For a century, the Sunshine State has been a population magnet. It's perennially one of the fastest-growing states in the nation.
But the unthinkable has happened: Demographers report that Florida's population shrank last year for the first time in more than 60 years.
The population loss comes as a shock to a state where growth is both an industry and a foundation of the economy.
Economic Double Whammy
Boom and bust cycles are nothing new in Florida. Ever since the 1890s, when Henry Flagler extended his railroad down the state's Atlantic coast, Florida's history has been one of economic ups and downs.
Throughout it all, one constant was the state's steady population growth — until now.
Stan Smith, an economist at the University of Florida, says the state's population dropped by 58,000 last year.
He says there are two main factors: The poor economy means there are fewer jobs to attract workers. And there's also that little problem with housing.
"When people have a difficult time selling their homes, as we've seen recently, that makes it difficult for them to move," Smith says. "So people who might otherwise have moved to Florida have either put that off indefinitely, or at least put it off for some period of time."
Out of a total population of 18.3 million, a loss of 58,000 residents might not sound like much. But it's a trend that could cloud the future of places such as St. Lucie County on Florida's Atlantic coast.
County Commissioner Doug Coward notes that just a few years ago, it was one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation.
"At one point, we had about 100-plus thousand homes that were proposed by out-of-town developers — which would nearly double the housing stock for a community which has been in existence for more than 100 years," he says. "And they wanted to accomplish that feat in about three or so [years]. The amount of speculative building and development was just unprecedented."
Today that boom is but a memory. Residential building has ground to a halt. As construction jobs dried up, many people left the area to find work elsewhere. Across the county, several thousand homes now stand vacant.
Empty Schools, Strained State Coffers
The population decline is perhaps most obvious in the schools. What was once Port St. Lucie Elementary now stands vacant and is slated for demolition.
It was one of two schools closed in St. Lucie County last year, in part because of the district's declining enrollment.
Port St. Lucie Principal Glenn Rustay says closing the school was tough for both students and teachers.
"When you work at a school, you put everything into it," he says. "And the teachers put everything into it. You're losing your second home almost."
Many of the students and teachers transferred to another nearby school, Northport K-8, where Rustay is now the principal.
Two years ago, there were 42,000 students in St. Lucie County schools. This year, 36,000 showed on the first day of school, although county officials expect that number to rise as latecomers straggle in.
For the state, county and city governments in Florida, a declining population means a declining tax base. That, combined with the housing collapse, would spell trouble anywhere.
But Florida is a state that built its economy on the promise of growth. It's one of just seven states with no income tax. Instead, the state heavily relies on sales and property tax revenue.
'Some People Believe Florida Is Over As A State'
Even before the construction industry went bust, there was trouble in paradise. Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida, notes that as the economy boomed and housing values skyrocketed, the cost of living also climbed out of reach for some. Snaith says that even as Florida's bubble continued to grow, some were leaving for states such as Tennessee in search of a lower cost of living.
A combination of all these factors has led some writers and observers to dub Florida the "Ponzi State" — one now primed for collapse.
"Some people believe Florida is over as a state," economist Smith says. "You see that in headlines. I really don't see it that way."
Smith says Florida's population drop, while attention-getting, is a short-term phenomenon. The factors that have drawn people here for decades, such as the weather and the beaches, will continue to attract newcomers to the state.
And the looming retirement of the baby boom generation is expected to eventually bring back growth with a bang.
But that doesn't mean things are rosy in the Sunshine State. Economists, planners and elected officials such as Coward say Florida needs to take a hard look at itself.
"We simply can't continue business as usual," Coward says. "It's not sustainable. So, it's a learning lesson, and that's the key. Are we going to learn from this, and are we going to change our ways and do better for the future of the state and this country?"
Some tough decisions need to be made, Coward says, on tax policies and diversification of the state's economy, so that Florida can become known for more than oranges, beaches and retirement communities.