Florida State University : Research in Review

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These two satellite images, shot 22 years apart, clearly show how urban sprawl consumed Tampa, Florida and its environs. From 1984 to 2006, the population of the metro complex of Tampa/St. Petersburg/ Clearwater grew from 1.8 million to 2.7 million.

Last year, news stories carried by both state and national newspapers suggested that Florida's population trend—seemingly locked in overdrive since DisneyWorld opened in 1971—may have shifted into reverse.

Cited were statistics from moving van companies that showed outbound families exceeding inbound, the first time on record that's occurred. Several perennially overcrowded schools were reporting unheard of enrollment drop-offs. Numbers of people from other states signing up for a Florida driver's license reportedly dropped 8 percent from 2006 to 2007. Accounts of how Florida was losing people—fed up with hurricanes, high property taxes, insurance woes and rising costs of living—to Georgia and North Carolina added to a perception that the Sunshine State's population was shrinking.

Professionals who get paid for dealing with the enormous problems posed by Florida's growth in recent decades might wish this were the case. The fact is, says Stanley K. Smith, director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida, Florida's population is still climbing, and there's no end in sight. Smith's bureau serves as the state's chief source of demographic vital signs. The bureau tallied 331,235 new Floridians arriving in 2006, roughly 906 newcomers per day. This is a net gain, after deaths and residents moving elsewhere were factored in.

Still, this represents about a 17 percent drop over 2005, when an estimated 402,000 moved to the state, proof that Florida's once red-hot growth rate has cooled. Long gone are the heady days of the last decade of the last century, when Florida grew by a sizzling 23.5 percent, while the nation grew at less than half that rate.

"Rumors that Florida's population is declining are false," Smith told Research in Review. "The increase we had in 2006 was smaller than in the previous seven or eight years, but was still larger than the average increase during previous decades."

As for what's ahead, Smith's group forecasts a continued slow-down in Florida's growth rate through 2030, when the state's population is predicted to hit 26.5 million—a whopping 42 percent jump from today. Floridians unhappy with life in Paradise today, say planners, haven't seen anything yet. —P.N.