PALM BEACH, Florida -- With its iconic paintings created by 75 Italian artisans three-quarters of a century ago, four oceanfront pools, nine restaurants, 10 tennis courts, 11 boutiques, 25 luxury beach bungalows, 36 holes of golf, a half-mile of private beach and 2,000 employees, the Breakers, here on an ocean bluff on Florida’s coast, stands as a robust symbol of many things:
The vision and creativity of a classic American entrepreneur. The affluence and excess of an international leisure class. The aspirations of a striving American middle class. And the growth of a remarkable American peninsula once regarded as a hopeless backwater overrun by mosquitoes and mobsters, cracker cowboys and crackpot real-estate swindlers.
From the dreamy 1565 delusions of Ponce de Leon to its 1819 acquisition from Spain to its 1860s role as “supplier to the Confederacy” (it sent beef, pork, fish, fruit and salt to rebel troops during the Civil War) and beyond, Florida once was stuck at the literal and imaginative periphery of the country, a place of limitless potential but little prosperity. As late as 1880, the entire state had a population smaller than Lincoln, Neb., the 72nd biggest city in the country, has today.
Then Henry M. Flagler built his hotel beside the Palm Beach breakers, and the guests flocked in by private Pullman cabins. Eventually he extended his rail line south all the way to Miami and finally, amid nearly unendurable building conditions that included three hurricanes, to Key West. That, and the phenomenal growth of the orange trade — Florida production reached 10 million boxes in 1915 on the way past 230 million a century later — provide the origins of one of the most remarkable stories of population and economic growth in history.
So much so that maybe today, maybe next week, maybe next month, Florida will surge past New York and become the third biggest state in the country, its population now arching toward 20 million people, surpassed only by California (38 million) and Texas (26 million).
It was the signature Florida combination of audacity (Flagler and his great rival, Henry Plant, were not alone) and agriculture (marijuana ranks No. 2 behind oranges, followed by sugar cane, grapefruit and potatoes) that set the state on its growth trajectory. But today it is immigration (from northern states and Latin nations) and imagination (not so much Disney World as high tech), retirement (no state income or inheritance tax) and recreation (some of the best state parks in the country plus baseball spring training) that sustains the growth. And health care. The state logged 11.4 million days in the hospital in 2011, according to the American Hospital Directory.
What does all this growth mean for Florida and for the rest of the country that it is leaving behind?
Some predictable results: More political power (New York lost two seats, Florida gained two, after the 2010 census, with more changes to come after 2020). More federal money (because Washington’s funding formulas apportion dollars to states on the basis of population and because Florida’s growing elderly population brings increased Medicare expenditures).
And some surprising ones: A growing environmental movement in a state that once was regarded as an ecological disaster zone. (The influx of young people is bringing a fresh environmental focus). An increasingly nuanced demographic face that is a hint of the America to come. (Puerto Ricans joining the more established Cubans and South and Central Americans, with the rise of Caribbeans in the state’s black population and a growing Asian population).
But perhaps the most important effect is psychological: a sunny economic outlook to match the state’s climate. Population growth creates economic demand, especially in new construction — much of the real-estate wreckage of the Great Recession is in the past — and in the general sale of goods and services.
“Growth reduces risk,” says Stanley K. Smith, who directs the population program in the University of Florida’s Economic and Business Research. “If you’re thinking of buying a house in a growing community, that makes it easier to sell the house later, and if you’re a business thinking of expanding, population growth reduces the risk that the expansion won’t pan out.”
For a generation, American political scientists looked to California for a glimpse of the politics of the future. Before long they very likely will look to Florida.
One reason: Two out of every three Floridians were born elsewhere, so this is the nation’s new melting pot. Maybe even more important: In this state, which possesses most of the minorities in the large umbrella categories, there is more country-of-origin politics playing out than anywhere else.
“It is the nation’s biggest swing state, and that is not going to change,” says Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist. “If anything, that means Florida is the best bellwether for the country at large. The in-migration patterns show that the people coming here are from a wide variety of places.”
Not that this is some kind of paradise, tourist brochures notwithstanding.
When John Gunther wrote his landmark “Inside U.S.A.” in 1947, he noted in Florida a “freakishness in everything from architecture to social behavior unmatched in any American state.” That’s still true. Two-thirds of a century ago, Florida led the nation in syphillis; today only four states exceed Florida’s rate, with incidences since 2005 twice as high in Broward County (Ft. Lauderdale) as in the rest of the state.
The famous guide to the state produced by the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration noted that many Floridians “resent intrusion and [are] suspicious of unfamiliar things and persons, particularly strangers who do not speak [their] idiom.” That’s not true anymore in a state that is no longer a winter colony of Hialeah, jai lai and hibiscus.
This decade, Florida, which was adding a population the size of Miami’s every year, still will add a population about the size of Orlando’s annually with the smaller (but sustained) rate projected for the future — growth, state officials believe, that will enable Floridians to provide sufficient services without undue stress on roads, schools, health facilities and the environment.
“Our growth, even in the Great Recession, never went below zero,” says Amy Baker, the Florida Legislature’s chief economist. “We didn’t have a dip, just a slowdown. So now we’re back to where we were.”
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1890).