PATCHWORK NATION -- April 12, 2010 at 10:34 AM ET
Florida's Economic Dilemma: Change We Need, or Not?
Clermont, Fla. -- Economic times are hard in this small town in the center of the Florida peninsula. Unemployment in Lake County hovers around 13 percent, and home foreclosures, which clocked in at about 5,800 last year, look to be close to that number or higher this year, local officials say.
On one hand, town officials see a need to recast the economy by putting an emphasis on new schools, roads, and development. The idea is to diversify the community beyond its reliance on construction - an industry that has virtually collapsed here during the recession.
But a large and cohesive number of voters - many of whom live in the two gated, over-55, golf-course communities here - are opposed to anything that will raise taxes or fundamentally change the town they love.
The result is a stalemate, in which the town's hopes of creating a more educated workforce and bringing in high-paying jobs go begging, while members of King's Ridge and Summit Greens feel antagonized.
The two communities hold about 2,500 people. That's not even one-fifth of Clermont's 13,000 residents. But they vote so prodigiously that they ultimately control the politics of this town. And they don't want to change Clermont's quiet, small-town feel.
"They live in those communities, and they are pretty comfortable," says Gary Clarke, a financial adviser with Ameriprise and a long-time resident of the city. "They are drawing a pension check every month. When they go out to the doctor and face traffic and three or four traffic lights, that stuff is pretty bad to them."
An economy evaporated
But for city administrators struggling with a city still gripped by economic stagnation, change is exactly what's needed.
Like much of Florida, Clermont rode the housing boom over the past decade. "Five years ago, everyone here was a broker, an agent, or in construction," Mr. Clark says.
Now, the unemployment rate is 13 percent, according to the government, but it's probably closer to 25 percent when you add those who have stopped looking, says Ray San Fratello, president of the South Lake County Chamber of Commerce.
Home prices have taken a hit, too. Houses that sold for $450,000 at the heart of the boom are going for $120,000 or so now, says Mr. San Fratello, adding that construction in Clermont and the surrounding county has all but stopped.
Lake County's biggest employer is Disney, but San Fratello's task is to find a new economic driver to supplement that.
"It can't be housing," he says, noting that more than 90 percent of the developed land in the city has been used for residential real estate. "But we can't get the people behind developing more plots for business, either."
In the two years that Patchwork Nation has been visiting this community, the story has not changed.
The city is fighting to get the rights to develop a parcel of land at some point in the future, but it is meeting with stiff resistance from seniors' communities. Ray Goodgame, a city councilman who lives in Kings Ridge, says the people in his community "don't want any taxes and they don't want any change."
They came here because they liked Clermont the way it is (and Florida too, which has no income taxes). Now that Mr. Goodgame is pushing the city to try to add business, his fellow Kings Ridge residents are "starting to talk like they are going to string me up."
Florida's 'Emptying Nests'
Not every "Emptying Nest" is like Clermont or Lake County. Many "Nests" are based in the Midwest and are struggling as their manufacturing jobs dry up.
But in Florida, Clermont's experience is familiar, particularly in the center of the state. House values and construction are depressed and aren't likely to come back soon, says Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness.
With these communities unwilling to embrace something new, the likely trend for Florida going forward is slower population growth. "In recent years, we've seen anecdotal evidence, even before the recession, of people leaving Florida to go to the Carolinas or going to Tennessee in search of a lower cost of living," he says.
It suggests that in central Florida, the path to a new economic future could be a winding one.
This entry is cross-posted from the Christian Science Monitor's Patchwork Nation site.