Migration from Other States, Countries Fuel Polk County’s Growth
Residents continue moving to Polk County from across the country and around the world, pushing our population to about three-quarters of a million people. But just where are they coming from?
The New York Times reports that people are leaving the largest urban areas like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and heading to counties like Polk. Polk County ranks No. 3 on the Times’s list of fastest-growing metro areas, behind Austin, Texas, and Boise City, Idaho.
There are a number of reasons why Polk County is attractive, the two most notable: lower cost of living and location.
COVID-19 also plays a part. Since the pandemic started, companies are allowing more employees to work remotely; some aren’t even requiring any trips into the office. That’s prompting some to find new homes in areas more to their liking, like Central Florida.
Higher-income ZIP codes saw a dramatic change in movement at the height of the pandemic, said Dr. Lyle Bowlin, dean of the Jannetides College of Business and Entrepreneurial Leadership at Southeastern University.
“One of the pre-pandemic drivers was the higher state and local taxes in these locations. Florida does not have a state income tax, and the tax burden for higher-income individuals is much lower,” Bowlin said. “The pandemic caused a shift from having to ‘go to work’ to being able to ‘Zoom in to work.’ As the pandemic continued, more and more people discovered they could work from home, and home could be anywhere. This made lower-tax states like Florida much more attractive. The weather also is a big plus during the winter months.”
Drawing From Other States
Bowlin said the biggest metro areas to move to Lakeland/Winter Haven, based on U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and U.S. Census data, were:
- Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit and Grand Rapids, Mich.
- Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Boston, New York and Portland, Maine.
“Detroit had the largest number of moves, which may well be related to their familiarity with Lakeland as the longtime spring training home of the Detroit Tigers,” Bowlin said.
The big question for many is whether the exodus from big cities — with their high costs of living, traffic, overpopulation and more — that started before the pandemic and hastened during it, is temporary or permanent.
USPS and U.S. Census Bureau show a 4.4% gain in population compared to the year prior to the pandemic. Cape Coral saw a 6% increase from the previous year, Bowlin said.
Although Cape Coral, benefits from being on the beach, Polk County has its own draw. “Being located between Tampa and Orlando, Polk County gives easy access to ‘city’ amenities with a lower cost of living,” Bowlin said.
Gary Ralston, managing director of SVN Saunders Ralston Dantzler Real Estate, said: “There has been a big move across the nation to rural areas, driven very much by the pandemic. We’ve been the beneficiary of that. Polk County is growing three times faster than the country.”
According to the U.S. Census, Polk grew 20% percent from 2010-2019, Florida grew 14.2% and the United States grew 6.3%.
Large increases in population can overtax infrastructure if not handled well. “If good development planning is in place, infrastructure can be built up at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable amount of time,” he said. “The growth in the employment base and higher-income individuals adds to the tax base and helps recruit additional industries to our area, adding significant revenue to our tax base.”
Between July 1, 2019, and July 1, 2020, Business Insider reports a net international migration in Polk County of 1.66 per 1,000 residents, or about 1,200 people, Bowlin said.
According to the American Immigration Council, more than 20% of Florida residents are immigrants and 12.5% are native-born U.S. citizens with at least one immigrant parent, Bowlin said. “There is a diverse population here, and this is a desirable location with less of a culture shock than many other parts of the country.”
People are immigrating to Florida from the following countries, he said:
- Cuba (23%)
- Haiti (8%)
- Colombia (6%)
- Mexico (6%)
- Jamaica (5%)
There’s a good reason why: employment. The American Immigration Council shows the largest number of immigrants work in five fields — all found in Polk County, Bowlin said. “One in four workers in Florida is an immigrant. Together, they make up a vital part of the state’s labor force in a range of industries.”
In 2018, 2.7 million immigrant workers comprised 26 percent of the labor force. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, they represented the highest percentage of workers in the following industries:
- Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting.
- Transportation and warehousing.
- Administrative and support, and waste management.
Polk County has ranked in the top few spots in citrus production for decades, it has witnessed an explosion of new home construction, and transportation and warehousing continue to create jobs with each new warehouse and distribution center that opens. So it’s no surprise that foreigners are moving to Polk County to find work and take advantage of a family-friendly county.
Although high-skill, high-wage jobs are great for the economy, other jobs contribute a lot, Ralston said. “Legoland does a great job here, but it doesn’t get enough credit because it does not have high-paying jobs. But it brings people here, they stay here, they spend their money here.”
In Florida in 2018, according to the Census, immigrants were most numerous in:
- Office and administrative support.
- Building and grounds cleaning & maintenance.
- Construction and extraction.
The same Census reports said households led by immigrants in Florida contributed $23.2 billion in federal taxes and $8.5 billion in state and local taxes in 2018, Bowlin said. As consumers, they added $98.5 billion to Florida’s economy.