By ANDREW ABRAMSON Palm Beach Post
March 3, 2010
After soaring for years, Florida’s population arrows took a startling downward trajectory in 2008. Instead of growing by 300,000 residents a year, as it averaged for four decades, the state lost 57,000 residents.
But a new study says the indicators are back up, with a whopping 71 percent increase projected over the next 25 years for St. Lucie County.
The University of Florida study says St. Lucie County can expect to resume its fast-paced growth of the early and mid-2000s. The study predicts St. Lucie County will expand to nearly 500,000 residents by 2035, the fifth-largest percentage increase in the state.
Not all parts of the state — or the Treasure Coast — are expected to grow so quickly, however.
Martin County, for example, is projected to add just more than 35,000 residents to grow by about 25 percent. Indian River County might see a 48 percent population increase, gaining a little more than 68,000 residents.
The amount of developable land in St. Lucie County accounts for some of the difference between its growth rate and that of the rest of the region, said Stan Smith, who conducted the study. Smith is director of the university’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Attitudes toward growth also affect the predictions.
“Martin has taken a fairly dim view of growth for many years,” Smith said.
The University of Florida study estimates the state will have gained 23,000 residents from April 2009 to April 2010, reversing the population decline of the previous year.
Affordable housing and a slowly improving economy should nudge Florida’s population this year, experts at the University of Florida said. The study indicates that Florida’s growth will return to previous levels in 2014 or 2015.
“There are already signs that nationally we may be out of the recession, even though employment has not recovered,” Smith said. “We expect growth to be very slow for another year or two, but then to start picking up again.”
Some experts say housing prices are the key.
“This loss of population was a result of unaffordable housing that came about during the 2003 to 2006 boom period,” said Brad Hunter, chief economist for consulting firm Metrostudy, in Palm Beach Gardens. “A lot of people that would have ordinarily come to Florida from elsewhere didn’t, because it was no longer a value proposition for them.”
These economic drivers are the same reasons St. Lucie County is expected to see such dramatic growth, Hunter said. The effort — and money — county governments have put toward attracting new businesses, such as Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies and other high-tech companies, combined with plenty of affordable homes should attract new residents.
“You will always be able to get a house cheaper in St. Lucie County than in Palm Beach County,” Hunter said.
Still, University of Florida experts predict Palm Beach County to welcome more than 300,000 new residents by 2035 — one of the biggest increases in the state.
That would give Palm Beach County 1.6 million residents by 2035. That would put it just behind Broward County, which will grow by only 11 percent in the same period, to 1.9 million, largely because of a lack of developable land, Smith said.
Such projections come as no surprise to Josh Fortner, a 30-year-old unemployed salesman who moved from Michigan to Lantana with his wife three months ago. He cited reasons that have (almost) always drawn new residents: There is no state income tax and the weather is ideal. As bad as Florida’s unemployment is, for Fortner it holds out more hope than Michigan.
And there’s Florida’s image.
“There’s still that reputation of Florida, and especially Palm Beach County,” Fortner said. “You say you’re from Palm Beach County, and you think success, wealth, and a lot of other things.”
Hunter expects downtown West Palm Beach, Delray Beach and Lake Worth to reap the benefits of population growth. He anticipates vacant condos to fill by the middle of this decade, and a new wave of condos to follow in the late 2010s. Downtown Boca Raton could also expand, Hunter said, and Boynton Beach could eventually have its own thriving downtown area around U.S. 1.
“We’ll go back to fast population growth here because it’s a place that has always attracted a variety of people from other states — retirees, working class people,” Hunter said. “By 2035 you’ll have a thriving biotech industry in Northern Palm Beach County and lot of high-wage jobs as a result.”
Although Miami-Dade County is largely developed, unlike Broward, Smith expects Dade to continue to grow since South Americans and other immigrants still flock there. “When you compare Miami with New York City, it’s still pretty sparsely populated.”
Indian River County
Estimated population: 141,634
2035: 210,500 (48 percent increase)
Estimated population: 143,856
St. Lucie County
Estimated population: 272,864
2035: 469,600 (71 percent increase)
Source: University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Staff writer Hillary Copsey contributed to this report