The Villages was America’s fastest-growing area over the past decade — and by a large margin. U.S. Census Bureau data released March 26 reveals that The Villages metropolitan statistical area, or MSA, added 39,000 people between the April 2010 census and April 2019, which translates to a growth rate of 40.5%. That outpaced the runner-up — Myrtle Beach, S.C. — by 9.2 percentage points. The bureau defines an MSA as a region anchored by a large urbanized area.
The Villages MSA encompasses all of Sumter County, which now boasts a total population of 132,420.
Eighty percent of The Villages’ residents live in Sumter County. Accordingly, largely because of The Villages’ expansion, Sumter County was the sixth-fastest-growing of America’s 3,142 counties.
The Villages of Lake, Marion and Sumter counties, recorded a combined population of 127,071 as of March 26.
Economist Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Economic Forecasting, said the growth of The Villages and its related economic expansion should not be surprising.
According to 2018 census data, the most recent available for breaking down various age groups, The Villages MSA reported 78,415 residents who could be considered Baby Boomers, meaning between the ages of 55 and 79.
“That demographic happens to be one of the largest generation groups in the nation. Target some other demographic group, and you wouldn’t see the success,” Snaith said.
“It’s pretty straightforward,” he added. “You don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to know that when you have more people in a region, you’re going to have more economic activity. Period. You can see what that’s led to. It’s a winning strategy.”
Sumter County Commission Chairman Steve Printz noted the community’s evolution from nine years ago, when he first came to The Villages and then served as supervisor for District 9.
“The biggest concern was a lot of sand blowing around. Obviously that’s no longer the challenge. Now, it looks like a place that’s been here for years and years,” Printz said.
He pointed out that the growth of The Villages has brought new opportunities for local businesses as well as services and amenities, such as the newly opened Brownwood Hotel & Spa, UF Health’s hospital acquisitions, standalone emergency rooms and various road improvements.
“The economic development, as a result of growth, is the engine that drives not just The Villages, but the county,” said Printz, a resident of the Village of Fernandina.
“Sumter County is a great place to live, grow, work or retire. The Villages is a good product, and as long as people view it as a product they want to be a part of, it will bring any number of positive outcomes. It’s an amazing place and you can’t explain to someone remotely what it’s like. They almost have to come see it in person.”
Sumter County’s Villages-driven growth is more remarkable against the backdrop of some of these latest population figures.
The Census Bureau reported Thursday that 54% of counties nationwide lost population since 2010. Federal demographers advised, however, that was applicable to mostly smaller counties.
According to Stefan Rayer, population program director for the University of Florida’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, Sumter County is one of several aging Florida counties — including Charlotte, Hernando, Sarasota and Volusia.
“Domestic migration — in-growth from other states — that’s what’s going to drive growth,” Rayer said of Sumter County. “It’s the aging of the population. The growth of Florida is becoming more and more dependent on migration.”
Baby Boomers may still be key to that.
The Pew Research Center once estimated there were 79 million Baby Boomers. The earliest of them became eligible for retirement in 2011, while those on the caboose of that group are now 55 or slightly older.
A year ago a market research firm, Packaged Facts, released a report that found Baby Boomer households held 54% of the nation’s total net worth. In comparison, the generation preceding Boomers, the Silent Generation, and the Boomers’ immediate successors, Generation X, held 21% and 22%, respectively. But, the firm noted, the Boomers were benefitting from the contraction of the Silent Generation’s wealth, occurring as they passed away and passed down their assets.
“Prior to the pandemic and the stock market collapse,” Snaith, the UCF economist noted, “you had a tremendous amount of wealth created by the stock market, and so couple that with home prices’ appreciation, there’s a significant amount of wealth that helps fuel the ability to retire somewhere like Florida.”
“Generationally, Baby Boomers are different from their parents,” he added. “They’re more physically active, have better health status and longer life spans, and that’s changed the nature of retirement.”
Which also describes what The Villages promotes.
John Rohan, recreation director for The Villages, said he wasn’t surprised that the community has grown so rapidly. That’s because in addition to the aesthetics of the community’s physical appearance, the quality of life in The Villages appeals to people who want to be active later in life.
“Everybody wants to be part of something that is unique and sustainable and promotes their personal health and well-being,” Rohan said.
“Residents want to participate and be active in the social community, and do something they’ve never done, or do something they’ve done in the past. The benefits are endless.”
Overall, the Census Bureau data show Florida added nearly 2.7 million people between 2010 and 2019, second only to Texas. That represented a 14.2% rate of growth, surpassed only by Colorado, Texas, Utah and Washington, D.C.