By BILL COATS
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2001
TAMPA -- Hillsborough County fell an eyelash short of officially becoming Tampa Bay's first million-person county last April 1, according to population totals released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Tuesday.
It likely passed that milestone a month later, estimated Jim Hosler, research director for the county's Planning Commission.
As of April 1, the census' official counting day, the county's population was 998,948.
That means Hillsborough has traded places with Pinellas County as Florida's fourth largest county, a change demographers think happened early in 1994.
Hillsborough's census numbers also showed:
The numbers of Hispanics grew rapidly, up an estimated 68 percent to 179,692. With that increase, Hillsborough retained the third largest Hispanic population in Florida, nearly matching the state's Hispanic growth of 70 percent.
That outpaced African-American growth in Hillsborough, making Hispanics the county's largest minority. In 1990, the two ethnic groups were virtually the same size. In the new census, Hillsborough's 149,423 black residents constitute 15 percent of the county.
The city of Tampa grew 8.4 percent during the 1990s to 303,447 people.
The county's overall growth of 164,894 people during the 1990s was robust, but not record-breaking. It constituted a 19.8-percent increase, slower than the 23.5-percent jump recorded for Florida as a whole. Hillsborough's growth also was slower than during the 1980s, when the population rose by 187,094, a 28.9-percent increase.
The slowing rates reflected the sprawl of new suburban construction during the 1990s beyond Hillsborough to Pasco, Hernando and Manatee counties.
"That's significant," Hosler said. "Even though we seem to be going through extraordinarily rapid growth, it was less than it was during the '80s."
Within Hillsborough, the heaviest population increases occurred along the county's northwestern boundaries and in Brandon and Riverview. High-growth pockets in north Hillsborough were New Tampa, Westchase, Keystone and a belt south of Lutz-Lake Fern Road.
In contrast, many neighborhoods closer to downtown Tampa showed declining or stagnant populations.
The most dramatic change, the county's Hispanic influx, has been triggered by Hillsborough's rapid creation in recent years of employment in toll-free call centers and construction work.
"The service industry has been incredible," said Tony Morejon, the Hispanic affairs liaison for Hillsborough County government. "They're coming here to work. They're not coming here to sit under a shade tree."
Last fall, one in five children in the Hillsborough County public schools was Hispanic, part of a trend that has forced expansion of programs for non-English speakers and extra certification requirements for teachers.
"It's been a real issue that public education has had to deal with," said Bill Person, the school system's director of pupil administrative services.
But Morejon noted that Hillsborough's Hispanics, as in previous decades, aren't necessarily first-generation immigrants or even Spanish-speakers. They are as likely to move to Tampa from the north as from Puerto Rico or Cuba, he said.
"People are coming from the New York area," Morejon said. "I see a lot of people whose parents are foreign-born."
But enough Spanish-speakers have arrived to attract a bumper crop of services, from Hispanic Yellow Pages to Hispanic liaisons in local law enforcement.
"We have judges here at the courthouse who have Spanish names, and they don't speak Spanish," Morejon said. "We get new influxes, and that really brings back the language."
Black leaders, meanwhile, had long expected their numbers to be surpassed by Hispanics, said state Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa.
"Overall, the minority population will become the majority and the majority will become the minority," he said. "It's important overall that the minority population is growing."
Hosler of the county's Planning Commission suggested some of the rising Hispanic numbers may include people who lived here in 1990, but weren't counted.
With millions of federal dollars riding on population numbers, local government and Hispanic leaders campaigned for a thorough count in 2000.
Hosler criticized census employees for not counting migrant farm workers in April, when he estimates 25,000 workers are here, but in July.
"By that time, a lot of them have moved on," Hosler said. "As the growing season moves farther north, the population moves farther north."
Morejon predicted the census would find Hillsborough to be 22-24 percent Hispanic instead of the 18 percent that was recorded.
"That's low," he said Tuesday. "Anybody who lives here knows that."
Hosler had warned that the county would legally appeal the count if it showed Hillsborough with fewer than 990,000 residents.
He called the count of 998,948 "very, very good news, which means we won't have to go to war with the Census Bureau."
Hosler's own agency had pegged the county's population in April at 1,001,910, a difference of three-tenths of 1 percent.
"That," he said, "is pretty damn good for government work."