News & Updates


It’s time to redefine Florida

Kathy Silverberg

Published: Friday, September 11, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 10, 2009 at 5:20 p.m. 

Some are saying the gild is off the Florida lily, that last year’s decline in the state’s population — reversing a trend that lasted for most of the past century — shows that the land of sunshine is losing its appeal for newcomers and retirees.

But as Mark Twain famously wrote in response to an erroneous news dispatch, "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." To assert that Florida’s days of population growth are over is at best premature. Where else can a person wear shorts all year long, enjoy picnics at the beach in January and play golf or tennis or go fishing or kayaking 12 months of the year?

Anyone who has lived through a few winters in the Northeast or the Midwest knows the special delight that comes with loading the moving van and leaving the snow shovel behind.

Yes, Florida’s natural beauty, endless coastline and warm temperatures make this a favorite destination for a vacation or for a lifetime. It has been so throughout modern history and it likely will be so for years to come.

But that is not to say Florida should ignore the storm clouds on the horizon. The declining population numbers should serve as a wake-up call for all those interested in creating a viable future for the state.

Florida has based its economy on growth for too long. It has counted on newcomers to fuel its job growth and to fill the coffers of its government. It has touted a reasonable cost of living and natural amenities that cannot be matched anywhere, but it has not spent much capital — human or financial — on building a firm foundation for the future. After all, isn’t this the place where people live for today and spend little time worrying about tomorrow?

Learning from Pittsburgh

As Florida’s fortunes have turned sour with the collapse of the housing industry, some have pointed fingers at the property insurance industry, which has pulled coverage and raised rates. Some blame Florida’s tax structure, which rewards longer-term residents and penalizes newcomers. Some say it is the threat of hurricanes that has driven people away. Likely the bigger cause than any of these is the global recession, which has tightened pocketbooks of potential travelers and reduced people’s ability to sell their homes and move south.

Yet, as Florida faces what could become a new normal — that is, slower growth in coming years — it might be time to examine what makes a place livable.

Recently, The Economist magazine tapped Pittsburgh as the most livable city in the United States. Not to insult anyone from Pittsburgh, but that seems a bit surprising. It is an old industrial city that has seen its share of financial hardships and difficulties. But apparently, it has found a way out of the doldrums. For one thing, it has looked at its industrial base and chosen to revitalize it, turning brownfields into productive new ventures. It has managed along the way to rank among the nation’s top 10 cities with the most environmentally responsible buildings.

More than a playground

More important, though, Pittsburgh is seen as a city with a clear sense of place and a population that takes pride in its accomplishments. An article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review notes that the city lives in the present but loves the past. There is an inherent commitment to making home the very best it can be.

That, it seems, is where Florida is missing out. Too many people who live here treat it as a temporary residence, even if they intend to stay for the rest of their lives. It is considered simply a playground, one to be used and enjoyed without any thought to reinvestment so that it will be here for future generations of sun seekers.

Florida deserves better. It deserves people who are committed to making it the best it can be. It deserves residents who say, "I’m from Florida," even if they grew up and raised their families in another locale. They should be willing to invest their tax dollars in education and recreation and preservation, and they should be willing to donate their time and treasure to those in need.

It deserves leaders with vision to see past the next election and begin to build the kind of foundation that will sustain Florida through good times and challenging ones. Florida has much to offer. It deserves to get more in return.

Kathy Silverberg is the former publisher of the Herald-Tribune’s southern editions.