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Is the sun setting on the allure of the Sunshine State?

By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2002

In the gritty hit movie Midnight Cowboy 33 years ago, a New York con man named Ratzo Rizzo has a dream. Sick and tired, he wants nothing more than to go to Florida, where he believes he'll find true happiness and health amid palm trees and sunshine.

In the gritty hit movie Midnight Cowboy 33 years ago, a New York con man named Ratzo Rizzo has a dream. Sick and tired, he wants nothing more than to go to Florida, where he believes he'll find true happiness and health amid palm trees and sunshine.

Rizzo was just ahead of his time.

In annual Harris Interactive polls of which state (other than their own) Americans would like to live in, Florida has ruled the roost for many years.

When Harris pollsters asked that question in 1997, the winning state was Florida. In 1998, and again in 1999, 2000 and 2001, surveyed Americans chose Florida as the No. 1 state they'd like to live in.

Until now.

In the latest annual Harris poll, unveiled last week, California (the Golden State) outshone Florida (the Sunshine State) to take top honors.

Panic not. Slipping from No. 1 after five years to No. 2 in what amounts to an annual state popularity contest is not a crisis. But it is an invitation to take a fresh look at the state where we Floridians live, work, play and -- increasingly -- lament.

Did California rise? Or Florida fall?

Now that we're No. 2, will we try harder?

The Harris poll does not ask Floridians what they think of their own state. For that, Florida might breathe a sigh of relief. The Harris survey is a painless and dreamy what if poll asking U.S. adults to pick where else they might want to live.

That's where Florida's feel-good marketing magic works its wonders. Sandy beaches. Disney World. Short-sleeve winters. Cheap housing. No state income tax. Plenty of growth and jobs.

From afar and without a more penetrating look, what's not to like about Florida?

Then why the drop to No. 2? What's California suddenly got that Florida's lost?

The last time I looked to the nation's west coast, California was a disastrous mix of power blackouts borne of bad deregulation, fixer-upper bungalows priced at $495,000, 24/7 gridlock around Los Angeles, a burst bubble called Silicon Valley and high-price earthquake insurance.

No matter. On a strong upswing, California grabbed the "that's where I'd rather be" cup from Florida's grasp this year. Last year, California ranked No. 2. It ranked as low as No. 5 in 2000.

California's not exactly Nirvana. So what does that say about Florida? Maybe the state's aging veneer of suntans, spring break and easy living is wearing thin.

To the nation, Florida's taking on a new and uglier look. If lower Manhattan is ground zero, we're scam zero. Bungled elections and hanging chads. Flight training for terrorists. Anthrax attacks. Low-wage jobs. Shark attacks, Elian Gonzalez, the Versace murder and a relocated O.J. Simpson. Palatial mansions built by corporate executives now in handcuffs.

The new and bizarre Florida inspired a long "can you believe this place?" April cover story in the New York Times Sunday magazine. "Oh, Florida," the story says up high. "How does one account for a state in which everything now seems to happen first -- or somehow in the extreme, that as a microcosm of America, has come to reflect the psyche of America itself?"

Ratzo Rizzo couldn't wait to get down to our warm shores. Now Florida's uncontrolled growth is the plot of the John Sayles film Sunshine State, in which rabid land developers race to change a modest island community into strip malls and condos.

A year ago, the Harris poll explained Florida's No. 1 ranking for the fifth straight year in simple terms. "Obviously weather -- particularly warm weather -- is a huge factor," Harris concluded. New York and Colorado were the only two states in the top 10 with cold winters.

Truth is, Florida will always rank high in the minds of Americans daydreaming of other (warmer) places to be. Bitter truth is, those attitudes are sorely tested in the folks who actually move to Florida.

Florida is falling behind other states in critical areas. St. Petersburg Times reporters, in an occasional series called "Losing Ground," in the past year have chronicled some of the startling state declines during the 1990s. And even the normally gung-ho Florida Chamber of Commerce is slowly releasing a study this year that, at its heart, points out some sobering economic and educational hurdles confronting the state.

The Times stories point out how, from 1990 to 2000, the state dropped from 33rd to 40th in median household income. The state fell from 24th to 38th in per student spending. By the end of the '90s, Floridians also were more likely than before to live in poverty and less likely to graduate from high school, more likely to be uninsured and less likely to breathe clean air.

The state's Chamber of Commerce analysis, known as the "New Cornerstone" study, tries to set a positive tone and recommend steps for improving Florida as a strong economic competitor. (Three of the study's five chapters are now available at www.newcornerstoneonline.com.)

But the devil is in the details. Florida's got plenty of so-so jobs, but we're slipping further behind the nation's average wage. Too few Floridians manage to graduate from high school. Too few high schoolers graduate from college. Too few college students pursue critical degrees in engineering and related fields. Too few engineering graduates bother to stay in Florida because there are so few job opportunities that pay competitive wages.

The most recent chapter of the New Cornerstone study cites such a lack of business competitiveness in Florida that corporate leaders should choke on the words.

"Florida businesses produced an average of just under $60,000 in gross state product per worker in 1999, about 10 percent below the average for Florida's regional competitors" -- Alabama and South Carolina among them -- "and 20 percent below the national average" including New York, Texas and (here's that state again) California.

Maybe Harris should conduct a separate poll and ask recently arrived Floridians:

-- Had you known then what you know about Florida, would you have moved here?

-- Given what you know about Florida, will you stay?

If states picked their mottos by economic readiness for the future, the "Sunshine State" risks becoming the "Laggard State."

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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