By BILL COATS
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2001
The new growth map of Hillsborough County shows a consistent, nearly unanimous, pattern across the northwest edge: growth indeed.
But south of there, Tampa and its fringes are a checkerboard of population gains and losses. The reasons may be as diverse as the people who included in the numbers. Neighborhoods gentrified, developers redeveloped and government wreaked wholesale change.
Some of the trends at work are still somewhat indecipherable, such as:
Why Tampa's Davis Islands lost at least 8 percent of its adult population, in the midst of a migration of young families that added more than 17 percent to its contingent of children.
Why several north Hillsborough tracts, in an area that boomed otherwise, posted population losses exceeding 10 percent.
Authorities expect to know much more by midsummer, when the Census Bureau plans to release more detailed breakdowns and open up a two-year review period of numbers challenged by local governments.
Alan Baker, Tampa's economic planner and research coordinator, said the breakdowns could prove especially enlightening about group quarters, such as dormitories, nursing homes and jails.
He expects that to explain some of the most drastic changes on Tampa's census map.
For example, the population on MacDill Air Force Base dropped by a fourth following renovations of living quarters there. The census tract containing most of the University of South Florida dropped 17 percent after dormitories were renovated.
And east of downtown Tampa, a census tract north of Adamo Drive boomed with new residents -- perhaps involuntarily. The biggest change there, Baker believes, was the expansion of the county's Orient Road jail.
The meager population of 1,171 around downtown Tampa, nearly all adults, dropped by 462. Baker believes that could be mostly an inmate reduction at the county's Morgan Street Jail.
Overall, Hillsborough County grew 19.8 percent during the 1990s, paced by new development in northwest Hillsborough and greater Brandon. The county's population probably passed 1-million about a year ago, a month or so after the official census count.
The city of Tampa's population grew 8.4 percent to 303,447 people, driven largely by the construction boom in New Tampa.
Population declines tended to cluster along bygone growth corridors such as Florida Avenue and Interstate 4.
Yet, as with the jail, some of the most dramatic declines were driven by government.
Near Tampa International Airport, Drew Park lost 14 percent of its population. The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority has been buying houses there to convert the land to airport uses.
"It no longer has a large residential population," said Julie Harris, the city's neighborhood liaison.
Just northeast of downtown Tampa, a belt of neighborhoods lost nearly a third of their population as the city government relocated residents of the College Hill and Ponce De Leon public housing complexes.
Those residents apparently accounted for population growth south and west of Busch Gardens.
A population boom in Tampa Heights was directly caused by a 5-year-old city program that bought dilapidated houses or vacant lots and resold them to new residents, Harris said.
Most south Tampa neighborhoods grew, and those that declined did so in small numbers. "All your south-of-Kennedy (Boulevard) neighborhoods are pretty stable," said Harris.
She said the area's general trend is an influx of young families.
Of course, that's also the trend in north Hillsborough, except for a row of census tracts near Lake Magdalene and one in Lutz, which recorded population losses.
One official thinks the census takers simply messed up.
"We're stretching it here to find reasons why those areas are declining, when all hard evidence says they're not declining," said Jim Hosler, research director at the county Planning Commission.
Hosler believes clusters of people could have been coded into the wrong census tract as their numbers were recorded.
"It could be an apartment complex in the wrong area," he said. "That would do it."
Indeed, some of the most common discrepancies that surface as the Census Bureau reviews its work are what are known as "geocoding" errors, said Mark Tolbert, a spokesman for Census 2000 media relations in suburban Washington.
Populations recorded for neighboring census tracts rose, buttressing Hosler's suspicions.
Jan Smith, a former chairwoman of the Planning Commission, had the same reaction when told her tract in Lutz declined by 11 percent. But she reconsidered when asked about generational changes.
"Well, now that you mention it," she said, "there were four of us here in 1990, and now there's just Earl and me."
Then Mrs. Smith counted off couple after couple down her street whose children in 1990 had spread their wings as young adults by 2000.
Hosler doubts that generations actually pass that way through a neighborhood; people come and go often. A huge wave of young people would have to move away to cause the overall population to drop, he said.
"I just don't think you had a whole lot of people out there who moved in to raise kids and are still there," he said.
- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 226-3469 or email@example.com.