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Florida Population Drops For First Time Since 1946

Florida’s population declined last year for the first time since 1946 as the steep national recession put the brakes on in-state migration and also sent many residents packing, University of Florida researchers reported Monday.

Florida lost 58,000 residents compared to a year earlier, as the nation’s fourth largest state settled in with a population of 18.7 million people. The number of Floridians lost represents a city roughly the size of Penasola, Homestead or Kissimmee.

“It’s certainly a unique situation after so many years of sometimes remarkable growth,” said Stan Smith, director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida. “More people are leaving and fewer are coming in.”

A year earlier, even as the recession began to grip Florida and the nation, the state still gained 126,852 new residents. But those findings were a sharp drop from increases of almost 500,000 residents seen in 2003-04, records show.

The university is expected to release details of the latest population survey Wednesday. Only statewide numbers were made available Monday to the News Service of Florida, but the findings bolster trends already reflected in three consecutive years of school enrollment declines and a drop in the number of jobs available in Florida.

State economists forecast that Florida’s unemployment rate will hover around 11 percent through at least the first half of next year.

Luring out-of-state residents has been Florida’s go-to economic plan since the early days of statehood. One of Florida’s most robust periods occurred when annual population growth of between 2 percent and 2.6 percent was reported from the mid-1990s through 2006, according to UF demographers.

But when the recession hit -- officially December 2007 -- Florida’s growth numbers began tailing off. Looking ahead, only 70,000 new Floridians are expected to be added in the next two years, officials have said.

The decline is evident in Florida classrooms, where 10,000 students this fall are expected to leave the nation’s fourth largest school system. It’s the third straight year of shrinking enrollment in the 2.6 million-student system, reversing 25 years of often-rapid growth following a brief slump which occurred the recession of the early 1980s.

“Population growth is the biggest economic driver we have,” said Amy Baker, coordinator of the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research. “Our economic recovery is really based on when people elsewhere feel comfortable enough to sell their homes and buy here, and take a chance to come to Florida to take a new job.”

“Until employment improves, we’re not expecting to see huge jumps in the economy,” Baker added.

Researchers say Americans nationwide are staying in place because of the cratered housing and job markets.

Just over 257,000 people moved away from New York between July 2007 and July 2008, according to demographers at Queens College. But that was the first time that fewer than 300,000 New Yorkers left annually since the Census Bureau began collecting the data in 1982.

The number of New Yorkers leaving also is about half what it was in 2005-06, the peak year for out-of-state migration.

New York has been the leading source of domestic migrants to Florida and the Sunshine State remains the top choice of departing New Yorkers. There’s just not as many of them.

Florida lawmakers this spring tried to kick-start the staggering development industry by approving legislation backed by business groups that removed a key underpinning of growth-management legislation.

Lawmakers erased road-building requirements for projects in densely-populated areas – saying it will encourage urban infill.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Florida’s Economy, defended the Legislature’s approach as not merely trying to put the spurs to Florida’s one-trick pony again.

“The days are over for us thinking economic development means standing at the stateline with a glass of orange juice and a land map,” Gaetz said.

But Chris McCarty, a UF economist, isn’t so hopeful.

“Growth is being managed by other factors,” he said. “Basically, it’s whether people can sell their homes in other states and move to Florida. We’re not seeing that.”

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