Baby boomers are driving the population boom in a three-county cluster north and west of Florida’s Walt Disney World. Collectively, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties — whose major cities are Ocala and The Villages — were home to a little over 788,000 people in 2015, U.S. Census Bureau estimates show.
Over the past several years, the region has experienced some of the highest population growth rates in the U.S. For instance, The Villages — a metro area consisting solely of Sumter County — was the country’s fastest-growing metro area in 2013, 2014 and 2015. The region’s explosive growth doesn’t appear to be subsiding anytime soon, either.
In less than 15 years from now, the three-county population total is projected to climb past 1 million, according to a LawnStarter analysis of forecast data from the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. To be precise, the three-county population is expected to rise from 788,020 in 2015 to 1,043,803 in 2030, our analysis shows. That would represent a population spike of 32.5 percent.
Golf carts are a popular mode of transportation at The Villages retirement community.
Photo: World Property Journal
Sumter County Set to Soar
The LawnStarter analysis indicates Sumter County (whose biggest city is The Villages) will lead the population charge from 2015 to 2030, with a projected growth rate of 58 percent. Meanwhile, Lake County (whose biggest city is Clermont) is forecast to see a population bump of 31.6 percent during that period, and Marion County (which makes up the entire Ocala metro area) is predicted to witness a growth rate of 24.4 percent. The Villages is about 60 miles northwest of Disney World, and Ocala is about another 20 miles northwest of The Villages.
At just over 1 million residents, the 2030 population of The Villages/Ocala region would be on par with the 2015 headcount of the Grand Rapids, MI, metro area. As it stands now, Grand Rapids is the country’s 52nd largest metro area, while Ocala is the 149th largest and The Villages is the 324th largest.
Put another way, the combined population of Lake, Marion and Sumter counties in 2030 would be bigger than five Florida metro areas that currently rank among the 100 largest in the U.S.:
- North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton (ranked 73rd)
- Cape Coral-Fort Myers (ranked 79th)
- Lakeland-Winter Haven (ranked 84th)
- Deltona-Daytona Beach-Ormond Beach (ranked 90th)
- Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville (ranked 95th)
The Villages retirement community encompasses 34 square miles.
Photo: Flamingo Real Estate & Management
Rich Doty, research demographer at UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, attributes recent and projected population growth in The Villages/Ocala region to a flood of retiring baby boomers.
“The Villages is one of the largest and fastest-growing retirement communities in the country, and it is surrounded by a number of other retirement communities,” Doty says.
The Villages is a Census Bureau-designated place in Sumter County, as well as a master-planned retirement community covering a much wider area. The retirement community known as The Villages — all 34 square miles of it, including thousands of homes and dozens of golf courses — actually encompasses chunks of Lake, Marion and Sumter counties.
As it turns out, Sumter County is the only county in the U.S. where more than half the population is 65 and over, the Census Bureau says. The median age of the county’s population was 66.6 years as of July 1, 2015.
Not only are retirees relocating to The Villages/Ocala region, but workers — especially those in the service, construction and healthcare sectors — are moving there to support them, Doty says.
The Ocala area is known as the “Horse Capital of the World.”
Photo: Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club
Benefiting from Growth
Doty notes, however, that while the population surge in The Villages/Ocala region is impressive in terms of percentages, the growth in the actual number of people is still small compared with Florida’s larger metro areas. The LawnStarter analysis shows that from 2015 to 2030, the The Villages/Ocala region is forecast to gain nearly 256,000 residents — a figure well below what’s on the horizon for areas like Orlando and Miami.
“Florida has experienced a significant uptick in growth over the last two years,” Doty says, “and that growth is widespread throughout the state.”
Nonetheless, the growth rate in The Villages/Ocala area is remarkable.
Jada Ciftci, an economic development professional for Sumter County, says The Villages retirement community is an “economic engine” that is creating opportunities for retail and healthcare businesses in her county. In addition, she says, the confluence of Interstate 75, the Florida Turnpike and a major rail line for freight are attracting manufacturing and distribution companies. Furthermore, large-scale agribusinesses in the area are experiencing growth.
Ciftci says Sumter County and the surrounding area have “greatly benefited from the population and economic growth.”
In the infographic below, we offer an overview of the population and economic growth in The Villages/Ocala region.
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Top photo: Flamingo Real Estate & Management