Robust census places local cities in top 10

The Village of Pine Hills and the Village of Pine Ridge are part of Fruitland Park, the fastest-growing city in Florida with 5,000 or more residents, with 10,730 in 2019 compared with 4,129 in 2010.

Fruitland Park continues to reign atop the list of Florida’s fastest-growing cities in the decade, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, while another locale, also in The Villages, is on the rise. Wildwood also ranks among the top 10 in the state’s fastest boomers in the 2010s among cities with populations of 5,000 and above, as homes continue to rise in The Villages’ southern expansion beyond State Road 44. If anything, Wildwood officials wonder if they shouldn’t rank higher on the bureau’s list. “It’s (building) as wide open as we can go,” Mayor Ed Wolf said of a population estimate from the census that added just 222 residents to Wildwood’s tally over a 12-month span.

Fruitland Park, which includes the Villages of Pine Hills and Pine Ridge, now stands at 10,730 residents as of last July 1, according to Census Bureau numbers being made available for public consumption today.

That’s a 158% increase over Fruitland Park’s baseline of 4,129 in the 2010 census. Even with flatter growth in 2019, it far outpaces Davenport in Polk County, which was the only other Florida city to more than double its size with an increase of 106% over 2010.

“It’s incredible,” said District 2 Commissioner John Mobilian, who lives the Village of Pine Hills. “We’ve seen the growth that The Villages made happen in Fruitland Park; now we’ll see what happens in the next few years.

“I see nothing but growth potential here in Fruitland Park.”

Once No. 1 in the nation for growth, Fruitland Park now ranks ninth among U.S. cities boasting a population of at least 5,000. Among cities of 10,000 and above, Fruitland Park’s growth is No. 4 in the nation.

Wildwood was credited with 7,276 residents, a 42% increase over its 2010 baseline. That’s still good for No. 8 on Florida’s growth chart, though it seems an outlier when held against numbers from the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic Business Research — and any drive through some of The Villages’ newest neighborhoods.

BEBR estimates, which the Florida Legislature consults in crafting the state budget, credits Wildwood with 12,665 residents.

“We haven’t seen numbers like (7,200) for several years,” Wolf said. “The majority of our growth is in The Villages. They’re selling 200 homes a month.”

Rich Doty, a UF research demographer who develops the BEBR estimates, called Wildwood “the biggest discrepancy we have with the Census Bureau.”

BEBR has access to electricity data across the state, basing its numbers in part on active residential usage. Even so, Doty noted the Census numbers for Sumter County are very close to BEBR’s.

“What I think is happening is they are allocating this city growth to all jurisdictions within the county, based on historical proportions,” Doty said. “But we think they’re missing the boat.”

A U.S. Census spokesperson referred inquiries to Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity, whose spokesperson referred inquiries to the Census. If the 88% growth rate calculated by BEBR was plugged into the Census table, Wildwood would rank No. 3 in Florida, behind Davenport and just ahead of Groveland. “Places like Fruitland Park and Wildwood are a challenge because they’re growing so darn fast,” Doty said. “Neither we nor the Census are going to get it exactly right. But we think ours is much closer.”

Fruitland Park grew by 636 dwellers from 2018 to 2019, ending a three-year run in which the city added at least 1,400 residents each year. That’s in part because both Pine Hills and Pine Grove maxed out, though city manager Gary La Venia expects only a brief lull.

“Is this the end of residential development? No, it’s not,” La Venia said. “We have so much room for growth. There’s a need out there for workforce housing, and we have projects on the books right now to meet that need.”

Commercial interest also has been on the rise in Fruitland Park, though La Venia acknowledged that process has slowed amid the COVID-19 crisis. “I think the train will pick up momentum once things open up a little more,” he said.

Still on the board are First Baptist Church of Leesburg’s satellite campus, plus a 900-bed Westminster continuum of care project with plans for independent- and assisted-living spaces.

Improvements along County Road 466A, proposed but still not funded, also would help the process.

“I think 466A all the way down to 441 is going to be a business corridor for Fruitland Park,” Mobilian said. “It’s going to be very appealing when we get it done.”

Senior writer Jeff Shain can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5283, or jeff.shain@thevillagesmedia.com.