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Manatee's growth rate slows down

MANATEE

- Manatee County's 21st-century growth spurt waned last year, according to federal population estimates being released today.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 313,298 people called Manatee home last July 1, an increase of more than 7,000 from the previous year. The agency said newcomers from elsewhere accounted for almost all of that 2.3-percent increase, the county's lowest annual growth rate since at least 2000.

"It's a healthy, manageable number for us to deal with," Bob Bartz, president of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday. "That's certainly more manageable than the year before. Everything was magnified that year. Homes, population, it was crazy.

"I still have no idea what that blip was all about."

He was referring to 2004-05, when the county's population - which had been steadily growing by some 7,500 people and 2.75 percent annually since 2000 - suddenly spiked by 3.5 percent and nearly 10,400 people.

That was part of a larger wave that year that saw Florida's population grow by a record 401,000 people, or 1,100 a day.

Since then, population growth has leveled off, both locally and statewide, census figures show. Florida gained nearly 321,700 residents from 2005 to 2006, pushing the state's population past the 18 million mark.

But Florida placed only one county among the nation's 10 fastest-growing last year, and just 12 among the top 100 - third behind Georgia's 14 and Texas' 13.

Despite the drop-off, only Texas added more people than Florida last year, the Census said.

The slowdown was no surprise to demographers, who blamed it on the recent active hurricane seasons, increased competition from other states for retirees and rising home ownership costs in Florida.

"There's other places that are adding more raw numbers of people," said Stefan Rayer, a demographer with the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research. "Florida's obviously a retirement destination . . . but there are other retirement destinations that have been attracting more retirees.

"Yes, there's a larger pool (of prospective retirees), but it's not assured that most of them will actually end up in Florida."

The Florida bureau is forecasting more modest growth for the state in coming years, reflecting several signs that indicate slower growth ahead for Florida.

Among them: United Van Lines' annual migration report, which said more than half of the company's Florida household moves last year were for people going to other states.

"This is the first year since we started the study in 1977 that Florida had more outbound than inbound," company spokeswoman Jennifer Bonham said.

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