More people are expected to move to Florida in 2013 than during 2008, 2009 and 2010 combined, as a primary force behind the state's economic growth — migration from other states and countries — regains momentum after some of the worst years on record.
The increase in net migration is expected to reignite Florida's growth machine and generate more jobs, construction and business sales, helping maintain a post-Great Recession recovery.
Florida's new migration wave is the result of baby boomers and other retirees moving south again and the state attracting more working-age adults as the regional and national recoveries gain steam.
"Our best guess is that migration to Florida will accelerate from this point forward, plateauing around 2016," said Chris Lafakis, a senior economist with Moody's Analytics who tracks the state's economy.
The influx of new residents is critical because migration "historically has been the key driver for a wide variety of Florida's service industries," Lafakis said. "It's one of the most important factors for the short-term and long-term performance of the state."
Florida's net migration hit a low of 34,000 in 2008 and remained weak through 2009 and 2010.
Sarasota real estate agent Tierney Foster described the period as "dog eat dog." Many agents that she knew left the business or found second jobs.
Foster got by on referrals from past clients, which have picked up lately.
"We have to be optimistic after what we went through," Foster said. "Anything is better than where we were."
Indiana banker Keith Lindauer was referred to Foster by a friend who lives in Lakewood Ranch. Lindauer began vacationing in Manatee County two decades ago and had long considered buying property in the area, but balked at Florida's boom-time prices.
Then came the downturn and declining home values.
Lindauer decided to hold off until he was certain prices had hit bottom, his savings were secure and he had taken care of college for his two children.
By 2012, Lindauer, 50, was ready to buy. He recently closed on a two-bedroom condominium near Lakewood Ranch that sold for less than when it was built in 2001. He plans to retire there someday.
Economists say the same factors that helped entice Lindauer to invest in Southwest Florida in 2012 are expected to spark an even stronger rebound across the state this year.
More than 171,000 people are expected to move to Florida in 2013, according to the most recent forecast from the state Office of Economic and Demographic Research.
If those predictions hold true, Florida's growth will have recovered to 66 percent of historic annual net migration since 1970.
Economists and demographic experts do not expect the state's migration levels to reach the highs of recent decades, when more than 300,000 people arrived in some years.
But net migration should top 200,000 in 2014 for the first time in eight years and reach a "new normal" of about 250,000 annually after that. At that pace, Florida would add the equivalent of five cities the size of Sarasota every year.
"Just think, we'll be adding a million people every four years," said economist Jim Zingale, a private consultant who helped develop the state's official economic forecasts as the former head of the Florida Department of Revenue. "I personally think that's the most important economic indicator for Florida."
Boomers start arriving
Much of the influx is expected to come from Lindauer and other baby boomers, a generation that began reaching retirement age in 2011 and swelled the nation's 65-and-older population by about 900,000 people that year.
Starting in 2013, the 65-and-older cohort is projected to increase by 1.4 million every year, creating a steadily growing crop of potential Florida retirees.
While some experts have predicted that boomers might avoid Florida, a destination preferred by previous generations, others discount that idea.
The flow of retirees will drive further population growth as people move to Florida for jobs in service industries, said Don Langston, an economist for the Florida House of Representatives who contributes to the state's economic forecasts.
"As more people move to the state, that creates jobs because wherever there are people they demand things," Langston said. "If you think of retirees, they demand health care and just about everything you and I use on a daily basis."
Another important factor in Florida's population growth is overall job gains, which are largely dependent on national economic trends, said Lafakis, the Moody's economist.
Florida's population may not grow as expected if the national economic recovery slows in 2013, Lafakis said.
For that reason, Lafakis views the nation's overall economic trajectory as the most important factor in Florida's continued recovery.
"Florida is a place where a lot of large businesses have footholds," Lafakis said. "As the U.S. does better, those businesses will do better and they'll hire more people."
But Zingale, the private consultant, said Florida will be somewhat insulated from future economic shocks because of boomer retirees.
"Florida's net migration, because of the huge size of that next wave of seniors, is a little more recession-proof, a little more slow-down-proof," Zingale said.
"People's desire to move doesn't change. It's still cold up north, there are still beautiful beaches here and people still want to move to Florida, so even if the economy slows down, I still don't see us returning to significantly lower migration levels."
Traditional industries grow
Players such as Robert Ross are taking that view, too.
Ross and a group of Sarasota investors are planning a new 80-bed assisted living center off Proctor Road —Autumn of Sarasota — that is to break ground in early 2013.
The initial focus will be on serving residents with dementia because there is strong demand for such services among Florida's current, older generation of retirees.
As more baby boomers retire, Autumn of Sarasota will expand to include regular assisted living quarters.
"We believe there's going to be overall growth in the market and more people moving to Sarasota because it's a great place," Ross said.
Florida's traditional industries, including health care and tourism, have led the way out of the recession.
But the state's future may depend on developing a somewhat broader array of employment opportunities.
The Lindauers — who have friends who work in the Lakewood Ranch area — like the idea that the community is more than just a retirement destination.
Indeed, Keith Lindauer said he is not sure he will ever fully retire, and wanted to live in a more balanced community.
"Probably half of our trips were staying with friends and seeing Florida from the day-to-day perspective of those who live there, as opposed to those who vacationed there," Lindauer said. "It let me see a different side of Florida that I liked."
The continued diversification of Florida's economy will be important in attracting not just boomers interested in late-career opportunities but also younger workers, said Jim Tuccillo, chief economist with the Florida Realtors association.
"You live by retirees, you die by retirees, no pun intended," Tuccillo said.
"When you get down to it, you've got to look at more than that. Quite simply, it's all about jobs and creating a good, solid economy."