Population forecast ranks Sumter as No. 1

Lifestyle opportunities like the annual Mardi Gras make The Villages a desirable retirement destination and a growing population center, as apparent from the smiles on the faces of residents as they enjoy the celebration at Lake Sumter Landing Market Square.

The horizon shines brightly for The Villages and Sumter County, judging from a new population forecast. Sumter’s population will grow nearly twofold by 2045 from 2020 estimates, according to demographers at the Bureau of Economic & Business Research at the University of Florida. That means new lifestyle opportunities and friendships, in the eyes of Christine Hurd, of the Village of Chitty Chatty. It means new retail, restaurant and health care options for residents, from the perspective of Scott Renick, The Villages director of commercial development. The forecast also translates into economic opportunities to diversify the county’s tax base through commercial-industrial expansion, in the mind of Frank Calascione, the county’s economic development director.

“Population growth simply opens the door for more opportunity for different commercial businesses to come and serve the market,” Renick said. “There are a number of large retailers that have minimum population thresholds before they even consider a market. Many of them might not have looked at The Villages over the past five or 10 years. So this forecast definitely is going to qualify for them as we grow into the future. And, yes, these businesses are waking up to growth opportunities in our community.”

Tailor Made

If not for their New York neighbors, Mike and Mary Weisz, of the Village of Pennecamp, Hurd and her husband, Thomas, might not have discovered The Villages. They were sold on their first visit.

“We were shocked on that first visit; it was a world of cleanliness,” said Hurd, who coordinates the Chitty Chatty Friends pickleball lifestyle club. “We loved it. I love it because there is so much to do when you choose what to do. There are so many people who like to do things together, ladies groups, friend groups, sports groups. There is something to do every day.”

It’s not just pickleball for Hurd, either.

“There are the pool parties starting up again, going to people’s houses to hang out at their pools,” she said. “We just had a luau; Friday was a driveway party. I didn’t even talk about golf, and I got hole-in-one in March at Saddlebrook.”

The Villages is such a well-planned community that it makes sense that other retirees will continue to relocate here, Hurd said.

“I feel like The Villages was made for me,” she said. “They made this place for me.”

Predictable Trend

Because of The Villages, the BEBR demographers forecast Sumter as the state’s fastest-growing county in percentage increase during each of the five-year increments through 2045.

Using 2020 as the baseline, the demographers expect the county to grow by 72% to a low, medium and high average of 243,533 residents by 2045.

Migration from other states and other counties in Florida accounts for almost all of that growth, too, said Stefan Rayer, Ph.D., BEBR’s population program director.

“The migration estimates for Sumter County have been quite consistent over the past decade,” he said. “According to the Vintage 2019 population estimates from the Census Bureau, all of Sumter’s growth since 2010 has come from migration, and virtually all of that migration is domestic.”

That trend should continue through the 2045 forecast, Rayer said.

“We expect those trends to continue going forward, with Sumter County’s population growing rapidly due to net gains in migration from other states,” he said. “Most of those migrants are expected to be of retirement age.”

Census Differences

While the growth is predictable, one occurrence surprised the demographers and reshaped their outlook on Sumter, said Rich Doty, BEBR’s GIS coordinator and research demographer.

The county grew far faster than most other Florida counties in the wake of the Great Recession, he said. The trough of the Great Recession occurred in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“Years ago, we would not have predicted the amount of growth or the sustained growth during the Great Recession,” Doty said.

That growth explains why BEBR’s population exceeds the latest Census Bureau estimates, through the federal agency that will be releasing the decennial estimates later this year. BEBR’s population estimates are used by the state Legislature for revenue-sharing purposes.

In this year’s legislative report, BEBR demographers set Sumter’s population estimate at 141,422 residents in 2020, compared with the newly released Census 2020 estimate of 139,018.

“The big differences we have with (Census) and Sumter is at the city level, where we are much higher for Wildwood, and they are higher for Bushnell, Center Hill, Coleman and Webster,” Doty said. “The Census Bureau typically uses building permit data to distribute population to sub-county areas. When that data appears to be incomplete and/or inaccurate, they use historic population proportions to allocate county growth, instead. This may be what is happening in Sumter.”

Wildwood’s Impact

The big thing on the BEBR radar screen right now is The Villages of Wildwood.

“We saw the same thing a few years ago with (The Village of ) Fruitland Park in Lake County, which, like Wildwood, increased by over 150% since 2010 due to expansion of The Villages,” Doty said.

The growth in The Villages of Wildwood is significant, according to the BEBR estimates. Demographers put Wildwood’s population estimate at 17,354 in 2020.

“Wildwood represented 22% of the total population increase for Sumter County,” Doty said. “I would expect Wildwood’s growth to continue to represent a significant portion of the county’s growth for at least a few more years, outpacing the growth rate of Sumter County, as Wildwood’s base population is so much lower. Proximity to The Villages and highway access are likely the primary reasons for continued growth.”

One other demographic component remains constant for The Villages, Sumter and Wildwood, Doty added.

“The county has aged considerably as The Villages has become a higher and higher proportion of the county’s population,” he said. “The county’s median age in 1970 was 30, and our 2019 estimate was 66.”

Economic Opportunities

The gain in population creates tremendous opportunities not just for new residents but existing residents, too, said Frank Calascione, Sumter director of economic development.

“We have been on a rapid growth footing for many years now,” he said. “Continuing to stay ahead of it with infrastructure and well-thought-out planning will allow us to reap the benefits of growth, but also maintain the high quality of life we enjoy.”

The numbers mean a lot to those businesses looking at Sumter for a possible relocation or expansion, Calascione said. BJ’s Wholesale Club is a perfect example of that, with its decision to build a new store in northeast Sumter.

“More of the big box names that folks like will continue to enter our market, and entrepreneurs will continue to create small businesses that offer unique products and experiences that are tailored to our residents’ interests,” he said. “I believe that we will see more distribution businesses locate here as they seek to have fulfillment centers nearer to the state’s population centers.”

The forecast also creates opportunities for workforce development, especially in the south Sumter communities, as well as The Villages planned community support districts, areas designed for multigenerational housing, Calascione said.

“We know that workforce is one of the top considerations for businesses today,” he said. “Some of Sumter’s population growth will be working-age adults. These folks help meet the demand for skilled workers as they move to the area with skills and education.”

Specialty Editor David R. Corder can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or david.corder@thevillagesmedia.com.