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Hispanics, Asians put new face on county

Both minority groups more than doubled their population in the past 10 years.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 2001

Both minority groups more than doubled their population in the past 10 years.

Ray and Carmen Flores gave up the snow and their Long Island home 13 years ago for a piece of sunshine and an extra toilet.

The Spring Hill couple, originally from Puerto Rico, were ferried to the area by developers attracting them to less expensive, bigger homes with more bathrooms. After moving here in 1988, the Flores couple moved to Orlando in the late 1990s. They came back last year to get away from crowded urban living, set up a Spanish deli and be near their friends.

"My husband was tired of the snow and wanted to move down here (from New York)," Carmen Flores, co-owner of La Plazita, said. "Our whole neighborhood was moving down here. . . . We were here so long and knew everybody, we felt maybe we should go back (after moving to Orlando)."

Their experience in arriving in Spring Hill is one shared by hundreds, if not thousands, of Hernando County residents that now make up a growing number of diverse faces in a once-homogenous retirement community.

In fact, 2000 U.S. Census numbers released today show Hernando County is not becoming the fast-graying area as expected.

In addition to the growing number of Hispanic residents -- mostly from Puerto Rico -- and Asian residents, Hernando County saw a surge in very young and very old people move here.

The median, or middle, age barely budged the last 10 years and is now 49.5.

Experts say that's because the county has more young families with lots of school-age children even while longtime retired residents continue to age and the fastest growing age group was those 85 and older.

The impact on schools has been felt for years. Enrollment numbers are proof of the growth, said School Superintendent John Sanders.

When Sanders arrived in 1995, there were 14,000 children. Now there are 17,000.

For every 1,000 new residents, schools get 100 students, he said.

"That's been holding pretty true," he said. The district has already responded to much of the accelerated growth in the 1980s and 1990s. In the past eight years, it built two new elementary schools, one new middle school and broke ground this month on a new high school.

"We're looking at another elementary school being needed four to five years from now," he said.

The slow aging of Hernando overall is a departure from what experts predicted, said David Miles, a county planner and demographic specialist. University of South Florida projections called for the median, or middle, age to rise to 52.9 by 2005 and to 56.9 in 2015, he said.

"They're going to need to re-evaluate," Miles added.

Part of the reason is that Hernando County is now attracting younger families with children, said Teresa Sturgill, president of the Hernando County Association of Realtors.

Gone are the days when developers would primarily market the area as a retirement community with subdivisions for those ages 55 and older, she said.

"We have been seeing an influx of younger people and the baby boomers and people in their 40s that have children in the high school ages," Sturgill said.

However, she thinks the surge in residents older than 75 stems from the aging of retirees who first moved here in the 1980s and 1990s.

"I think as the baby boomers get older, we're going to definitely need more assisted living facilities," she said.

The county experienced more than just changes in age groups. The racial makeup of Hernando County shows more diverse backgrounds, including a 121.6 percent increase in Asians, from 379 to 840.

Hispanic residents increased by 122 percent in the decade ending 2000, rising from 2,962 to 6,587 and passing non-Hispanic African-Americans, whose numbers grew to 5,395, as the largest minority group in the county.

The biggest share of Hispanic residents still comes from Puerto Rico, where developers set up model homes and flew residents to Spring Hill, as they did in New York. But Hernando is also seeing a growing number of residents coming from Mexico, Cuba and other parts of Latin America.

While Miles said some of that rise in Hispanic residents might stem from a change in the way questions were asked on the Census form last year, leaders of the Latin social clubs say their numbers are rising. Puerto Rican residents who first moved here have drawn their relatives with them, said Juan Aviles, president of the Domino Club. Hispanics from other countries have found Hernando County after moving north from Miami or Tampa and are spreading the word to their families, too.

"Brothers and sisters move in and say, "Hey, look, come here, this is a nice place,' " he said.

- Staff writer Jennifer Farrell contributed to this report

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