U.S. Census Bureau numbers released Thursday show extreme growth and decline in parts of North Central Florida.
The census ranked The Villages, a retirement community about 40 minutes southeast of Ocala, as last year’s fourth fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country.
But Bradford County, north of Alachua County, had the country’s fastest-declining county population last year.
The Villages’ growth was unsurprising because of continued and speedy retirement housing construction, said Scott Cody, a demographer with the University of Florida’s economic and business research bureau.
Bradford’s decline, however, isn’t due to regular residents moving out, Cody said.
The county is home to the Florida State Prison in Raiford and Lawtey Correctional Institution in Lawtey and felt the effects of a statewide reduction in prison populations.
These census findings were also unsurprising to Cody.
“Even though Florida’s been hit hard by recession, we’re still growing,” he said. “So a lot of this we would expect.”
By July 1, The Villages’ population had grown 3.4 percent to 101,620 residents since July 1, 2011, census estimates show. The area gained 3,383 residents.
In that same time, Bradford’s population dropped 5 percent to 27,049 residents, estimates show. The county lost a total of 1,425 residents.
A South Central Florida county, Hendry, was the county with the second fastest population decline, according to the census.
Nearly 97 percent of Bradford’s lost residents were inmates, according to economic and business research bureau numbers. The bureau’s latest numbers differ slightly from census estimates and were measured from April 1, 2011, to April 1, 2012.
Prisoners count toward the general U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Cody said. They aren’t counted for state revenue-sharing calculations, which determine how taxes are distributed to local governments.
Though the inmate reductions were statewide, less-populated counties like Bradford felt the drop more on their population numbers.
“You’ve got to look for hidden reasons,” Cody said.
Florida’s inmate population has decreased due to the corrections department’s efforts in re-assimilating former prisoners, said Misty Cash, the department’s deputy communications director.
The rate of people returning to prison within three years of release dropped from 33 percent in 2003 to 27.6 percent in 2008, according to a February corrections release.
For taxpayers, that means $102.6 million avoided over five years.
The rate of people admitted to prison also dropped by 8,775 inmates over 4 years to 32,279 inmates in fiscal year 2011-2012, according to the release.
Instead of returning to prison, former inmates are getting jobs, restructuring their lives and becoming community members, Cash said. She credited this to the corrections department’s statewide and local partnerships, its education and character programs, substance abuse counseling and work release opportunities.
Cash said the census’ results should be viewed positively.
“That means there’s fewer victims of crime,” she said. “That’s something that Florida and Bradford County citizens should be very happy about.”
Though people can be wary of living near a prison, rural counties such as Bradford may encourage a penitentiary presence in their limits, Cody said. Prisons provide employment opportunities, and those employees will contribute to the area’s economy.
Starke City Clerk Linda Johns said despite the lost residents, she actually sees signs of growth in Bradford county.
After a drop in business activity, Johns said new restaurants and stores moved into her “little old city” earlier this year.
“You never like to hear you’re declining in population,” Johns said. “But maybe it’s a small trend, and it’s turning.”
It Takes a Villages
In a sign of recognition, The Villages was upgraded to a metro area last month by the federal management and budget office.
It was counted among the 381 U.S. metro areas in Thursday’s data.
The U.S. Census Bureau defined a metro area as having at least one urban setting of 50,000 or more residents. A micropolitan area has an urban core consisting of 10,000 to 49,999 residents.
Last year, The Villages was ranked the third fastest growing micro area nationwide for 2011.
Population changes were measured using birth, deaths, administrative records and survey data.
The Villages’ growth has been felt throughout Sumter County, where most of the community is located, said County Administrator Bradley Arnold.
Though the county is still mostly rural with a major agricultural industry, businesses and developers are being attracted to the area, diversifying the economy and urbanizing the area, Arnold said. He now lives 15 minutes away from a movie theater.
The development has inspired nearby cities, such as Sumter County’s Wildwood, to match The Villages’ aesthetic and usability standards.
A downtown area is in the works, and nearly 300 houses a month are built for the 55 and older community, with average purchases ranging from $150,000 to $1 million, the county administrator said.
He said another possible factor for the population growth could be some baby boomers moving their parents into the community with them for The Villages’ quality medical facilities.
The community’s boom started around 2000, Arnold said. Construction peaked in 2005, with nearly 600 houses built a month.
Construction was nominally affected by the recession, dipping just below 200 houses a month, he said. The community also didn’t experience the decline in property values felt throughout the state.
Now the community is getting support at the local and state level.
Sumter County’s reduced development fees and recently streamlined electronic permitting system have helped The Villages’ progress, Arnold said. The community is half the county’s tax base.
At a Wednesday gala, Gov. Rick Scott spoke of how he and his supporters helped Villages developer Gary Morse, a billionaire donator to Scott’s re-election campaign, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Demographer Cody said large-scale development in a short time can lead to problems, such as congestion and pressure on the environment. But it’s not a guarantee.
The Villages cooperated with developers and the county to prevent any possible negatives of rapid growth, Arnold said. Road capacity changes will alleviate congestion, and the development met approval for wildlife, wetlands and water withdrawal standards.
In a remaining sign of county-community culture clash, Arnold, 44, jokes his fondness for shooting may prevent his retirement to The Villages. He said the activity would be frowned upon.
“That’s not the level of recreation that the folks have moved there for,” he said.