Florida’s Quick Rebound

Tags: florida, growth, investment, already, people, orlando, population, leadership, county, estate

Adding nearly 119,000 people in 2011, Florida has capped a decade of steady population increase  to see the state grow 19% since 2000.  Despite 2009, an historic year where more people left than arrived, the overall net growth of Florida has yielded two additional congressional seats, moving the state well on its way towards the becoming third most populous state in the nation.  This ascendancy brings new responsibility to the shoulders of the state’s leaders, and the direction this state takes in the coming years will depend upon how Florida reacts to this influx of new population.  It is time for true leadership to find appropriate voice for our state on the national scene.

Contrary to the predictions of many within the urbanist intelligentsia, Florida’s farm counties grew the fastest. Osceola County, just south of bustling Orlando, grew by 55%; sleepy Sumter County, northwest of Orlando, grew by 75%; and Flagler County, home to historic St. Augustine, nearly doubled in population. Tampa, Orlando, and Miami have each seen their healthy share of immigration, but Florida’s rural areas have dramatically increased their appeal over a decade ago.

At first this trend might be puzzling.  Lacking urban amenities such as museums, transit, and Starbucks, parts of rural Florida seem almost timeless.  Wildwood and Leesburg, nestled in the center of Florida, lack both beaches and theme parks.  They have one thing, however, that the urban areas do not have:  affordable housing.  And this is the elusive reality that must be turned around by Florida’s leadership if the state is to grow in a responsible manner.

The Miami-Dade market has plenty of supply, but the average home lists for $509,000 .  Up in Wildwood, the home lists for $175,000, and you get a lot more house for your money.  People are voting with their feet for affordability.

It’s not the price alone that seems to be putting people off, however.  Naples, which lists homes even higher than Miami, saw growth over the past ten years at a pace two and a half times that of Miami, and is expected to continue to grow at the same pace through 2015.  Anecdotally, it seems that newcomers have relocated to their vacation homes after selling off their other high-priced property, usually in the north. They sometimes reduced their expectations of what they can receive for their old houses and then permanently located where they prefer to live. If the buyers are older, they still likely made a nice profit over the past few decades.

In Orange County, meanwhile, relieved realtors are finally starting to say goodbye to distressed properties.  Appraiser Lee Barnes commented that “foreclosures and short sales are 40% fewer, compared to this time last year,” and in an economy fueled by growth, the welcome sight of occupied rooftops means that commercial real estate is beginning to come back.  In fact, Orlando is near the top of the list in expected home price gains for 2012, a dramatic turnaround for the region.

Florida’s comeback is timed with some key changes in regulating real estate development.  With state oversight all but vanquished by the governor, starving local counties welcome the property tax dollars associated with new growth.  No other revenue, apart from a sales tax, provides much cash to operate government in the Sunshine State. This makes growth a priority.

But economic activity occurs in two forms:  growth (making more stuff) and development (making stuff better).  Quietly, in the past decade, Florida has added biomedical research clusters to its twin engines of growth and tourism, and this promises to increase greater resilience to the state economy.

Some signs, however, point to Florida abandoning this strategy and continuing its boom-bust mentality.  The Governor, already warning the legislature of budget cuts in 2012, has expressed disappointment that the job creation return is poor on the State’s venture capital invested in bringing Scripps, Nemours, and other cutting-edge research organizations. He claims that are simply not adding jobs fast enough for his taste.  Abandoning these investments could mean that the organizations reduce their presence or even abandon the state.

At the same time, Florida’s cities seem to be uncertain about how to tackle the problem of adding density without reducing affordability.  Land prices haven’t wavered much in the recession, with stubborn property owners holding on to assets that won’t sell, and they may benefit from this land-banking strategy in the long run.  Many who escape the Rust Belt and come to Florida express shock at the cost of living in the Sunshine State and are further dismayed over the quality of schools and surprising amount of congestion.  This mismatch between cost of living and quality of life may be part of the reason why Florida’s five largest cities were listed among the nation’s “saddest” in a recent Time poll .

Casino gambling, a typical 1990s way to boost revenue, is being entertained by the Legislature, but other ideas should be considered as well.  For one thing, investment in the future means a better education system, perhaps a higher priority than ostrich food subsidies (currently exempt from state sales tax ).  Closing tax loopholes and fixing some long-broken parts of Florida’s tax code will help gain some badly-needed revenue.

Very large infrastructure projects are also important to make Florida competitive.  On the east coast, NASA’s 60-year-old facilities need a major overhaul to continue providing America a spaceport for the 21st century and to pave the way for private space exploration.  This will maintain the deep investment in human capital of which Floridians were once justly proud.  The spaceport has a great deal of synergy with the National Simulation Center, located in Orlando, which is currently the country’s premier provider of military simulation and training.

In more than one region, the Florida Venture Capital Act has brought world-class biomedical research laboratories, making dramatic advancements in cancer, diabetes, children’s health, and other key areas.  Already surging ahead and competing with area like Boston’s Research Center and the Silicon Valley, Florida must keep its edge in this field by continuing investment in the Venture Capital Fund.

On the west coast, the Tampa Port Authority is already preparing for the widening of the Panama Canal, working in collaboration with ports of Mobile and Houston to partner with ocean carriers.  Continuing this investment and modernizing the logistics of truck and railroad traffic into the port is critical to make this economic engine prevail in the 21st century.

Such infrastructure investment will improve Florida’s already existing assets, allowing for prosperity and upward mobility to occur within the state.  Competing with Texas will be difficult, given Florida’s lack of petrochemical resources, but the state’s native industry, tourism, has already made it a world-class destination. Florida’s leadership has already entered the national stage by saying “no” to high speed rail, but it has yet to define what it will say “yes” to.  Without intelligent citizen input, the state will likely fall back on its traditional pattern of being a passive receiver of investment and people, but not a creator of great new enterprises. 

In contrast to states like California and Texas, Florida has been willing to be eternally passive; Disney World is a classic example.  Florida, a grateful recipient of this California enterprise, has benefitted secondarily, but the real power of this company still resides in Burbank.  This story is played out over and over again, with real estate developers from Dallas and Atlanta continuing to define the face of the state, aided and abetted by Wall Street investors who see Florida primarily as a waterfront real estate asset with some moderate margins available in between coasts.

It is time for Florida to start doing, instead of being done to.  With investment in real infrastructure, good education and intelligent leadership, Florida can assume its responsibility as one of America’s new high-profile states, capable of exporting science, technology, and culture.  Our population growth contains within it the seeds of a bright future once we fix what is broken about our beautiful state.

Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.

Photo courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com.

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