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Despite growth, Citrus remains diversity desert

Known for manatees and retirees, Citrus County is the state's least racially diverse, census figures show.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 23, 2001

Known for manatees and retirees, Citrus County is the state's least racially diverse, census figures show.

INVERNESS -- Scan the restaurants. Peek inside the nursing homes. Check out the schoolyards. Walk the forest trails.

Look anywhere you wish in Citrus County. Odds are, the faces looking back will be white.

Citrus is Florida's least racially diverse county, census 2000 figures show. The semi-rural hamlet is a magnet for manatees and white retirees, but not people of color.

Only 7 percent of residents identify with a minority group. Only 4 percent of people 18 and older aren't white.

Although Citrus was in similar statistical territory 10 years ago, change seemed possible. Its overall population grew 26 percent during the 1990s, and minority groups gained size and strength here and throughout Florida.

Yet the face of Citrus remains pale.

Perhaps African-Americans and other minorities feel unwelcome in Citrus. When asked, a few black people responded with knowing laughter but no on-the-record comments.

Other blacks said the minority population remains small because the employment scene -- largely government work, health care and service jobs -- isn't strong enough to attract outsiders.

"It's the job opportunities. I don't think it's a racial problem," said Elizabeth Grice, a lifelong Inverness resident who worked 40 years as a bookkeeper in the Citrus school system.

"If it had been all that unfriendly," added her husband, James, "I'd have left Inverness."

Citrus might be best known for manatees, the endangered sea cows that populate coastal rivers when gulf waters turn cold. People come from all over to swim with the gentle giants in Crystal River and Homosassa.

That kind of natural beauty is a major reason people choose to live here. Many transplants, whether from different states or different parts of Florida, praise the quality of life Citrus provides.

Minorities have noticed the same thing, and their populations have not remained stagnant. Citrus County's black population increased 34 percent during the 1990s; the Asian population skyrocketed 189 percent.

But those percentages can be misleading, since the base numbers were so small. The black population, for example, increased from 2,170 to 2,908.

Meanwhile, white Citrus was growing at a good clip, as well, so the minority population didn't gain much statistical ground.

Ask people why they relocated to Citrus, and they say they fell in love with the place after happening upon it during a vacation or while visiting friends who moved here. Many people come so they can be close to family who relocated.

The Indian-American community is testament to the strength of networking. Many physicians moved to Citrus during the 1970s and 1980s, when the county was experiencing incredible growth. More doctors were needed, so they spread the word to friends and classmates up north, then helped them and their families connect with the community once they arrived.

But that same word-of-mouth growth engine has not yielded as much fruit in some other minority communities.

"I just think blacks haven't discovered us yet," said Joe Cino, Democratic Party chairman and a 26-year Citrus resident.

So long as retirees are the main growth source in Citrus, the racial makeup isn't likely to change significantly.

"Citrus has become quite a retirement county in recent decades," said Stan Smith of the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Although 2000 census figures aren't yet completed, UF estimates that 33 percent of the county's residents are age 65 and older.

"Retirees moving into the state tend to be overwhelmingly white," he said. "The major growth in minority population in the last two or three decades has been Hispanic, and that has focused on South Florida, primarily Miami-Dade County."

Other areas also have seen increased minority growth, but again because of "networks and cultural connections," Smith said.

In Citrus, that sounds like a recipe for status quo. The county was mostly white to begin with, and most of the newcomers are white. Minority population is growing, but only in places that have geographic, cultural or historical advantages.

Citrus' lack of diversity is the fault of "the historical accident of where (Citrus) started out," Smith said.

What about homegrown growth? The number of black people age 17 and younger increased 39 percent during the 1990s, from 743 to 1,035. Hispanic youth increased from 411 to 900 -- a 119 percent leap.

Will those young people stay? Will they raise families and boost the minority numbers?

Sheila Davis, an African-American mother, doesn't think so.

Ms. Davis, 40, has lived in Inverness the past 11 years. She said her sons, ages 16 and 17, are bound for the military when they graduate from high school.

No one pushed them toward the Navy or Marines. "They say, 'Mom, there's nothing to do here.' They want to get ahead," Ms. Davis said.

She can't blame them. "You have to basically be retired to stay here, and already be rich," Ms. Davis said.

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