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Census loss is actually a winning proposition

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By JAN GLIDEWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2001


The tiny East Pasco municipalities of San Antonio and Saint Leo are justifiably upset by recently released census figures that show them as having lost (16 percent and 41 percent, respectively) population during the 1990s.

Census figures translate to state revenue-sharing dollars, often a major part of the budget of small cities, and besides, nobody wants to be that low on the growth totem pole in a state where Bob's sawhorse-shaped Barricades have been nominated as the state animal and the motto is "Who Needs Water? Let's Build Something."

City officials are screaming for a recount, not always the best idea in the Sunshine State, and it is probably true that they have been undercounted.

It is ironic that the low or negative growth of that part of the county may be its greatest selling point.

You have to love an area where, in the midst of massive population growth (29.4 percent in Hernando County, 26 percent in Citrus and 23 percent in Pasco) some towns actually lose people. Or an area where the city of Weeki Wachee, which counted a major growth spurt between the 1980 and 1990 censuses -- from 8 to 13 residents -- has now relaxed to a more moderate 12 souls.

And for a lot of the area's residents, that's just fine.

The extreme southwest coastal area of Citrus County, including ruggedly independent Chassahowitzka, like some parts of Hernando and Pasco, is populated by people who aren't exactly hermits, but who can do without the profusion of strip malls, traffic and chain restaurants that follows growth elsewhere in the state and in these counties.

I can still remember the date of my first trip to Pasco County's interior -- May 11, 1973, a Sunday -- when I had to come and cover a particularly brutal murder in Dade City.

That unfortunate fact notwithstanding, I remember my mouth falling open as I made the 90-degree turn on State Road 52 in Saint Leo and my beat-up car began climbing the first of the hills that make up the peninsular divide that ends just east of Dade City.

For all that I frequently make fun of the area's profusion of pickup trucks and lack of diversion, I fell in love with the area, finagled a transfer as soon as I could and have enjoyed all of the nearly 28 years I have been here.

I remember writing about that for the Floridian section of the Times a few years later and being contacted by friends and natives, one of whom said, "Son, we're glad you like it here, but don't feel like you have to tell everyone about it."

Some folks would just as soon not lose the picturesque charm of Saint Leo University's storybook campus, and a city government where, in the past, it has not been unusual to see a monk or nun from the monastery in town serving as mayor or council member.

Some revel in the envy of other towns that wouldn't dare do what San Antonio has done with uniform success for the past year or so: have block parties and invite everyone in town and cops more for window dressing than to serve as bouncers.

In fact, I remember when Saint Leo and San Antonio shared a police department, and the officers wore a Saint Leo patch on one sleeve and a San Antonio patch on the other . . . and usually averaged about 10 or 15 case reports in a year.

Dade City showed a modest 10 percent increase in population, still well under the county average; Zephyrhills led the county in growth with a 32 percent increase from 8,220 to 10,833 permanent residents.

How long we will be able to hang on to this tiny oasis of low growth and down-home friendliness, I don't know.

I've made no bones about my plans to spend a considerable part of my retirement in Colorado, and friends have pointed out that the growing popularity of that part of the country makes major growth there a likely problem in the future.

I believe they are right, but I think I have made the proper demographic projections and am comfortable that when that many people have moved there -- I will be dead.

And the growth will be someone else's problem.


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