End of Population Growth Era in Florida

Growth has stalled. For the first time since the end of World War II, when hundreds of thousands of military personnel stationed in Florida went home, the state lost population in the past year, according to the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research. For the first time since Florida became a state in 1845, more people are moving out of the state than in, according to Census numbers and moving company reports.

The number of migrants from the Northeast — traditionally Florida's largest source of newcomers — has dropped almost in half since its peak five years ago as the state's allure faded. Florida, once the fifth cheapest state to live in, now is the 14th most expensive, according to Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Jobs are disappearing. Unemployment jumped to 10.7% in July from 6.3% a year ago, well above the national rate of 9.4%.

If thousands of working-age adults hadn't abandoned the state, "our unemployment rate would've been higher," says John Hall, executive director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, an independent research group. "We're a state in trouble," Hall says.

The housing market has collapsed. Twelve percent of mortgages were in foreclosure during the second quarter of this year, the highest rate in the nation. "Florida continues to establish itself as the worst state in the union for mortgage performance," says Jay Brinkmann, chief economist at the Mortgage Bankers Association.

From Pensacola to Key West 850 miles away, the recession has rudely awakened a state that has flourished on a relentless influx of tourists, sun-seekers and retirees and the lower-paid service economy that supports them.

"Florida has been turned on its head," says Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.

A statewide strategy

Vastly different in geography, climate, culture and economic interests, Florida's distinctive regions — north Florida, central Florida and South Florida — historically have found it difficult to share one vision.

Population growth, however, was one constant they all enjoyed. Now that it's gone, the mini-states have joined forces to try to create new economies and reduce their dependence on growth alone. It's something other booming states that are now hurting — notably Arizona and Nevada — are learning.

"Multiple regions around the country worked off the business of growth, and they're all suffering," Lang says. "Don't put all your eggs in one basket."

Florida has set up public and private partnerships to lead efforts on workforce training, tourism and economic development. The Senate Select Committee on Florida's Economy, a bipartisan effort launched in February, has pushed to streamline regulations and cut the cost of doing business.

"We can't get out of this recession … by fixing a problem in Miami or Orlando," says Gaetz, who heads the committee. "We have to have a state economic policy, develop a workforce."

One of the state's most controversial actions, signed into law by Republican Gov. Charlie Crist in June: Rewrite Florida's 25-year-old growth restrictions by lifting a state mandate that required developers in more urban areas to pay for new roads. It's a move opposed by environmental groups such as 1000 Friends of Florida. Local communities now will decide whether to charge such fees.

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