Southwest Florida is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, with Lee and Charlotte counties ranking in the top 10 of the fastest-growing metro areas, according to the latest population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Lee County grew from 679,233 in July 1, 2014 to 701,982 in July 1, 2015. The 22,749 new residents translated into a 3.3 percent increase. That ties Lee for the third-largest increase in the nation, along with Midland and Odessa, Texas, and is almost double Florida's 1.8 percent growth rate over that same time span. In 2013-14, Lee was ranked sixth, adding 18,177 people for a 2.7 percent population increase.
"This growth has been in the works for a long time," said Chris Westley, associate director of FGCU's Regional Economic Research Institute. "We are seeing a significant number of Midwestern baby boomers who had been planning to retire here for 30 or 40 years who are now finally doing it. They were delayed by the recession for a while, but that seems to be in the past. Now they are making the move." Westley said he believed much of that growth occurred in Cape Coral, which still has a lot of land left to develop, as well as continued growth in the South County region. And FGCU, Westley's employer, is giving the area's young people a reason to stay, he said. County officials say they see growth coming up the I-75 corridor, which still has a lot of undeveloped land along its inland side, as well as the coast.
Charlotte County grew by 2.8 percent in that same span, adding an estimated 4,678 people to grow from 168,437 to 173,115. That makes Punta Gorda, the county's only incorporated town and its seat of government, the ninth-fastest growing metro area in the country. That is a big increase from 2013-14, when Charlotte experienced a 2.1 percent population increase.
Florida was home to three of the fastest growing metro areas in the country from 2014 to 2015, with The Villages, a large retirement community located north of Orlando in the center of the state, leading the nation. Three other Florida metro regions — Sarasota-Bradenton, Orlando and Collier County — ranked in the top 20, data shows. The Naples-Marco Island region fell out of the top 10, even though its population growth rate ticked up from 2.5 to 2.6 percent.
"Naples is running into space and financial limitations to its growth," Westley said. "It is largely built out, and it's expensive. There are other areas of the state, and even in the region, that have a more vibrant housing market, offering newcomers the same friendly tax environment but a much wider choice of housing options. Naples has jobs, but not necessarily the housing for the people who work those jobs."
In 2013-14, Florida put six counties in the top 20, but Charlotte County wasn't one of them. This year, the Panama City metro area fell off the list.
Census analysis of birth, death and survey data suggests that almost all of Florida's growth was driven largely by migration, not a rising birth rate. Some metro areas, like Miami-Dade, saw big increases in international migrants, census data shows, but Southwest Florida's migration was largely domestic, which lends credence to Westley's depiction of the growth as a new retirement wave.
The influx of new residents is putting a demand on the regional infrastructure, such as roads and schools, forcing counties and municipalities to scramble to not just keep up with the growth that took the region by storm from 2000 to 2006, but to prepare for the growth that is happening right now, said Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker. Lee has invested about $150 million in its infrastructure over the last few years, Kiker said, and it has plans for more. In the next three years, for example, Lee will spent almost $14 million on water quality projects alone, he said.
The new growth has prompted county officials to change their development philosophy, too, he said. In years past, the county assessed development projects one by one, deciding if each one met local regulations, but now Kiker wants to consider the cumulative impact of multiple projects in one region. He thinks the creation of development zones is the answer, allowing the county to steer developers toward areas with infrastructure and away from environmentally sensitive areas.
Like many other counties in Florida, Lee has to prepare for this new wave of growth better than it did the last one, which left the county with big budget deficits and huge unmet infrastructure needs not so long ago. "We've still got a lot of catching up to do," Kiker said. "But we can't ignore the fact that if we don't get ahead of this right now, we could fail."