Florida's economy a Ponzi scheme, professor says

ANNA MARIA -- Gary Mormino told a crowded theater on Anna Maria's historic Pine Avenue that Florida's economy is one big Ponzi scheme.

As long as 1,000 new residents move down each day, supporting the taxes for those already here, buying sod from area nurseries and building new homes the state will thrive.

But what happens if that dream to retire under Florida's sun one day fades?

The co-director of the Florida Studies Program at the University of South Florida says the state needs to look no further than its past to understand the mess it's in now.

From orange groves to Mickey Mouse, Mormino took dozens of eager learners on a retrospective guide through the Sunshine State on Thursday as the keynote speaker of the Sustainable and Authentic Florida Conference.

He left the room with sobering questions about the dream Florida bet its future on.

"How do you manage growth, preserve an ecosystem, balance the economy and sustain tourism?" asked Mormino, who authored several books on Florida's history. "Will baby boomers rescue Florida? It's unclear what the new Florida economy, or more importantly, the new Florida dream will look like."

Mormino calls Florida the dream state -- luring residents down with sunshine, palm trees, salt water and sand dunes.

The economy was built on the promise of a better life -- or at least a better February.

Minivans packed to the roof were driving down to Florida in droves from places like Ohio, Minnesota and Michigan.

Housing communities began sprawling from Brevard

-- with just a few thousands residents before the space program -- to Cape Coral -- the epicenter of Florida's bubble, which didn't exist until 1955.

Mormino said Florida first real housing bust came in 1926, when microfilm copies of old newspapers had the state proclaimed as good as dead.

But following the end of World War II, young retires and middle-class families who had not vacationed in a decade were coming down to rediscover Florida.

That spurred another population spike that continued through the birth of Disney World, Florida's modern interstate system and proliferation of senior housing communities.

"What an extraordinary journey in 70 years," Mormino said as he showed the gathering old black and white images of the area. "You almost had whiplash at times trying to understand the intensity and scale."

On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Florida was the smallest state in the Southeast -- with fewer residents than even South Carolina and Arkansas.

It's now the third largest state in the nation, and following the recession's lull, growing once again.

Those influxes have stripped the historic charm that once made Florida famous from communities up and down each coast.

But Mormino points to areas like St. Augustine, Wakulla and especially Anna Maria as those that stayed true to their roots.

To fuel Florida's economic through future periods of slowed population growth, tourism and home building, those characteristics will become vital, he said.

That plays into the hands of Manatee, where the tourism department unveiled a new branding last month that slogans the area as "Real. Authentic. Florida."

"We couldn't be in a better place or better island in Florida for this conference," said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "As we market this destination, we're going to do so without compromising its authenticity."

Preserving natural resources like water quality and lose-rise building will lead the way -- a strategy that's helped rebuild the economy at rural Wakulla County in the Panhandle after BP's Gulf oil spill froze tourism.

"This is something we have been doing, and it's why we're sitting where we are," said Robert Seidler, conference presenter and founder of a production company in Wakulla. "If we keep the water clean, we will continue to have everything."

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman