Florida Appears to Be Losing Its Sunny Magnetism

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The vast flow of people into Florida from elsewhere in the United States has been the defining feature of the Sunshine State's 20th-century history, draining swamps and spurring development, swelling the economy and shaping politics.

Now, the migration has stalled, according to new census figures. With hurricane fears and the soaring costs of housing and storm insurance, many here have begun to fret that Florida, long a mecca for tourists and snowbirds, has lost its allure.

"The word has gotten out about Florida. It is not the paradise that many people once thought it was," the lead editorial in the Miami Herald warned Monday.

Whether the decline in people moving from other, usually chillier, U.S. locales is temporary or a sign of long-term decline is a matter of debate. But its outlines and economic effects are increasingly clear.

According to the Census Bureau, the number of people moving from other states to Florida has declined from 268,000 in 2005 to 35,000 last year -- by far the most precipitous drop since such records started being kept in 1990.

Those numbers followed the news that enrollment in the state's public schools have declined for the third consecutive year.

And recently released state figures from the moving company United Van Lines suggest that in stark contrast to years past, as many people are moving out of Florida as are moving in. Four years ago, for example, the company's statistics showed about 60 percent of its Florida shipments were inbound and 40 percent outbound; in the past two years, the number of inbound and outbound shipments has been almost evenly split.

"People come in here and tell me all the time 'We're moving to Tennessee' or 'We're moving to Georgia,' " said John York, 59, a barbershop owner here. "It's just too crowded and it costs too much to live" in the area.

Indeed, signs that the flow of people has markedly slowed are apparent throughout Port St. Lucie, on the Atlantic Coast a few hours' drive north of Miami.

A few years ago, Port St. Lucie ranked as one of the nation's fastest-growing cities. Now, new-home developments are marked with empty houses. Builders are pulling out, prices are dropping and unemployment is rising. The unemployment rate in St. Lucie County has reached 6.3 percent, the second highest of Florida's counties, from 4.4 percent last year.

Patty Duncan, 44, one of the stylists in York's shop, worked as a real estate agent during Florida's frothy boom. Then the market went bust.

"It turns out I like this better," she said. "You'll always need haircuts."

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