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Sarasota Thursday, Sep. 10, 2009 11 years ago

My View

by: Rod Thomson

Apparently this is becoming an annual rite — the defending of Florida’s future from the negative, hyperbolic attacks of the national media.

What is it that makes the mainstream media savor the idea that Florida is doomed, that it’s over, that the model based on growth has been a failure? There seems to be such glee in the stories, and such shoddy, agenda-like journalism in the reporting.

Last summer, Time magazine wrote a piece entitled, “Is Florida the Sunset State?” in which the story went on to remove the question mark. It was a disingenuous piece riddled with half-truths and was not hard to discredit.

Now USA Today has done much the same story, using as a news peg the University of Florida’s report that the state declined by 58,000 people during the past year. The headline — “End of an era” is a quote from a Virginia Tech population guy — a long way to go to get the desired quote.

What both stories lack is the requisite overarching context that would put some of the statistics they use in an entirely different light. But then, if they had done that, they would not have had the doom-and-gloom story to print.

For starters, the USA Today story focuses solely on Florida, ignoring any contextual comparisons with other fast- and faster-growing states such as Arizona and Nevada — both of which have grown faster than Florida for several years and both of which have also been slammed. In fact, Las Vegas, the population driver for Nevada, may have shrunk in population last year — even before Florida.

However, none of this is in the USA Today story.

Next, the lead to the story is how nice the drive is up A1A, with the beaches, palm trees and condos, and then the jarring difference inland at a career counseling center where the parking lot is jammed with jobless people looking to change careers. Well, um, we’re in a national recession! That scene is being repeated in most states and probably in spades in Nevada and Arizona.

The story claims Florida is not attracting the retirees at the rate it used to and that young people are not being drawn to all the jobs here, either. Did I already mention we are in a recession? Are any states magnets for young job-seekers right now? And the rate of retirees coming to Florida has always tracked with the housing markets in the feeder states up north, and those markets are all in the tank like Florida’s.
People are not going to be able to retire and move to Florida if they cannot sell their houses in Illinois.

This also is not in the story.

Next, the story claims that the state was a dream destination for decades because of “affordable housing in a fast-growing state, no state income tax, a sunny climate and the advent of air conditioning … ”

The median price of a house in Florida has fallen from the bubble peak of $248,300 in 2006 to $147,600 now, making the state look pretty affordable. Last I knew, there is still no state income tax, air conditioning still works and the sun is still shining.

That leaves only the “fast-growing” part, so let’s deal with it.

The USA Today story, like many others, points out that the population decline is the first since the end of World War II, when thousands of servicemen based in Florida went home. It also points out that the largest source of Florida newcomers, from the Northeast, dropped nearly in half from its peak five years ago — I’m surprised we are still attracting them at a 50% clip given the economic and housing conditions. The story states that the drop comes “as the state’s allure faded.”

Compared to whom? The population migration from North to South and Southwest overall was slowing in that period. The huge housing bubble — fostered in large part let’s not forget, through Washington, D.C., policies and politicians and by careless bankers and greedy homebuyers and investors — created unaffordable housing in these markets, knocking down demand at those prices levels during the first part of those five years. Then the recession (did I mention the recession?) kicked the legs out from under remaining demand during the second portion of the timeframe.

And further, the population explosion from 2004-2006 was part of the housing bubble and was not supportable. These were macro economic and political drivers. By not putting this in any context, the article makes it a phenomenon unique to Florida, when Florida was clearly being knocked around by much larger forces.

Later, referring to the population increases the state had enjoyed, the story says, “Now that it’s gone … ”
See? Florida is done. It’s over. After gaining more than 2 million people since 2000, we lose 58,000 in a terrible recession after a historic housing, construction and population bubble , and now it’s gone.

That is just bad agenda-driven reporting.

The decline of 58,000 — a fraction of a percent of the state’s population — probably has as much to do with the size of the temporary bubble that drew so many people as it does any idea that an era is over.

Honestly, we haven’t experienced a real estate bubble like that one since the 1920s, and hopefully we never will again.

Buried deep in the story, more than 25 paragraphs in, there are a few baubles tossed out about improved education, the success of the I-4 high-tech medical and bioscience corridor and a rebounding housing market.

Sorry, that just does not cover the “balanced story” base. The agenda was accomplished, the damage done.

It’s probably too much to hope that these anti-success, anti-growth stories won’t continue. Just remember there is usually a universe of data that is not being reported, so as to conform them to the preconceived story line.

Rod Thomson
is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review and can be reached at [email protected].

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