Many Who Flocked to Florida Now Seek Paradise Elsewhere

GOODBYE, PALMS

Paradise is not lost, but it's looking a little tainted.

For years, millions of migrants to Florida have found bliss among the arching palms of this sun-dappled state. But growing crime, congestion, and pollution - with the occasional hurricane thrown in - have contributed to a decline of people moving in and a rise in the number of emigrants.

Cynthia Thornton is one of those heading out. She'll soon be known as a Florida "halfback" - someone who moved here years ago from the North and is now moving halfway back. Many like her are choosing the greener pastures of northern Georgia or urban North Carolina; she chose the quiet town of Asheville, N.C., nestled in the idyllic Blue Ridge Mountains.

"We want to go where it's wholesome, where the children can ride their bikes to the penny-candy store," says Mrs. Thornton, who lived in Rochester, N.Y., and Milan, Italy, before settling in Florida 18 years ago. "Why should I have to hear about kids taking guns to school and shooting each other?"

While more people still come to Florida than leave it, the gap between the two has narrowed recently. Figures provided by the Internal Revenue Service show that on 1994 returns, almost 5,000 families reported having moved from just three south Florida counties - Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach - to Georgia and North Carolina. And an estimated 600 people a day make Florida their home, down from as many as 1,000 a day just a decade ago, according to the US Census.

Not a stampede

Many experts hesitate to call the trend a panicked exodus, despite the fact that Florida's net migration has fallen by an average of 80,000 people a year in the last decade.

"There is clearly a slowdown in the '90s, but it's still a very substantial amount of migration," says Stan Smith, a professor of economics at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

The state's population, 14.4 million, is up from a mere 3 million less than 40 years ago.

"Since Florida has been growing so much more rapidly than other states in recent years, you have so much more of a population that might move," Mr. Smith says. "Even during the boom years, you still had a lot of people moving out."

Several factors have contributed to the downturn.

With jobs more scarce during a recession in 1991 and 1992, migration in search of work was inhibited. In addition, while Florida's traditional appeal to retirees may be largely undiminished, fewer people are reaching retirement age now, Smith says, because the birth-rate dropped dramatically around the time of the Depression in the '30s.

Luring away retirees

Senior citizens looking for a place to retire are also being assiduously courted by other states, such as Arizona and the Carolinas. The seniors' pensions and Social Security benefits are seen as a source of steady income in retirement communities, which advertise their charms in The Wall Street Journal and other publications aimed at the affluent.

The offspring of many of Florida's elderly are taking them home, says Katherine Condon, a demographer with the Center on Aging at Florida International University in Miami.

In Dade County, where Miami lies, "it's getting a little more intense to live, and seniors may not feel safe, they may not be able to get the services they need, or they may not have a family network around them," Ms. Condon says. "At a certain point, you start saying, 'I need more help to be able to function.' "

Stormy skies

Natural disasters, too, have taken a toll. "In terms of families, a lot of people who left after the hurricane didn't come back," says Judith Wibe, a realtor in Coconut Grove, referring to Andrew, the 1992 storm that devastated a wide swath of south Florida.

Tourism is still booming, but for Mahli Lee, A Brooklyn, N.Y., native who moved to Miami 12 years ago, the dream is clearly over. She is selling her $400,000 home and moving out of state.

"I don't know where I'm going yet, but it's time to move on," says Ms. Lee, a businesswoman who nervously asked a visitor to slide a business card under her front door before she opened it. "I have a whole country to go to."

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