Who We Are

By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2008

My grandfather used to say that people will keep moving here as long as it is a better place to live than Toledo, Ohio. He died in the early 1970s, when Sarasota and Manatee counties had about 220,000 residents. I wish I could tell him how right he was. The population has tripled since he died, and last year 102 more people moved here from Toledo.

The last 15 years have been so good for the Sarasota-Bradenton metropolitan area (Sarasota and Manatee counties) that many people have forgotten that the economy they depend on is strange and fickle. In 2006, 6,788 babies were born and 8,327 people died in the metro, a net loss of 1,539 residents. That is strange. The only reason the local economy kept growing is because 13,174 more people moved here than moved away, according to the Census Bureau. About 80 percent of those in-migrants came from another state, and most of them came to retire. That is even stranger.

Fewer than one-fifth of Americans in their 50s say they will even consider moving across state lines when they retire. The few who actually do it are not normal; they are lucky enough to afford such luxuries, and footloose enough to cut all ties to their hometowns in exchange for lots of sunshine. According to the IRS, residents of our metro had an aggregate household income of $15.5 billion at the beginning of 2006. During the year, the net gain in aggregate income caused by people moving here from other states increased that sum by perhaps $350 million.

And that’s the fickle part. Every year a tide of new money washes over our economy and makes jobs grow. Everything is great as long as that happens, and it has been happening steadily for quite a while. But a national recession can destroy Sarasota and Manatee’s economy as quickly and suddenly as a hurricane. The metro’s population has increased by about 40 percent since the last true bust in 1991, so many readers of Biz941 have never seen the bottom drop out. But our economy depends on in-migration and as long as that is true, things will get tough as soon as snowbirds get scarce.

Florida’s current epidemic of housing foreclosures could be the opening act of the next bust. But so far, it looks more like the end of a sprint. Everyone knows that the state had the third-highest foreclosure rate in the United States in October 2007, and that Atlas Van Lines is moving more families out of Florida than it is moving in. But local population growth has not stopped: Sarasota County’s population increased 2.1 percent from 2006 to 2007, and Manatee County’s population increased 2.6 percent, according to the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Tourists are still spending, so maybe we’ll escape a full-blown recession. But we are vulnerable, because any market that depends on discretionary spending can turn on a dime.

In most American metros, more people are born every year than die, and most jobs do not depend on visitors and newcomers. Nationally, the median age is about 36; in Sarasota County, it is almost 50. Still, things here aren’t really that weird. Affluent retirees may give the metro its image and fertilize its economy, but only about one-quarter of local residents are aged 65 or older. Most of the metro’s 703,000 residents are of working age, and 18 percent are children. The truth is that each neighborhood in Sarasota, Bradenton and Venice is inhabited by different kinds of people, who coexist peacefully as long as the annual flood of money shows up. Some of the places in our metro are a lot like normal American towns. Others are among the most demographically extreme spots in the United States.

Retirement Royalty

Consider Longboat Key. If you divide the life cycle into thirds and count up the people in each category, you’ll find that most places in the United States and Florida have more young people (under age 35) than they do middle-aged people (aged 35 to 64), and more middle-aged people than they do old people (aged 65 and older; see chart 1). This rule applies to the three parts of our metro where working people can find affordable housing: Palmetto, Bradenton and North Port. But in Longboat Key, there are 20 residents aged 65 and older for every resident under age 35. The national pattern is also reversed in Englewood, Venice and the unincorporated eastern part of Sarasota County. In all four of these places, the dominant age group is 65-plus, and children are relatively hard to find.

What makes Longboat even stranger is that the oldest people there are also the richest. In most of the country, a person’s income peaks in their 40s and declines steeply after age 65. But the median household income in Longboat Key is more than $120,000, or almost three times as much as the median for Sarasota County ($48,416). Median incomes are just below the county average in Englewood and Venice, but still much higher than normal for an area with so many householders over 65. And the median income is far above average ($58,000) in the eastern part of Sarasota County, the fourth region where retirees rule.

In most metros, retirees don’t contribute much to the local economy. But in Sarasota County, retirees are the economy. Most of the county’s jobs are in construction (10 percent), retail trade (17.5 percent), healthcare (15.6 percent) and accommodation/food service (11 percent). These four sectors claim 42 percent of jobs in the national economy, but they’re 54 percent in Sarasota. And despite significant efforts in recent years to attract manufacturing and high-tech jobs to Sarasota, the local dependence on tourists and retirees is growing. In 1998, those four sectors claimed 47 percent of Sarasota’s jobs. Manatee County is not quite as skewed as Sarasota, but its employment is also concentrated in industries that serve tourists.

Gulf coast retirees are a bit like the English gentry. They are one rung below the nobility, which in our case means the folks who live on the keys. Our workers serve at the gentry’s pleasure, and their incomes depend on the assets the gentry chooses to spend. Should the lords and ladies of the condos choose not to come, or not to spend, our businesses will immediately feel a short, sharp shock.

A preponderance of wealth among the eldest people in the community also makes the economy precarious for another reason. Spending on healthcare is heavily concentrated in the last few years of life, and the way we pay for health care is about to change. In the United States as a whole, 6 percent of the population is aged 75 or older. In our metro, that share is 15 percent. One of the main reasons our retirees spend so freely these days is that the federal government pays most of their healthcare costs. But Medicare’s trustees project that the program will run out of money in 11 years. As soon as Medicare coverage is reduced, the discretionary spending that supports Bradenton’s malls and restaurants will be reduced by a nearly equal amount, because the demand for healthcare is not very flexible. If you have to pay for prescriptions or an operation yourself, you will cut back on nonessentials to make it possible.

People Pipelines

My grandfather also was fond of saying that north-south Interstate highways were like people pipelines, with I-75 delivering folks from the Midwest to the Gulf Coast and I-95 bringing them from the Northeast to the Atlantic Coast. This might have been true when he said it 40 years ago, back when Osprey’s Hoosier Bar was a hot new spot. However, it isn’t true any more. When The New York Times bought the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 1982, it was a signal that New Yorkers had discovered Sarasota.

According to the IRS, 25,213 people who were claimed on tax returns filed in Sarasota and Manatee counties in 2006 lived in a different state in 2005. Subtract from that the number who moved away (17,272) and you get a net gain of 7,921 for the year. In 1989-1990, the net gain was 6,822. In 1999-2000, the net gain was 8,779. The net gain in interstate migrants who show up in tax returns can fluctuate by 1,000 or more from year to year, but the places our migrants come from change more slowly. The Northeast and Midwest each contributed 31.5 percent of interstate migrants to our metro in 1999-2000, the South contributed 27.5 percent, and the West contributed 9.5 percent (table two).

In 1999-2000, nearly 10 percent of taxpayers who moved across state lines to come to our metro originated in the tri-state area surrounding New York City (9.8 percent). Another 3.9 percent came from greater Chicago, 2.8 percent each from metropolitan Detroit and Boston, and 2.2 percent from Atlanta. Other large feeders, ranked by the number of people contributed, were Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Hartford and Buffalo. These metros, added together, contributed 30 percent of people who moved across state lines to come to Sarasota-Bradenton in 1999-2000 (table three).

Taxpayers and their dependents are not the whole migration stream, but they are the wealthiest part of it. And in our metro, migrating taxpayers can be very wealthy indeed. In 1999-2000, the pre-tax median adjusted gross income (AGI) of nonmigrant taxpayers in Sarasota County was $29,500. But people who moved to Sarasota from suburban Connecticut (Fairfield County) in that year had median incomes of $67,500, and those from suburban Detroit (Oakland County) weighed in at $57,800. Manatee’s in-migrants were similarly well fixed. Those from suburban Washington (Fairfax County, Va.) earned $67,500, and those from suburban Chicago (DuPage County) earned $52,800, compared with a median AGI of $27,361 for Manatee’s nonmigrants.

The German invasion of Siesta Key Beach might lead you to think that our metro is copying New York in another way—namely, by going international—but so far the influx of affluent foreigners into our metro is almost all visitors. Fewer than 200 new residents a year come to Sarasota and Manatee counties from foreign addresses. [See “All Over the Map,” pg. xx.] Nor are vast numbers of people moving into Sarasota and Manatee counties from other places in Florida. The net gain from in-state migration in 2005-06 was just 28. But there is a significant source of newcomers who are not affluent retirees. Working-age people and their children are following new jobs into our metro, and they do not have much in common with the people they serve.

The Next Sarasota

Like the affluent suburbs that feed them, Sarasota and Manatee counties are much whiter than the country as a whole. But a recent influx of young workers is giving our complexion a slightly darker hue. Among the 489,000 residents of the two counties in 1990, 90.4 percent were non-Hispanic and white, 5.7 percent were black, and 3 percent were Hispanic. During the 1990s, the metro’s population increased 21 percent, but the minority population increased 55 percent. Of 590,000 residents in 2000, 85.6 percent were non-Hispanic and white, 5.8 percent were black, and 6.6 percent were Hispanic.

The pace of growth among minorities here has increased since 2000. The Census Bureau estimates that the metro’s population was 682,833 in 2006; of those, 82 percent (about 560,000) were non-Hispanic and white, 9 percent (63,000) were Hispanic, and 6 percent (43,000) were black. Another 9,000 residents were Asian, and the remaining 8,000 said they had two racial backgrounds or were from some other race. Our metro is still a lot whiter than the U.S. average: nationally, 66 percent are non-Hispanic white, 15 percent are Hispanic, and 12 percent are black. But the gap is narrowing fast, because our Latino migrants are likely to have children and our Anglo migrants rarely do.

One of the strangest things about our metro is that the aging part of our population is almost entirely concentrated among one ethnic group. The 2000 Census shows that almost one-third (32 percent) of the non-Hispanic whites in Sarasota and Manatee counties are aged 65 or older, but only 9 percent of blacks, 5 percent of Hispanics, and 4 percent of those who are of some other race have reached that age. Only 11 percent of non-Hispanic whites in the metro are under age 18, but 35 percent of blacks, 34 percent of Hispanics, and 39 percent of others are children. As a result, our schools are already multicultural, because 37 percent of metro residents under the age of 18 are black, Hispanic or in some other minority group. Yet many of our retirees aged 65 and older can’t grasp this change, because they are almost entirely (97 percent) non-Hispanic and white. Their values were formed in an America that is now fading away.

Working families buy their groceries with the money brought here by visitors and retirees, so any slowdown in retirement migration will eventually spread to younger age groups. Enrollment in Sarasota County public schools in November 2007 was 2.3 percent below the budgeted number, and it was also about 300 students less than the total number for November 2006. Until the economy brightens, fewer young families will move in. But those who are already here have children in school and friends down the street, so they will try to tough it out before they have to move.

The money may be in Longboat Key. But you can see the future of our metro in Palmetto, where 20 percent of the population is Hispanic and 24 percent of the population is children. It is a place where men and women are focused on keeping their jobs and raising their kids. It may not be as glamorous as Longboat, but it also will not wash away in the next economic storm. One of my old-time relatives, a dirt farmer, told me once that he had the chance to buy some acreage on Siesta Key back in the 1930s. He passed on the offer, he said, because you can’t grow anything out there.

Brad Edmondson, a native of Nokomis, is a writer and business consultant. The former editor of American Demographics magazine, he is an authority on the impact of population change on American places.

Filed under
Show Comments