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FL ‘Gray Belt’ a Glimpse at Nation’s Future

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Citrus County, Florida
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A billboard at the county line advertises home health care services. Local churches try to create a feeling of belonging for elderly members who may be disconnected from family up north. Lawyers and accountants make house calls like doctors. Elderly residents get ferried to stores by a fleet of county minivans.

Welcome to Citrus County, Florida, where more than a third of residents are senior citizens, one of the highest rates in the nation.

The county isn’t simply a stereotype of Florida, where in just 15 years, one in four residents will be 65 or older. It’s a peek into the not-too-distant future of the nation, where the number will be one in five.

In Citrus County, about 70 miles north of Tampa, health care dominates the labor force. Residents prefer to get their news from a newspaper. Strip malls have an unusually high number of hearing aid businesses. The library offers Medicaid planning seminars. Voters turn out in large numbers, albeit often by absentee ballot.

Having such a high concentration of elderly citizens has its trade-offs. You get an engaged citizenry with high voter turnout and volunteerism, but also an economy based on low-skill jobs such as health-care aides, retail clerks and food service workers.

Senior citizens who move into an area generally aren’t eager to fund schools, research shows, whereas those who remain in the communities where they worked and raised their families tend to support education and other public spending that doesn’t benefit them directly. Citrus County voters lived up to that thesis as recently as two years ago when they decisively rejected a referendum to raise property taxes to fund schools.

The county’s elderly makeup sometimes has made it difficult to attract workers with young families to fill those service jobs, said Tobey Phillips, a county spokeswoman. Health care jobs account for almost a third of all jobs in the county.

“It’s kind of a Catch-22,” Phillips said. “We need people to be working in these industries, but we can’t get them here sometimes because it’s primarily an elderly community.”

Employers see that every day. Mike Arthur, who runs a staffing service that provides health care workers for institutions and individual homes, said he looks for workers who are compassionate and patient when hiring, given the elderly makeup of his clientele. Maureen Locher makes sure there are plenty of homemade cookies, fresh coffee and cheese spread at the hearing aid center she runs.

The local First Presbyterian Church has struggled to maintain membership as congregants either die or move back north to spend their last years near relatives. Changes that might attract younger families for the almost 500-member congregation often meet resistance.

“One term that has been used for a church like ours is ‘a hospice church,’ and that’s a pretty bleak deal but maybe realistic,” said Jim Capps, interim pastor. “It’s not bad thing, but the problem with that is you’re facing extinction.”

Baby boomers and other coming crops of seniors will be more tech-savvy. But at the library in Citrus County, large print books are popular, and library staffers have become the de facto tutors on new technology. The library offers classes on basic software such as Microsoft Word and Excel and is developing a social media class after getting requests for it, said Eric Head, director of library services.

Citrus County became a retirement mecca in the 1980s with the development of the Beverly Hills and Citrus Hills housing communities in former citrus groves. Marketing of the developments was geared toward empty nesters from the Northeast. Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams came to Citrus Hills in the late 1980s and was known to fish regularly in the nearby Gulf of Mexico.

“They came down here when they were maybe in their late 50s, and now they’re in their 80s and 90s,” said Pat Coles, who runs county services for seniors.

Citrus County is one of eight counties stretching round the Orlando and Tampa metro areas in a band that might be called the Gray Belt. It has among the oldest populations in the nation, not to mention in Florida, which has long had the highest rate of seniors in the nation, and will for decades yet. The others include Marion, Martin, Indian River, Highlands, Sarasota, Charlotte, and Sumter counties, the last of which is home to the largest concentration of seniors of any county in the nation thanks to the retirement community called The Villages, northwest of Orlando.

By 2030, seniors in these counties, which are overwhelmingly white, will make up anywhere from a third to half of the residents.

North Dakota, Texas, and Michigan have pockets of seniors on par with the Gray Belt counties in Florida. But unlike the Florida counties, which have grown from the migration of new seniors, they have gotten grayer as a result of younger residents leaving.

The demographic makeup of these eight Florida counties contrasts starkly with the state’s younger and more diverse major metro areas, such as South Florida, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville, and the interests of Gray Belt residents will diverge politically, socially and economically from Florida’s more youthful cities.

Residents in the younger areas will want state investments in education, transportation and infrastructure. Not so much for residents in the Gray Belt, said University of Florida economist David Denslow.

“Senior citizens aren’t going to care quite as much about education. They’re not going to care quite as much about congestion in rush hour,” Denslow said. “It’s going to make it harder for local governments and the state to fund things.”

Since voting power will tilt in favor of the older residents because of their higher voter-participation rates, the key to keeping both sides happy is to devolve all kinds of governmental decisions on taxes, planning and education from the state level to the local level so that residents in areas with both high and low concentrations of seniors will feel like their voices are being heard, Denslow said.

“I’d rather have some portions of the state in places that are younger able to set their own path and not have it set for them by retirees,” Denslow said. “It would be good to let these cities where the need for public spending is greater go their own way.”