In the blink of an eye, things can change in Citrus County.
Our last year of COVID lockdown has been responsible for significant differences from previous years. It’s appropriate to look back for a moment.
* First, none of our Canadian tourists and snowbirds have come to Citrus County. That equates to hundreds of households and RV spots from previous years. The Canadian border has been closed and our regular visitors are stuck home freezing their tootsies off.
* There are at least 1,000 snowbirds from northern parts of the United States who have not come south for the traditional season. We can tell at the newspaper by the number of active traditional subscriber accounts that still have balances yet were not activated this winter season. That certainly impacts the newspaper, but it also hurts the restaurants, retail shops, medical facilities and every other kind of business in Citrus County.
* New home construction is going crazy. As newly elected property appraiser Cregg Dalton pointed out in a recent column, more than 950 new homes came on to the tax rolls during the year. People are moving from urban areas to more rural settings like Citrus County because the COVID craziness. That is the fastest rate of growth the county has experienced since the early 2000s.
* The same is true with the real estate market for existing homes. Citrus County is on fire right now. Homes are being put up for sale and offers come quickly. And again, many of the people are coming from more urban areas seeking to embrace a slower lifestyle.
* Rental housing units in the county are almost nonexistent. While there are vacation rentals to be found, regular rentals for working people have mostly been gobbled up. That has an impact in a lot of areas including the workforce. If workers cannot find housing in a specific market, they go somewhere else. That makes it more difficult to find workers for lower paying jobs in restaurants and shops.
* The lack of rental space also hurts the county education system, according to the woman who should know. Superintendent Sam Himmel says that when teachers are recruited to come work in the county’s public schools, they often must find housing in the Ocala or Spring Hill markets. Well guess what, those counties also have jobs open for school teachers and it doesn’t take long for the new teachers to get sick of that drive. Many of our recruited teachers end up taking jobs in those markets because they can’t find housing in Citrus.
* And here is a revealing fact — even though we have so many new residents moving to the county, my annual count of motorists on Citrus County highways shows that 43.8% of the drivers still fail to use the blinkers in their cars when they change lanes or make a turn. That’s up 2% from last year.
What the heck is up with that? Do some cars not come with blinkers? Are drivers too busy texting to use the blinkers? Do you not realize that more than half of the motorists are over the age of 65 and you are risking your own life by not giving an early warning sign of your next move? OK, end of rant. Some things don’t change.
* Florida’s economy is built on tourism. The latest numbers report that tourism is down 34% in Florida compared to the same time pre-COVID. Fortunately, Citrus County is doing a lot better than that, even though our tourism numbers are down, they are not down that much.
Some people are afraid of crowding into Orlando tourist attractions, but they’re not afraid of the great outdoors. And that’s what Citrus County has to offer. The visitors who want to swim with the manatee, bike on our trails, kayak in our rivers and fish along the Gulf Coast are still coming.
There are no foreign tourists, but the rush has been replaced with Floridians who are trying to do weekend getaways or day trips.
* The use of Zoom to hold meetings has increased 1 million percent over the previous year. To be exact, no one used Zoom prior to 2020. Now, most businesses and government agencies make use of Zoom on a daily basis for meetings and communication. (For those of you who live in a cave, Zoom is a digital meeting platform where you see a group of people and all talk over each other at the same time.) When the COVID pandemic is over, this is one of those changes in business that will probably stay with us.
* We are living through a time of rapid change and we need to recognize what is happening. We also need to use our blinkers so we can be around to see the outcome.
Gerry Mulligan is the publisher of the Chronicle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.