As the coastal communities become built-out, more people settle in the heart of the county.
By DEBORAH O'NEIL
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001
As Pinellas County's population boom migrated east during the past decade, record numbers of minorities moved to the suburbs clustered along the county's waistline.
Census 2000 figures show there are 7,500 more people living along the McMullen-Booth Road corridor in Clearwater and Safety Harbor than there were a decade earlier, when there still were expanses of oak-dotted acreage. The past 10 years also marked the development of the last remaining pockets of vacant land tucked here and there throughout mid Pinellas.
Among the new faces are thousands of minorities bringing new diversity to communities that nonetheless remain mostly white.
In Largo, there is an emerging Asian population with 1,171 people. And nearly triple the number of African-Americans call Largo home compared with 1990.
For the most part, however, minority numbers remain small. Clearwater's Hispanic community, however, now represents 9 percent of the city's 108,787 people. Hispanics also were counted in higher numbers in Largo, where there are nearly 3,000, and Dunedin, with 1,192 Hispanics.
The growth in minority groups may be connected in part to Pinellas County' thriving tourism industry, said County Planning Director Brian Smith.
"Obviously people visit the place and decide they want to live there," Smith said. "The area is receptive to different kinds of people because they're used to visitors coming in. The environment is very accepting of people with different cultures and backgrounds."
Local officials said they embrace the changes, however gradually they occur.
"The diversity will be good for the city and county," said Largo Community Development Director Ric Goss. "The diversity is what makes it work."
A bevy of new homeowners in East Lake, Oldsmar, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs accounted for most of Pinellas County's overall 8 percent population growth. Mid-Pinellas communities weighed in with more moderate gains.
Clearwater, a city considered largely built-out, packed in 10,000 more residents during the past decade. Planning Director Ralph Stone said builders have made the most of scattered chunks of vacant land in central Clearwater, accounting for the 1,700 more people living in a corner of the city north of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and west of U.S. 19.
"In the last 10 years there were opportunities for new homes here," said Mayor Brian Aungst. "Here in Countryside, we've been here since 1988 and it was fairly built-out but there were still pockets. Now we're pretty much built-out and you see people moving up to East Lake and Palm Harbor."
Largo just missed the 70,000 mark in its population count, something that surprised local officials. The city has aggressively pursued annexations, particularly in industrial areas, which add to the tax base but not the population figures. The greatest growth in Largo was in the southeast corner of the city north of Ulmerton Road, where new subdivisions have sprouted in the last decade.
"For a long time, Largo was content with the central part of Largo but now there is more innovation," said longtime resident and City Commissioner Mary Laurance. "I'm happy with where we are. I'm happy with the pace we're going at."
Belleair, which has been developed for the past 20 years, barely changed, adding 99 people. Of the medium-sized cities, Dunedin registered the least growth at about 5 percent, although city officials think the census did not count at least two new developments and some annexations that would have bolstered its population by at least 2,000.
"I'm really surprised at our overall population growth," said Dunedin City Manager John Lawrence. "We get some revenue sharing as the population grows, but it's a double-edged sword. You want steady growth you can manage and not explosive growth."
The census also missed recent annexations in Seminole, which was reported to have had 10,890 people in 2000. City General Services Director Mitch Bobowski says Seminole's population has swelled to 16,900. Overall, there was little change in the unincorporated areas west of town, where about 50,000 people live and Seminole would like to expand.
"The city has been continuing to grow since its incorporation 30 years ago," Bobowski said. "A lot of communities are bordered by other municipalities. The city of Seminole is not bordered by any municipalities. If people in unincorporated county are contiguous and adjacent to us, we're the only game in town."
In Safety Harbor, Mayor Pam Corbino said she was pleased to see a growth rate of almost 14 percent.
Residential construction in the quiet enclave on Tampa Bay has been steady during the past 10 years with subdivisions featuring large homes. People also are tearing down old homes and replacing them with bigger ones, she said.
"People work all over Pinellas County or Hillsborough County but they can come home to Safety Harbor," Corbino said. "It's a perfect spot."
Historically, Pinellas' development began along the railroad that cut a path down the west side of the county where the Pinellas Trail is now, said county planning director Brian Smith.
Cities then developed on the coastline. Finally, development maneuvered eastward and the 2000 Census registers a spike in the numbers of people living along Tampa Bay.
"There's no question where the growth has occurred, primarily in the east part of the county, the whole eastern corridor," said David Healey, executive director of the Pinellas Planning Council. "There's been a natural filling-in process of land. It's the last frontier of the most available property left to be developed. As we continue and are largely built-out, moving more toward redevelopment would be the obvious trend."