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US Recession Marks Historic Cut in Florida Growth

Boarded up home in Florida

Boarded up home in Florida

The economic recession is forcing some areas of the United States to reconsider ambitious growth plans. In the southern state of Florida, the population has actually fallen for the first time in more than 60 years.

A bad economy has left a hole in Lehigh Acres. Houses sit empty in neighborhoods that until recently saw growth. Construction workers and other laborers in search of affordable housing helped to build the community near Tampa. But jobs are now scarce.

"We're still seeing many people - as many as 50 or 60 people every day - coming to get assistance with food or financial assistance. They still don't have jobs," said Rae Nicely, who directs the charity Lehigh Community Services.

Nearby food banks echo the concern. They say demand for supplies to help struggling families is soaring.

Nicely says she still hopes for an economic recovery and new job creation. But she says some people are not waiting for Florida to recover. "There are a good number of people who have moved away from here because they had to move to another place to get a job. You hear about people going to Texas for construction, Tennessee, North Carolina," she said.

For the first time in 63 years, the state's population has declined. There are 31,000 fewer people, with fewer job seekers and retirees arriving, and more people leaving.

Abraham Lavender, a sociologist at Florida International University, says the state is struggling with the new reality. "Florida was built on the premise that it would always continue to grow, so everything is planned on that. So when that growth slows or stops or maybe even reverses, like we're seeing now, that changes all the plans," he said.

A key source of growth in Florida has long been retirees arriving from other parts of the country. Tony Gazdecki and his wife left Detroit more than a decade ago, mainly to escape the harsh winters there. "More than anything else, it's the weather. Anything to just get rid of the snow," he said.

Gazdecki says he has no plans to leave his retirement community where the sun shines most of the year. But he says he knows several people who have left, including one of his neighbors in Venice. "They moved away three years ago and they are very happy living in Tennessee," he said.

Realtors say some retirees are leaving the state because of rising costs or overcrowding. Others are having trouble just getting to Florida.

Marian Metz is a realtor in Venice, a hotspot for retirees. She says she has several clients struggling to sell their homes in northern states. "We need a better economy nationally so they can sell that house in Michigan and come to Florida," she said.

Metz says recent business is up, and she remains hopeful the state will recover. "I don't have any qualms about the future of Venice," she said.

The recent crash in home prices could even help to reverse the decline in population. Lavender says lower prices could also help construction workers and others who are struggling to make do in Florida. "Those who are lucky to hold on to a job, many of them can actually afford a house now and they wouldn't have been able to afford a house a few years ago," he said.

For many residents, that message could not come soon enough.