Some towns are stagnant or even shrinking in Fla.
In inland Florida, some towns are stagnant or even shrinking
Jim Melfi steered his SUV through the narrow streets of this city that he loves, raising a hand from the wheel to point toward one pretty old wood-framed house after the other.
"This house has been in foreclosure for a couple of years," he said. "This house has been for sale forever."
Melfi drove farther down River Street. On the right, docks poked into the St. Johns River. On the left, signs rose from the sloping lawns of more vintage houses facing the water.
"For sale! For sale! For sale!" He sighed. "These should be getting scarfed up."
But they're not. A University of Florida research group estimates that Palatka lost 355 residents in the two years after the 2010 census, down to 10,203 people. The city's smaller, even, than it was more than 50 years ago: The 1960 census found 11,028 people there.
Palatka is hardly alone in that dilemma. As cities continue to grow, as suburbs and far-flung exurbs grow, the population of many small cities and towns across Florida remains stagnant.
Some are even slipping slightly. Hilliard, Macclenny, Keystone Heights, Waldo, Glen St. Mary — think of them as standing still, says UF economist David Denslow, who's studied those figures.
He sketched out a profile of such places: They're typically inland and rural, without many big draws for tourists or retirees. They're often just far enough from cities with more jobs, making the commute impractical.
They probably didn't boom during the mid-2000s, so there wasn't a huge crash. But they've perhaps lost a big employer or lost mid-level jobs in offices that have been replaced by computer programs. And without new people coming in, the building trades and service industries suffer.
It all ripples down, Denslow said, and young people in particular, more mobile than their settled elders, often look elsewhere.
Bradford County lost one in 20 of its residents from 2010 to 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates. At 5 percent, that was by far the biggest percentage drop in the country.
That's a bit deceiving, said Scott Cody, a UF demographer; most of that is due to a drop in the number of prisoners at the county's two jails. Inmates are counted in census figures.
Even so, growth is slow. In Starke, Bradford's biggest city, Pam Whittle says she sees lots of the traffic on the streets, and there are places hiring: A new clothing store opened, another expanded. A barbecue restaurant just opened, and the China Buffet reopened under new management.
The city needs more jobs, though, something she's working on as head of the North Florida Regional Chamber of Commerce. Whittle grew up in the area, and it's personal. "Neither of my children live here," she said. "They're both in their 20s, and neither one of them can live here. Not that I'm not trying to get them back."
It's also professional. "That's one of the goals, to find business in town, something for people to do, a reason to raise their families here," she said. "We have a population that is traveling to Duval or Alachua County to work, so therefore their leisure time with their kids, at the ball field, at FFA or 4H, is cut down."
In Baker County, which lost 177 people in the two years covered by the UF study, half the workforce travels to Jacksonville, said Jim McGauley, editor and publisher of the Baker County Press. There have been cutbacks at Northeast Florida Hospital, a big employer, he noted, and when the recession hit, growth came to a virtual halt.
The housing collapse also meant that developers dropped plans to build a 55-plus development that was expected to bring in 1,300 homes, as well as businesses to go along with them. McGauley thinks some people were happy to see that happen, since it would have changed the rural character of the area.
Others felt deflated. "Everybody on the street was thinking 'Oh, we're going to get a Publix now,' " he said.
Palatka isn't immune to those economic realities, said Denslow, the UF economist, even with its waterfront setting and historic neighborhoods.
"That's a tough case because it's so beautiful," he said. "What a gorgeous place — I almost want to build a place there myself. Especially with that waterfront. Wow."
It is a pretty little town, Melfi acknowledges.
"I just wish it was a pretty little town with more jobs," he said. Melfi, who moved from St. Augustine for a less crowded and small-town life, is head of Putnam County's Habitat for Humanity office, and was once head of the United Way there.
Palatka has an unemployment rate of 10.3 percent, according to the state, higher than the statewide 7.5 percent rate.
A Georgia-Pacific plant is the city's largest employer, but Melfi points out a furniture plant that once employed hundreds, now shuttered and empty. People will readily drive elsewhere to shopping, he said, leaving the city's old-fashioned downtown hurting.
Vernon Myers, Palatka's mayor, said the city's trying to rejuvenate downtown and attract eco-tourists. It's tough, though. "Those with money take a left and go to the beach," he said. "Those with limited money take a right and head to inland Florida."
Still, ESPN trucks have come twice for a big bass-fishing championship, and on a recent sunny day here was a medium-sized cruise ship stopped at a dock just off the south historic district. Myers envisions more of that for his city, especially as it continues to spruce up its prized riverfront land.
That couldn't happen soon enough for some.
J.r. Nowhere came to Palatka in high school, when his family moved from Orlando. It was, he says, instant and lasting culture shock. His real name is Clarence Lester, though he becomes J.r. Nowhere when he plays in his band, FFN. Made up of "punks who play rock and roll," the "N'' in its name stands for "nowhere."
That would be Palatka.
"Sadly, this place is a trap," he said. "If it's not drugs that screw up someone's life, it's the old 'My husband got a job at Georgia-Pacific and I have 11 kids.' But some get out, go to college, progress on with their lives."
He's 30 now and still in Palatka. Why stay? Well, he met his wife, Stephanie Miller, there. As Stephanie Nowhere, she plays bass in the band. They have family there who can take care of their 9-year-old son. Then there's the band, based in Palatka as it travels to gigs in Florida and beyond.
"FFN being in existence keeps up here. I honestly don't have too many ties to my city. I just try to be faithful to my band," he said.
It's all not all bad, he says: The riverfront's pretty, the festivals are nice, and it's within reasonable distance of a lot of other places. That only goes so far, though.
"It's the same thing over and over," Lester said. "It never changes. If anybody tries anything new it usually fails."
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