By Richard Reep
2009 was ugly. A swirl of dispiriting events stalled over much of the world this year, and Florida was no exception: state depopulation and tourism decline hit the state’s only two legitimate growth industries.
Yet the bad times contain within them some good news. This end of an era meant that economic planners might finally turn to productive industries to generate jobs and revenue, just like the rest of the nation.
First the bad news. For the first time since Florida became a state in 1845, more people moved out of the state than in, as reported by the University of Florida Bureau of Economic Research in August. In other states, this might not be news, but in Florida this has been viewed as nothing short of catastrophic. Growth is one of the state’s two primary industries, and with the last 163 years, growth was taken for granted (1945 saw depopulation as military personnel went home).
Florida’s other traditional support, tourism, collapsed in 2009, as jittery tourists stayed close to home or went elsewhere in search of vacation. Since growth and tourism were the state’s only economic activity, this pretty much tanked it for the year; without a state income tax, the government is starved for tax money and is taking a hatchet to basic services in an effort to stay afloat. Meanwhile, it’s easy to get a parking space at the beach, hotel rooms are cheap and plentiful for a change, and the weather is as beautiful as ever.
With private development dead, government desperate for income, and the professional class seeking jobs elsewhere, it will be easy for outsiders to write off the future prospects for the Sunshine State’s towns and cities. On the ground, however, a slightly different story emerges, a stoic sort of acceptance and the glimmerings of a change or two in the individual outlooks of citizens who stay. A few foreboding trends also cloud the horizon.
Miami, a city not known to shy away from risks, this year replaced its Euclidean zoning code with a form-based code in a grand experiment with the public process. Voters who had enough of corruption and greed decided to endorse a visually appealing future of their city. Whether or not the outcome produces a better city, the 500+ public meetings did spark a badly needed public/private dialogue that should help Miami reshape itself into its new vision.
Those who do stay in Florida and stick it out are getting more involved. As the outside world stopped supplying capital and residents, a sense of new localism sprang up almost overnight, with people gravitating away from the big brands and status symbols of a once-proud consumerist lifestyle. Sure, many turned to global brands like Wal-mart, but many more are supporting local food co-ops, farmer’s markets, independent eateries, and home industries in an effort to beat the system.
If restlessness and discontent are the first necessities of progress (as stated by Thomas Edison), citizens of Florida cities like Tampa, Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami are ripe for progress. Consumer culture took a pause, but people still need to eat. Like the rest of the nation, this rediscovery of local goods and services has flowered, upon which a newfound sense of identity is being built through face-to-face exchange without the invisible army of middlemen that our commercial culture has spawned.
With earnest public debate about the urban future in one of our nation’s largest cities, we can be assured that Florida citizens do care about the quality of life in their community. With neighborhoods spawning local markets and co-ops, we can be assured that urbanites do care about their local producers – and know a bargain when they see one. Both factors will contribute to a citizenry emerging stronger out of the state’s economic turmoil.
Left to its own devices, Florida may sort itself out. Agriculture and manufacturing, two key industries faintly alive in Florida, have a chance to come back. Affordability and quality of life could lure the right kind of talent and encourage local entrepreneurs. Florida is poised to develop industries with health research and digital media where our lower costs and attractive climate could prove decisive.
Yet this localist trend and greater attention to fundamentals could be altered by more meddling from Washington. The state returned Washington’s check for a train set not once, but twice, causing a concerned Secretary Ray LaHood to make a personal visit to see what was wrong. After some gentle persuasion – after all, Obama’s nationwide high speed rail vision could easily bypass this state with jobs and cash – Florida’s elected officials quickly jumped back to the politically correct side of the fence, and passed a bill to bring commuter rail to Central Florida. Now LaHood must deliver on the promise to prioritize Florida’s high speed rail construction.
For the future, if the past is any guide, the upcoming war with Afghanistan could prove a boon to Florida. World War 2 saw an influx of servicemen and women, and the opening of multiple military bases, supply depots, and runways, partly due to its mild weather and partly due to its political stature. By adding this industry to offset its growth and tourism losses, Florida can benefit from the fulfillment of arguably President Obama's most dangerous campaign promise.
Doubts about these guns and trains leave more than a few Floridians worried about the strings attached to big brother’s largesse. It would be far more constructive to place more faith on the citizen’s renewed interest in the public process and the individual’s support of localism, two trends that seem destined to stay and become ingrained in our lifestyles. If Florida must accept Washington’s command economy for now, then at least the state will be left with increased transportation options and more exposure to service personnel who just might want to come back to stay after the war is over.
But the more important work will, in the end, be done locally. If Floridians can capitalize on genuine public/private dialogue, such as happened in Miami 21, then there is a chance the state can pull from behind and surge ahead as a place where the future can still be sunny.
Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.