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UPDATE: Florida may soon pass New York in population

ALBANY, N.Y. - New York, whose status as the most populous state has long been ceded, will soon fall behind Florida into fourth place, a long-anticiapted top that is rife with symbolism and that could carry potentially serious economic consequences in coming years. 

When the Census Bureau releases its latest population estimates Monday,, demographers expect that the Sunshine State and New York will be narrow separated - perhaps by as little as a few thousand people - and that if Florida does not pass New York this time, it almost certainly will do so in 2014.  

The census figures underscore immigration trends, as foreign-born migrants continue to move to warm-weather states such as California and Texas - No. 1 and 2, respectively - as well as to Florida.

The newcomers also include winter-weary New Yorkers who move or retire to Florida at a rate of more than 50,000 a year, twice the number of  Floridians who head to New York. 

The shift also highlights the struggles in upstate New York, which has lost large-scale manufacturing jobs and large chunks of population, offsetting consistent gains in New York City.  But the city's growth has seemingly not been robust enough to stave off hubs in Florida like Jacksonville, Miami-Dade County, the Tampa Bay area and Southwest Florida.   

"It's going to happen," said Andrew A. Beveridge, a professor of sociology at Queens College and an expert on the census, on New York falling into fourth place.  "If Florida accidentally grew faster and New York slowed down, it could have happened already."

Florida has long built its economy on in migration, with tourism serving as the introduction that ultimately leads to a retirement home purchase and year-round consumer spending.  But this recent resurgence comes after years during the GReat Recession when the Sunshine State's population was stuck in neutral as some residents fled to areas where there were more job opportunities.  

Now that the Florida economy has rebounded, so has population.  Because New York is one of Florida's top transplant markets, those Sunshine STate gains often directly translate to losses in the Empire State.

"As the economy is improving, we're experiencing a population rebound - but still not like it was during the boom," said GAry Jackson, an economist with Florida Gulf Coast University. 

The recent growth has been attributed to what Florida economists dub the "wealth effect."  Baby boomers who had put their retirement on pause to wait out the financial crisis are again heading south to Florida.  Stock market gains also have restored wealth for many retirement hopefuls. 

Federal Reserve data on household wealth suggests the recovery has restored balance to every measurable category - including home equity - to where it started before the crash began in 2007.  

That has helped northerners whose move to Florida was contingent on finding buyers for houses in areas like New York and Michigan, where housing equity plummeted with the recession, Jackson said. 

"It was a difficult time to sell your home for people who wanted to move, so they decided to delay and work a little longer,"  Jackson said.  "The recovery has people feel more comfortable with moving forward on those plans."

Much of the recent growth has come along the Interstate 4 corridor because many areas of coastal Florida already are largely developed.  

But migration trends also bod well for Sarasota and Manatee counties, where the economy has long hinged on new retirees coming to the area.  Their arrival has helped propel sectors such as real estate, health care and retail.  The gains have been especially significant when weighted against New York state, where, outside the Big Apple, the local economy continues to sputter in many blue-collar, upstate communities, said SEan Snaith, a University of Central Florida economist. 

"The is a key driver in Florida's economy - the more people in a state means the more economic activity, which means more jobs and more wealth," Snaith said.  "We saw a bit of a lull with the financial and housing crisis, but as baby boomers continue to retire - and the weather up north continues to be cold and snow - we're gong to continue to see more people move here."

Baby boomers now snapping up Southwest Florida homes also has triggered a revival in the construction industry - one of the regions largest employers.

Besides home buyers, that phenomenon also adds to population growth as construction workers who exited Florida during the economic doldrums return to build houses, said John Tuccillo, chief economist with the trade group Florida Realtors.  

"This place was tapped out,"  Tuccillo said.  "But now we're seeing industry workers return to Florida because construction is up in the state."

Beyond a blow to New Yorkers' collective ego, the changing population pattern could have many practical and political implications, including diminished congressional delegations, a setback New York already suffered in 2010 - the year of the last decennial census county - when the state lost two districts, while Florida gained two seats.  Census data also inform how billions of dollars in federal funding and grants are divvied up among the states.

All of which has Florida feeling good. 

"Every number we see, if we don't pass them this year, we're going to pass them in the next few month," Gov. Rick Scott said.  "Florida's on a roll."

A closer look at the numbers shows that New York is not actually losing population.  It has been growing at about 1 percent annually of late, but it simply cannot keep up with Florida's rate of growth, which was about 2.7 percent from April 2010 to mid-2012.  

But New York's population is declining in upstate cities like Buffalo, which has lost more than 10 percent of its population since 2000, as well as Syracuse and Rochester, where population is stagnant.  

Turning around update has been a major focus of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has tried to revive its fortunes through a variety of economic development programs, including the legalization of more casinos and a program that allows businesses to start or relocated on or near college campuses and pay no state taxes for 10 years.  

Florida has actually been creeping up on the Empire state for decades.  The last census estimate for July 2012, put the states nearly tied:  New York with 19.6 million and Floirda with 19.3 million.  But that margin was getting narrower by the day, according to Jan K. Vink, a specialist with the Program on Applied Demographics at Cornell University.  

Scott Cody, a demographer at the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and BUsiness Research in Gainesville, said the trends showed Florida passing New York "in the near future."

That is barring what he called "the unusual events that can occur:  tsunamis, or asteroids, and total economic breakdown."  Florida had such a meltdown - a bursting housing bubble - but is on the rebound and continues to be a magnet for new arrivals.  

While demographers tend to stay neutral on the issue of population growth, they say bigger is generally better because it tends to reflect an attractive economic climate.  

"Once you have a growing economy, you tend to attract a lot of young people," said Mark Mather, a demographer with the Population REference Bureau, a nonprofit research group in Washington. 

That, in turn, he said, means "a lot of babies."

New York City still attracts young people, Mather said, "but the city is different from the state".

But bigger also has its own complications.  While politicians might welcome the larger tax bases, demographers ay a need for more services increases.  More populous places also have more congestion and more wear-and-tear on public spaces.

"Just because one state is passing another, it's not a good or a bad thing," Cody said.  "It doesn't mean one state is better than another.   Scott said he believes that a large part of Florida's appeal hast to do with pro-business, low tax approach.  Florida also has no personal income tax.

Then there is Florida's climatological edge, which attracts both retirees and those still in the workforce.

"When I call on companies around the county, I clearly talk to them about what the weather's like," Scott said.  "I say, 'Oh it's 40-what?," and I joke, "I've got to turn down the air conditioning so you can hear me."

Cuomo pointed to his tax-free campus plan, known as Start-up NY,, as an example of how "it's less expensive for business to locate in New York State."

As for the weather, Cuomo said he was happy with New York's.

Florida and the South have a warmer climate if that's what you prefer," he said.  "I prefer to have seasons."  

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