Where have all the young folks gone in the North Florida counties? Gone to jobs elsewhere, officials say.
By ALICIA CALDWELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001
The familiar Florida story has been one of wide-ranging growth -- of diversifying populations, overcrowded schools and employers in search of qualified applicants.
But a counter trend is at work in rural North Florida.
In five counties clustered around Tallahassee, census figures show a decline in the number of children during the past decade.
Franklin, Gadsden, Hamilton, Jefferson and Taylor are the only counties in the state that registered drops in their younger than 18 populations. Several neighboring counties showed little or no growth in their numbers of children. Statewide, the population of children increased by an average 27 percent between 1990 and 2000.
The North Florida declines, observers say, are markers of major change at work in the area. As unemployment rates remain notably higher than the statewide average, adults of child-bearing age are moving out. At the same time, retirees seeking low-cost living and an escape from urban Florida are moving in, which explains a bump in the adult population.
Mike Williams, a Hamilton County native, said his county grew around agriculture, then evolved into something of a tourist attraction because of its springs, then relied on phosphate mining as a major industry. That, he said, is petering out as well.
"Jobs are hard to find here," said Williams, Hamilton County's top administrator. "What happens is your young adults, a lot of those folks leave. When I graduated from high school, I went to the Army. I was about 40 when I came back."
Although the populations of these counties are small -- all of them with fewer than 20,000 people except for Gadsden, which has 45,000 -- it is conceivable that relatively small fluctuations could register wide percentage changes. That explains the 975 percent increase in American Indians in Jefferson County -- who now number 22.
But even in raw numbers, the overall decreases in children constitute a trend that deviates substantially from what is going on statewide.
The state has a bumper crop of kids.
Florida's population of white children grew by 18 percent, while its African-American population went up 34 percent. The other relatively large group of children that increased substantially was Hispanic -- who can be of any race -- which climbed 79 percent.
Not only did the state's major groups of children increase during the past decade, but they did so at a faster rate than adults.
The inverse is true in these North Florida counties, which still are growing overall, but differently.
"Every new home we have built in this county, there are no kids in them," said John Durst, a building and planning official in Jefferson County. "Young people are moving away as fast as they can, and the old people are moving in."
Though parts of Jefferson County are just 30 minutes from Tallahassee -- attractive to retirees -- the quality of the public school system keeps the county from drawing families, Durst said.
"The facilities are poor," Durst said. "On the average, we do very poorly in our education system."
Another force at work may be the fishing-net ban, which took effect in 1995. An entire way of life was voted out of existence when voters approved a constitutional amendment banning large fishing nets, gill nets and entangling nets.
"Imagine for a second you are 16, 17 or 18 years old," said Scott McPherson, state census director. "You've seen your family business disappear with the stroke of a pen. You're going to go somewhere else."
McPherson said he thinks subsequent rounds of census figures for North Florida coastal counties will continue to register effects of the net ban.
In Gadsden County, which borders Georgia, industry has been depressed, said Howard McKinnon, county administrator. There was a plant closing in the last year, another woe to add to the county's list, McKinnon said in suggesting why the county's population of children would decline.
"We've had very little business expansion in the county in the last decade," McKinnon said. "I would suspect that plays into it."
In several counties, officials expressed disbelief in the numbers.
Eldon Sadler, the Taylor County property appraiser, said there often is an underlying mistrust of authority in rural Florida that census officials may have underestimated. That, he said, and people often are difficult to find. Some of them are out in the woods in a mobile home.
Of the drop in Taylor, he said: "I'd be skeptical that it's accurate."
After all, the phone book for Perry has gotten fatter. And he doesn't recall there being many more funerals than usual.
But he acknowledged that economic opportunities are sparse.
"Other than county government, we don't have a lot of jobs to draw people here," he said.
For information on the 2000 census, visit the St. Petersburg Times' Web site at www.sptimes.com