With all of the talk of growth and development here in Gainesville and Alachua, it's somewhat confusing to also hear we have little population growth. But it's not all bad news. "Gainesville has always been able to withstand any economic downturn... It is in kind of a little bubble, so to speak... We follow behind the bigger cities but finally catch up, and when we do, we do well."
From The Gainesville Sun - By Jeff Schweers & Morgan Watkins
While Florida's population continues to grow at a rate that will soon eclipse New York's as the third largest state, Gainesville and Alachua County appear to be in a bubble of little or no growth.
And that lack of growth is a cause for concern among civic leaders who say steady, modest growth is essential to sustaining the community's standard of living.
The Census Bureau on Monday reported that Florida's population estimate is 19.55 million as of July 1, almost 100,000 short of New York's population estimate. The bureau also said Florida's population grew by 2.7 percent between 2010 and 2012, while New York's grew by one percent.
Gainesville's population for 2013 is estimated to be 124,391 — down by 85 people since 2010, according to the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research, which finalized its own estimates last month. Alachua County's population this year is estimated at 248,002 — up 666 people since 2010.
"Essentially, there was little growth in either place," said Stan Smith, a professor of economics at UF and director of the population program at BEBR.
Ocala and Marion County had somewhat healthier growth numbers. Marion's estimated population in 2013 was 335,008 up from 331,298, while Ocala had an estimated 57,387, up from 56,315 in 2010.
Close to 20 counties in Florida lost populations, Smith said, most of them small and rural in nature. Meanwhile, the larger, more urban counties saw an increase in numbers.
"It is a cause and a consequence of economic growth," Smith said.
The recession hit Florida's growth hard, he said. The state was growing by about 400,000 a year by mid-decade, but when the recession hit, it dropped to less than 100,000 a year — bottoming out at 74,000 for 2008-09 — the lowest since the 1940s, Smith said.
"Certainly, growth has been slow the last three years, the result of huge budget cuts the university experienced over the last five years, and by government in general," Smith said.
Now, as the statewide economy recovers and attracts jobs, the population is increasing as people follow those jobs to Florida, Smith said. Last year, the population grew by 185,000. That influx has triggered a revival in construction, not only in housing but other sectors including tourism and health care.
State Rep. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, agreed Florida's economy is another factor attracting people to the state.
"They're looking someplace for the American Dream, and right now Florida is certainly providing more of an opportunity for more people," he said.
A higher population could bring more political clout to the Sunshine State, he said, although he didn't think that should be the focus or goal of anyone in the political landscape right now.
David Denslow, a professor emeritus in economics from UF, has said that a community needs to maintain a 2 to 4 percent population growth to be sustainable, and to maintain the kind of tax base needed to keep public infrastructure from eroding.
"It certainly drives to the heart of the need for everyone to work toward new growth, and for the targeted growth for the type of community and economy we want to become," said Mitch Glaeser, chairman of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber is working hard on that expansion, from growing companies up from their inception, encouraging existing companies to expand, helping facilitate the technology transfer from Santa Fe College and UF, and attracting companies like Mindtree, Mobiquity, and Sears Holdings Corp.
The chamber — with more than 1,100 members employing more than 70,000 people — is going to move toward a more regional focus, Glaeser said, to "bring resources together so when opportunities come forward we are able to help connect those companies."
While the community has been overly reliant on government services and federal funding for research in the past, the business leaders have been talking about striking a better balance between government and private sector dollars, Glaeser said.
Job incubators like the Innovation Hub and the Sid Martin Biotech Incubator hold lots of promise for creating local companies and being a magnet for new ones to the area, he said.
Plum Creek is another project that local leaders have high hopes in boosting the local economy. Plum Creek developers recently outlined a plan to develop 11,000 acres between Newnan's Lake and Hawthorne into a mixed-use community that combines 10,500 homes with 15.5 million square feet of commercial, research and development, manufacturing and retail space.
"I think Plum Creek is going to be very prosperous in the years to come," said Greta Rice, broker for Tioga Realty and president of the Gainesville/Alachua County Association of Realtors. "If enough people get interested in Plum Creek becoming a viable community, people will head to that part of the county."
She sees signs that the economy is improving. People connected to UF are moving to Tioga, which has a 300-acre buildout scheduled for its next phase. People are buying homes, and local economists are estimating a 5 percent increase in property values for the area.
Gainesville has always been able to withstand any economic downturn, she said.
"It is in kind of a little bubble, so to speak," Rice said. "We follow behind the bigger cities but finally catch up, and when we do, we do well."