Time magazine national correspondent Michael Grunwald harbors cautious optimism about the future of his adopted home state. The Peabody Award-winning journalist and author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise, recently spoke to us from his home on Miami’s SouthBeach, sharing his perspective on Florida’s future. Insisting that Florida can only regain its competitive advantage if we rise to some crucial challenges, he argues that the state’s growth-is-the-only-engine mentality is no longer economically sustainable.
Q: What is the biggest problem facing
Florida’s business community?
The short answer is Florida is not sustainable. That has become a chi-chi environmental phrase, and I mean it in the environmental sense, but it is also true economically. The old Florida business model doesn’t work. It was essentially a pyramid scheme where Florida thrived on the importation of a thousand new people every day, most of whom were mortgage brokers or laid tile or they were construction workers or contractors or real estate lawyers or realtors. Basically, they were all people whose livelihood depended upon importing another thousand people the next day.
Growth was to Florida like cars were to Detroit. There are two problems with that. The first is what is going to happen to our economy when things stop growing? And the second is what is going to happen when Florida’s natural resources, which are not only pretty and fun to look at but sustain the state, are ravaged?
Q: What effect will a slowdown of growth have on the state’s economy?
Growth in Florida is like a game of musical chairs; at some point the music just stopped. Aside from the fact that it’s a real problem when your house loses half its value and suddenly you have margin calls all over the place, Florida has a larger problem: A gigantic part of its economy depends on the real estate industry. All these construction workers now have nothing to construct. All these realtors have a lot less to sell. It really ripples out. Take the effect on Florida’s agriculture industry. Most people assume the top agriculture industry in Florida is oranges or sugar, but it’s actually nurseries. Nurseries are selling a lot fewer suburban lawns and trees these days because of the economic downturn. And of course this ripples to governments. Their tax receipts depend intensely on a lot of real estate transactions and on people buying construction materials at Home Depot.
Q: What do you see as the greatest problem with maintaining our natural resources?
Central and southern Florida used to have this great water management system called the Everglades. It’s the rainiest swamp in America. There was water in Lake Okeechobee that flowed into the Everglades, and that pretty much stayed wet all year long. Southern Florida was wet and it was great. It supported this incredible profusion of life. The Everglades absorbed flood waters and purified drinking water with all these wetlands and sustained the fishing industry, beautiful beaches, great hunting and scuba diving off the keys.
Well, long story short, people decided that if they were going to live and farm in southern Florida they were going to have to control that water. Now practically every drop of water that falls in southern and central Florida is dumped into a canal or is whisked out to sea or into the lake. But this water management system is no longer sustainable. Half the Everglades is gone, and the other half is an ecological basket case. Lake Okeechobee is in meltdown. It used to be the heart and lungs of South Florida and now the huge dike that is built around it to control it is leaking badly and in danger of failing.
Q: How does the management, or mismanagement, of the Everglades ecosystem affect Southwest Florida?
Whenever the lake gets too high, water managers have to blast billions of gallons into estuaries near Stuart and Sanibel-Fort Myers. As a result, you have situations where people can’t breathe at the beach [because of algae blooms and other toxic problems with the water coming from the lake].You have manatees and dolphins going belly up. You are starting to see hundreds of people show up at water management meetings in Fort Myers, not because they’ve all suddenly become tree huggers, but because the water management system is no longer working. When the housing industry does rebound—and it will rebound because it’s nice down here—there is going to be a real problem with how you’re going to provide water for the baby boomers and retirees who want to move to Florida’s west coast.
The kind of sprawl that you’re starting to see in Southwest Florida is the same runaway sprawl where it’s all growth and no management that has destroyed half the Everglades and made life unpleasant for so many people in South Florida. You’ve got traffic and overcrowded schools and the increasing hurricane danger and rising insurance rates and property taxes. You feel like you might as well be living off the New Jersey turnpike, just with better weather. These are all direct results of the kind of ecological choices our leaders have made. There’s a lesson there for the west coast of Florida. Look at South Florida and ask yourselves what you want your future to look like.
Q: Has Florida lost its competitive edge? And, if so, what can be done to regain it?
If even a marginal percentage of the baby boomers decide that Arizona is better, it will have a tremendous ripple effect on the future of the state. Things are already starting to slow down. We’re starting to see it with the halfbacks—the New Yorkers who moved to South Florida or the Ohioans who moved to Southwest Florida are deciding to go halfway back to North Carolina or Tennessee because of Florida’s congestion and sprawl.
Florida is always going to be nicer than Cleveland or Buffalo in the winter and, for other reasons, it is always going to be nicer than Havana or Port au Prince all year long. People will start coming here again. But Florida has to think now about how it’s going to compete.
The question of Florida losing its competitive edge comes down to bad choices by Florida leaders. The only priority has been a kind of growth at any cost. The result is the schools suck and the workforce is not particularly attractive to a Fortune 500 CEO. As we move into a post-exclusively-growth economy, where growth is no longer the only engine that drives the place, we need to start attracting people who are not just mortgage brokers or realtors or flooring guys. We need to attract some real industries here.
Q: What can we do to attract new industry?
Charlie Crist has started to talk about green tech and that’s terrific, but if you put yourself in the shoes of a CEO, even after the housing crash this is still not a cheap place to live. The workforce is spotty. There hasn’t been the kind of investment in schools that’s needed to attract new industry, partly because a lot of snowbirds here don’t feel tied to the community. Bob Graham always talks about the Cincinnati effect, where people are from Cincinnati and have a place in Naples but never really are committed to Naples. They pay all their taxes in Ohio and when they die they get shipped back to Ohio. But that’s also kind of an excuse. Eighteen million people live here, and their priorities have not been education. If you look at the last round of budget cuts, higher education got it the worst. Everything got cut except prisons. And investing exclusively in prisons is not creating a sustainable future for Florida.
For too long we’ve been a really selfish state. People feel like they should be able to come down and exploit the good things about Florida and contribute nothing. Leadership Florida recently did a poll that asked Floridians to name the biggest problem facing the state. The No. 1 answer was not the fact that we’re running out of water in the rainiest state in the country or the fact that our schools suck or even the problem of sprawl or traffic or lack of public transportation. The No. 1 answer was that property taxes are too high.
Q: What can we do to make Florida more sustainable both ecologically and economically?
We are going to have to start thinking ahead and we’re going to have to start getting away from this consumption culture. Charlie Crist recognizes this. The notion of buying out the sugar industry and restoring the Everglades is a fantastic example of a farsighted, big, dramatic change of direction. It’s an attempt to try to change the political ecosystem as well as the actual ecosystem.
And people need to recognize that whether you’re a snowbird or a fulltime resident, you have a stake in Florida. There is a cost to endless sprawl and endless water use and ignoring hurricane risks and shafting education and worker training.
Q: Is there any reason to be optimistic about Florida’s future?
The good news is that these are all reversible trends. The impetus for change is going to come from ordinary people and the chambers of commerce who are going to start recognizing that the status quo is unsustainable. Once the real estate market comes back, there is going to have to be some real growth management. There is going to have to be a real commitment to putting people where there are already people and leaving natural areas and wetlands that soak up our excess waters, which protect us from floods and protect our aquifers, alone.
We have to stop screwing up the places we haven’t screwed up yet while also trying to repair the places we have screwed up. We don’t have to completely transform our lifestyles. We just have to adjust our lifestyles a little bit in terms of our personal consumption and water use and in terms of community development and transportation.