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Sunshine State Rebranding Attempts to Attract New Residents

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By William E. Gibson

RISMEDIA, February 5, 2011—(MCT)—Faced with a dramatic decline in the number of Americans moving to Florida, community boosters are promoting the Sunshine State as a cluster of research and technology, not just a balmy place to live.

The rebranding reflects attempts to attract businesses and college graduates while reviving the stream of retirees and home buyers who once poured into Florida and nurtured economic growth.

A batch of hurricanes, a housing crisis, the Great Recession and the loss of a million jobs in the state have brought the stream of new arrivals to a trickle.

Using the latest available data, census surveys estimate that only 461,088 people moved to Florida from another state in 2009. Nearly as many Floridians—439,665—moved to another state. That’s roughly one-third fewer new residents compared with 2005, when 632,168 moved to Florida from another state.

The Florida numbers reflect declining mobility nationwide, as far fewer Americans move across state lines in the aftermath of the recession and housing crisis.

Low housing values in other states make it harder for would-be transplants to sell a house and move to Florida. Many Baby Boomers have put retirement plans on hold because their savings are depleted. And Florida’s unemployment rate—among the nation’s highest at 12%—has forced job seekers to look elsewhere.

“The economy is the culprit here,” said William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, who said only 1.4% of Americans moved across state lines last year, the lowest rate since World War II. “Once the economy picks up, it will help bring back the flow of residents and the labor force that is an essential part of Florida’s industry,” he predicted.

Frey and other demographers have noticed that young adults are attracted to urban areas such as Tampa, South Florida, Boston and San Francisco because they are considered “cool cities” buzzing with street life, cafes, concerts, art exhibits, major-league sports teams and partying. Florida cities add sand, sun and warmth.

“A lot of young people want to live in certain places because of things like cultural events and the marriage market. Then they look for some kind of job once they get there,” said Emily Eisenhauer, a researcher at Florida International University who studies the labor market. “We have seen that in Miami. I know that’s part of why I wanted to move here seven years ago. But with the loss of jobs,” she said, “it’s harder for the out-of-college cohort to come here.”

The Great Recession and housing bust prompted Florida promoters to realize they could no longer rely on climate and low taxes to foster growth. And they decided that Florida’s economic triad—agriculture, construction and tourism—is not enough to employ all those who want to come to the state.

“The Florida you knew three years ago is gone, and it’s not coming back,” said Bob Swindell, CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance, which tries to draw businesses to the region. “Our challenge is to create high-skilled jobs to accommodate people who want to move to Florida.”

The strategy means going beyond “a retirement mentality of people coming to Florida for the quality of life,” he said. “You also need employment opportunities.”

For instance, the Alliance tells employers that by moving to South Florida they can tap a talent pool of highly-skilled workers, including many who were laid off by Motorola in 2008. The idea is to retain residents while drawing new businesses and creating more jobs, stoking growth that lifts the entire economy.

Three technology companies—Research in Motion, Foxconn and General Dynamics—took advantage by setting up shop in Broward County, Fla. “This community really didn’t have a reputation for research and development, especially in the wireless communications sector,” Swindell said. “If you relocated your family down here, there was only one game in town: a signature operation like Motorola. But you didn’t have a lot of options if, for whatever reason, that didn’t work out. Now we’ve got a robust cluster.”

The Scripps Research Institute in Palm Beach County is another magnet for those seeking good-paying jobs. And in Central Florida, a cluster of research facilities known as Medical City—anchored by the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute—potentially will draw workers wanting to move to the region.

“These projects were slowed down by the recession, but the pace is picking up,” said Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Economic Competitiveness. “We think Central Florida will be one of the fastest-growing areas as far as job creation is concerned. It will pick up this year, but we don’t anticipate rapid growth until 2012 or 2013.”

The big barrier to mobility is not Florida’s housing market, which now offers bargains. The obstacles are low property values elsewhere—which make it hard to sell a home—and the lack of jobs in Florida.

New Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a former health care executive, spends time every day calling chief executives around the country, urging them to look at Florida. He recently said that he intends to revamp the state’s economic development efforts, placing them directly under his office, as part of his campaign pledge to create 700,000 new jobs in seven years.

“Most people learn to love it here. It’s a great place to live,” said Thomas Shea, CEO of the Florida/Caribbean region for Right Management, which coaches displaced executives on where and how to find jobs. “But it’s not that easy for someone from another state to come here and find a job unless they have a skill that is much in demand.”

(c) 2011, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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