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The 15 largest counties drive state's new look


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2001

The big got bigger, and more diverse.

The big got bigger, and more diverse.

The state's 15 largest counties were the engine that drove the state's 23.5 percent increase in population during the past 10 years, according to Florida census figures released Tuesday.

Much-anticipated numbers from the once-a-decade count showed Central and South Florida counties, fueled by big jumps in the numbers of Hispanic residents, contributed mightily to the population boom.

Counties in the so-called Interstate 4 corridor registered gains in the 20 percent range, with Orange County, home to Orlando, increasing its population by nearly a third. Orange County has seen an influx of Puerto Rican immigrants, said Florida census director Scott McPherson.

The increase in Hispanic residents was a boom that echoed through the state, McPherson said.

"Probably the biggest news of the day is the confirmation . . . there are more Hispanics in the state of Florida than African-Americans," he said. "We've suspected it for years, but now it's codified."

Highlights from the census:

Hispanics, who make up nearly 17 percent of the state's population, overtook African-Americans, at almost 15 percent of the total, to become the largest minority group in Florida. Statewide, Hispanics increased 70.4 percent.

Florida's Suncoast counties of Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough experienced similar increases in Hispanic populations, and in each county -- except Pinellas -- Hispanics are the largest minority group, surpassing African-Americans.

Sarasota and Manatee counties logged in population increases of 17.3 and 24.7 percent. It is the first decade in which Manatee's growth has surpassed Sarasota County's. The numbers reflect the emergence of unincorporated eastern Manatee as a bedroom community for Tampa and St. Petersburg, and Sarasota-Bradenton. And it is indicative of burgeoning growth west of Interstate 75 in Sarasota County, and a build-up in the North Port area.

Three sprawling, urban South Florida counties -- Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach -- grew by roughly more than 950,000 people. That accounted for nearly a third of the state's population increase.

The state's fastest-growing county was Flagler, in northeast Florida, which had a nearly 74 percent population increase during the past decade. An influx of retirees to golf communities in Palm Coast boosted the population of the largely rural, coastal county to nearly 50,000.

Of the large cities, Pembroke Pines, a Fort Lauderdale suburb, grew the fastest at 110 percent. St. Petersburg grew 4 percent while Tampa's population grew by 8.4 percent.

"That's great news for the city of Tampa," said Jim Hosler, Hillsborough County planning commission research director. "That's about $10-million a year in federal revenue-sharing money."

Perhaps, Hosler said, the city's vociferous criticism of Census Bureau counting methods and the danger of missing minority residents helped to focus attention on Hillsborough.

Hillsborough's population increase of nearly 20 percent confirmed its place as the state's fourth-largest county, a spot it took from Pinellas in the early 1990s. Pinellas, the state's fifth-largest county, had an increase of 8.2 percent -- modest, but expected growth for a largely built-out county.

Growth in Pinellas was driven by new home construction in East Lake and Palm Harbor.

The statewide distribution of the population increases reinforced a subtle, but decades-long shift in political power from the Panhandle, with its southern roots, to southeastern Florida, which has drawn upon transplanted Northerners and Latin American immigrants for its population.

State Sen. Jim Sebesta, a St. Petersburg Republican, said those trends will come into play in the coming year as the state Legislature takes on the once-a-decade task of redrawing districts for the state House and Senate, and the U.S. House.

In December, Florida learned that its booming growth would bring the state two new congressional seats. Speculation was that the new seats would be in southeastern Florida and a north-central chunk of the state anchored by Orlando.

The figures that came out Tuesday -- the second major release of Census 2000 numbers -- supported that contention. Federal law mandates the U.S. Census Bureau deliver population, race and voting age statistics to states by April 1 for Legislative redistricting and congressional reapportionment.

But while the reshaping of districts builds its foundation on figures, it remains a political process.

Sebesta, who is on the state Senate subcommittee for congressional apportionment, said Tuesday it was unlikely that the relatively modest growth registered in the Tampa Bay area could justify either of the new seats being here.

"The southeast coast will probably get one of the new congressional seats," he said. "My guess would be that the other would be somewhere in Central Florida."

The strengthening population in those areas will have reverberations on the state-level redistricting, though less dramatic than the addition of two seats on the federal level.

Sebesta said the faster-growing and more densely populated areas of the state will see their districts shrink, while some areas that grew at a slower pace, such as those in Pinellas, might see districts having to take in more real estate.

The idea is to have each district in each of the houses of the state Legislature represent about the same number of voting-age residents.

It's a process, he said, that will crank up during the coming year as numbers are crunched, maps are generated and committee meetings become more frequent.

"It promises to be interesting," he said. "It definitely will affect the balance of power in the Legislature."

- Computer assisted reporting specialist Constance Humburg and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report, which also includes information from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

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