Lee, Collier population growth in top 10 nationally

Southwest Florida is one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent population estimates.

Lee and Collier counties ranked in the top 10 of the nation’s fastest-growing metro areas based on population increases from July 2013 to July 2014.

Census figures released today show Lee County added 18,177 people during that span, an increase of 2.7 percent, the sixth-largest increase in the country. Collier ranked No. 10 with an increase of 2.5 percent, adding an estimated 8,671 residents.

The Census Bureau estimated Lee’s population at 679,513 as of last July and 348,777 for Collier. If both counties grow at their same rates through July 2015 that would put Lee’s population at an estimated 697,860 and Collier’s at 357,496.

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“I think it shows that the economy here has been continuing to rebound, compared to a few years ago when things were a little bit less sure,” said Chris Westley, associate director of FGCU’s Regional Economic Research Institute. “People feel more secure relocating or just moving to retire in this area.

“In a sense there’s nothing all that new here. But we might be reverting to the normal, positive trend we’ve had in the past.”

In much of the 1990s and early 2000s, Lee and Collier counties occupied regular positions on lists of the fastest-growing areas in the United States before the Great Recession sent foreclosure and unemployment rates soaring. The nationwide collapse of the housing market also slowed the traditional migration of retirees to Southwest Florida.

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“Now that we’ve got more of a normal economic environment, they’re executing what they’ve put off for a while,” said Mike Bosi, Collier County’s director of planning and zoning. “We had a tremendous amount of pent-up demand during that recessionary period and we’re seeing the results of that pressure being relieved.

“(The population increase) really puts a renewed focus back on how do we expand our infrastructure to make sure that the levels of service we have are maintained as we add people.”

Indeed, the Census Bureau attributed an overwhelming percentage of last year’s population increases in both counties to people relocating to Southwest Florida. These newcomers accounted for 90.4 percent of the population rise in Lee County and 88.8 percent in Collier.

Improved Southwest Florida employment outlooks are also likely influencing the population gains. In January, a 2015 metro jobs forecast released by the United States Conference of Mayors ranked Naples as No. 1 out of 363 markets with a projected 4 percent increase in employment growth, which represents 5,290 additional jobs. The Cape Coral-Fort Myers area ranked third with an expected 3.8 percent increase, an addition of 8,345 jobs.

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“People are coming here for a lot of different reasons but these days, their economic opportunities are greater than ever,” said John Cox, the president and CEO of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce.

Since 2010, Lee County’s population has grown 9.8 percent, adding 60,759 people. Collier has added 27,257 residents during that same period, an 8.5 percent rise. The rates of growth have also been on an annual upswing, increasing from 2011’s percentage gains of 1.7 percent in Lee and 1.5 percent in Collier.

Don Scott, the executive director of the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization, said Lee County’s population increase aligns with the long-range projections of the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. To reach 2040’s forecast population of 1.04 million residents, Lee would have to average an annual population gain of 2.5 percent.

“People can’t imagine that kind of growth but (today’s census report) just reinforces that we need to plan for it and have discussions about our future population,” he said.