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Population growth at a standstill

By Staff | Sep 27, 2008

A trend of migration out of Florida appears to be affecting Cape Coral as growth grinds to a halt in the city and the economy stagnates.

After at least eight straight years of net inbound migration, Florida recorded more outbound moves than inbound in 2006 and 2007, according to a study from Atlas Van Lines.

Harsh economic conditions across the nation are impacting the Cape as well. A similar study from Mayflower Transit, shows that more than 50 percent of survey respondents moved because of a job in 2008, an indicator that economic factors are playing a role in decisions to relocate.

“I would assume more people are moving because of job reasons than because they want to move to a different part of the country,” said Mayflower spokesperson Jennifer Bonham.

There is also a downward trend in retirement-based moves — with 28.6 percent moving after retirement in 2008 versus 30.4 percent in 2007 and 31.6 percent in 2006 — a bad sign for Florida, especially retirement havens like Cape Coral.

Housing troubles nationwide also are preventing the historic inflow of people to Florida.

“The fact that people aren’t selling their homes as quickly — if you can’t sell your home you’re less likely to move,” Bonham said.

Meanwhile, the local housing crisis is also pushing people out. In the past year, the fallout from the housing crisis has slammed the brakes on the Cape’s once-speedy growth. The city’s population increased from 140,195 in 2005 to 164,523 in 2007 — an average of more than 1,000 per month, according to a study from the University of Florida. But the study’s population figure of 165,774 for 2008 shows an increase of just 1,251 for the year.

Perhaps the most revealing statistic of the economic downturn is the plummeting rate of building permits in the Cape. The number of building permits for single-family homes in the Cape reached its apex in fiscal year 2005, when 7,694 permits were issued. That number dropped to 4,313 in 2006, fell to 1,170 in 2007, and from October 2007 through August, just 184 permits have been issued.

The numbers do not merely show the erosion of the housing boom, but also how the lack of construction jobs spurred an exodus of workers and money that affected other sectors of the economy.

“When you have retails and restaurants, it’s a very tight economic time right now and people aren’t spending money like they used to,” said Christy Vogt, business development coordinator for the city’s Economic Development Office.

The viral economy has also led to an epidemic of foreclosures in the Cape, causing some people to look for a cure elsewhere.

According to Realty Trac, a California-based company that tracks foreclosed properties, Cape Coral accounts for 10,959 of the 27,615 properties in some stage of foreclosure in Lee County.

Foreclosed homes are impacting the city’s budget in a year when municipal funds have been hard to find. A program to mow vacant lots has been budgeted at $4.16 million for the 2009 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

The Cape is not alone, however, in this new migration trend. It’s part of a regional and statewide move. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 268,000 people moved to Florida from other states in 2005, compared to 35,000 in 2007.

Lee County as a whole has also seen a dip in its school-age population, which could put a dent in the School Board’s budget.

There were 77,930 students enrolled countywide in grades K-12 as of Sept. 16, more than 1,000 fewer than the previous year.

Depending on enrollment numbers the rest of the year, the school district could be facing more budget cuts in addition to already having to deal with a $29 million reduction in revenue.

Vogt said an ease of the credit crunch will turn the economy around.

“Right now money is tight. As credit starts to loosen I think you’ll see things start to turn around,” Vogt said.

One Realtor, however, has a different view. Fran Davis, general manager for Century 21 Birchwood Realty, said loose credit caused the problem.

“Any other time they would’ve never been able to buy,” Davis said of unqualified buyers in the recent boom years. “They overextended themselves.”

Meanwhile, the slowing of population growth has contributed to sinking home values. The median sale price for single-family homes in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers metro area fell 41 percent, from $250,800 in August 2007 to $146,900 this August, according to data from the Florida Association of Realtors.

Davis said the glut of existing homes for sale will have to work their way through the market before home values will rise again.

“When we get all of the foreclosures and resales sold, then we’ll start to see it go up,” Davis said.

The rebound in home values will likely have to wait until Cape Coral’s growth engine is reignited.