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County population growth back in high gear

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of August 15, 2013)

Population growth has kicked back into something resembling high gear in Indian River County, with a net increase of 2,000 people expected this year, according to government figures. That’s a dramatic jump from 2008 when, at the low point of the recession, the county gained a mere 137 residents.

The jump is important because new residents, especially retirees moving south with their assets and retirement incomes, are the main engine of economic growth in and around Vero Beach.

If current projections hold, there will be an additional 20,000 people buying groceries and gas in the county by the beginning of the next decade, spending an extra $400 million a year at area businesses.

“We have some good industry here, but there is no doubt we are a retirement community,” says Property Appraiser David Nolte. “Economic growth here and throughout Florida has always been tied to an increase in population.”

In July, Nolte and Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan convinced the county commission to increase their 2013-14 budgets to deal with added work related to greater population growth.

“We are seeing an increase in sales of real property and an increase in building permits,” says Nolte, who cut his budget and staff during the recession. “As times get better, we need to bring someone back on to help deal with the extra activity.”

Whenever a building is constructed or property changes hands, Nolte’s office is responsible for measuring and evaluating the property to determine its taxable worth. He told the commission he does not have the manpower to keep up with the growing number of onsite visits and hours of calculation needed for accurate appraisals.

Swan finds herself in a similar situation after cutting her staff nearly in half during the economic downturn. “Since January first, we have input 2,163 voter registrations,” she says. “That is a lot of work.”

“Certainly, the population of the county has been increasing,” says Penny Chandler, president of the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce. “We are getting more phone calls from people requesting relocation information and seeing more people in our office.

“A number of people have said they thought of moving here a few years ago but didn’t because of the poor economy. Now, they are going ahead and making the move.”

The county’s head count is projected to grow by 2,600 in 2014 and continue at approximately that clip until the end of the decade, according to the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

Since the average U.S. family includes 2.5 people, that amounts to more than 1,000 new families per year showing up with a wide range of consumer needs, people who will be buying, building or renting homes, shopping at Macy’s and Publix, eating in restaurants and going to movies.

If current projections are accurate, there will be the equivalent of 8,000 new families residing in the county by 2020 or 2021.

Each family will spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $6,500 per year on food, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That will amount to an extra $1 million per week rung up on grocery store and restaurant cash registers.

Overall, the average family spends about $50,000 on food, clothes, housing, transportation, entertainment and all other expenditures, according to government figures. Multiplied times 8,000 that equals $400 million in additional spending in the county by the end of the decade compared to today.

County revenues will rise along with the added spending as new residents add to the sales tax and property tax pools.

“There is no doubt population has been a major contributor to economic growth and county revenue over the past several decades, and we believe long-term growth will continue,” says County Budget Director Jason Brown. “It won’t be as fast as in the 1980s when there was a fifty-percent increase in ten years, but we expect it to keep going.”

The Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research estimates the county’s population was 139,446 in 2012. It projects that number will grow to 160,393 by 2021 and hit 200,000 sometime around 2040.

“That is about what we expect,” says Brown.