Florida seeks diversity in rising economy

Florida's economy has been booming during the past year, and the state survived the 1982 recession in better shape than much of the rest of the nation. But also like the rest of the nation, Florida's economy is evolving, and workers in at least two of the state's four traditional mainstay industries - citrus fruit growing and phosphate mining - may be wondering where the good times are.

Florida is looking to diversify its economy to keep it strong, and it has been successful in attracting high-tech and defense industries.

The state's economy is performing even better this year than was forecast, according to an economic analysis by M. G. Lewis & Co. Rapid population growth is continuing, the number of nonagricultural jobs is expanding, and unemployment is falling.

During the 12 months ending in April 1984, Florida's employment increased more rapidly than that of nearly any other state in the nation, the analysis said, trailing only California and Texas.

Tourist arrivals were up, reaching 41 million annually, and housing starts continued to increase, even though interest rates were rising. First-quarter projections pointed to 185,000 new homes being built in the state during the year.

Even in the Miami and Fort Lauderdale areas, heavily affected by the influx of Cuban and Haitian refugees and by the 1982 recession, ''job creation has accelerated sharply, population growth is soaring, and housing starts are buoyant,'' the analysts reported.

Along with citrus and phosphate, Florida has depended over the years on tourism and construction to maintain its economy. Tourism began to drop off a little during the summer, but it is still strong.

''The construction industry may be doing a little too well,'' said eocnomist Henry Fishkind. ''It's getting ahead of population growth, and unless interest rates drop, there could be a slowdown.''

The weak places in Florida's economy have been the citrus and phosphate industries.

Citrus fruit production is Florida's most visible industry, with millions of orange and grapefruit trees covering hundreds of thousands of acres. But with three freezes in the past three years, and now with the discovery last week of citrus canker in the state, grove owners are taking a beating.

The freeze last Christmas, which sent the mercury in central Florida into the teens, was one of the most devastating for citrus growers in this century.

''We had an immediate loss of a little more than $1 billion in 11 counties,'' said Ernie Neff, a spokesman for the Florida Citrus Mutual, an association of grove owners. ''And the loss will grow by billions more dollars because of the continued loss of fruit from trees that were killed in the freeze.''

In 1982 there were 847,000 acres in citrus trees. Now only 761,000 acres are left, Mr. Neff notes, and many citrus farmers are moving out of the northern end of the citrus belt.

The number of acres planted in citrus north of Polk County has dropped by more than 34 percent since the 1983 freeze, he said, and groves are being moved south into south central Florida.

Grove owners in the northern areas are looking to sell their acreage to developers, which could speed the loss of farmland in Florida.

The canker virus is further damaging the business because more than a million young trees in nurseries, which would have been used to replace freeze-killed trees, have had to be destroyed after the disease was discovered among them. A spread of the disease beyond the nurseries could be devastating for the industry.

''We were anticipating it could be six or seven years before Florida's citrus production would reach 1979-80 levels,'' Neff said, ''but the canker virus could set us much further back. It's still a question mark.''

Florida's phosphate-mining industry was badly hurt by the severe recession among the nation's farmers. Mining and fertilizer production was cut sharply, and unemployment in Polk County, the center of the phosphate business, reached as high as 18 percent.

Now forecasters in the business are cautiously saying production is again on the upswing, but a spokesman for the Florida Phosphate Council said she doubted if production would again reach 1980 levels.

''As the mines in Polk County are being depleted, the industry is having trouble opening new mines in counties farther south because of government and environmental restrictions,'' she said.

But these setbacks seem to be having little impact on the nearby cities of Tampa and Orlando, where new glass office buildings continue to be built and housing developments spread farther from the central business districts.

''There is a diversification of Florida's economy,'' Dr. Fishkind said. ''In proportional terms, manufacturing has not increased in relation to the other industries, but those figures hide what is really happening.

''There are many new industries moving to the state,'' he said. ''Defense and high-tech companies are becoming important.

''Florida is still a service-oriented economy, but all the chamber of commerce talk about the advent of high-tech is not baloney.''

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