyle and the pristine beaches, those days are over."
They're over for Rick Desrochers, his wife and thousands of others who have left the state and may never return. When the Desrocherses first moved to Orlando, it seemed like a dream come true. They were close to the attractions, near the airport, not far from the beaches. Rick had Mickey Mouse tattooed on his back.
"I used to come down here as a kid. It was just one of those places you wanted to be," said Rick Desrochers, who grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont.
When they bought their home in Orlando, Rick ripped out the carpet and replaced it himself with 6-by-6-inch floor tiles. He installed crown molding in the hallway and plastered the interior walls with stucco. He hung photographs of himself and his father at Dixie Stampede and Bike Week in Daytona Beach.
The house is now filled with cardboard boxes and plastic tubs where photo albums, videotapes and Christmas decorations are stored. Nine years ago, Rick Desrochers felt lucky to land in Florida. Now, he feels lucky to be one of those who can leave.
Jeff Kunerth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5392.