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More people moved to this Tampa Bay county than any other in the nation last year

Green citrus on a tree with a for sale sign in the background
Phelan M. Ebenhack
A for sale sign sits among an acreage of orange trees in Bartow in 2007. More people moved to a county rich with citrus groves located between two of Florida’s most populous metros than in any other county in the U.S. last year. That's according to estimates released Thursday, March 14, 2024 by the U.S. Census Bureau.

More than 29,300 people moved to Polk County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

More people moved to a county rich with citrus groves located between two of Florida's most populous metro areas than to any other county in the U.S. last year, according to estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

More than 29,300 people moved last year to the county between Tampa and Orlando, two metro areas where housing has grown increasingly pricey and the county is considered a cheaper alternative. In short order, Polk County has come to have fewer orange groves along Interstate 4 and more subdivisions for local service workers as well as distribution warehouses for on-demand deliveries for residents in both metropolitan areas.

Almost all the growth in Polk County — 88% — consisted of people moving from another part of the U.S. rather than from abroad, according to the 2023 population estimates.

“Subdivision growth has been springing up and it happens in such a manner that you don’t always notice it. But when you are stuck in traffic, that’s when you really pay attention that it’s going on,” Matt Joyner, a seventh-generation Polk County resident, said about the influx of new residents.

Only four other counties — Harris and Montgomery counties in metro Houston; Collin County in metro Dallas; and Maricopa County, home to Phoenix — grew by more people, thanks to their higher numbers of natural increase, or births outnumbering deaths.

Harris County, which is home to Houston, grew by almost 54,000 people, the most of any county last year, with about two-thirds of the growth coming from births outpacing deaths. That natural increase of almost 34,700 people was the highest in the nation.

Despite having an influx of thousands of new residents from abroad, and births outpacing deaths, some of the most populous U.S. counties also lost the most residents due to their moving to other counties last year, a trend that accelerated at the start of the decade with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leading the way was Los Angeles County, with 56,000 fewer residents. Three counties representing the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx in New York City followed, with population losses of 28,300 people, 26,300 people and 25,300 people, respectively. However, the outflows from these large counties last year were substantially smaller than they were in 2022.

New York City officials, though, believe the Census Bureau's estimates don't account for the influx of tens of thousands of asylum seekers last year. The city rented out entire hotels to house migrants and also put cots in schools and temporarily housed people in tents, a cruise ship terminal and a former police academy building.

As many as 50,000 people were overlooked in the city's shelters, according to city officials, who plan to challenge the estimates to the Census Bureau.

“We wanted to flag it,” said Casey Berkovitz, press secretary for New York’s Department of City Planning. “Once you account for this underestimate ... the year marked a return to pre-pandemic levels.”

In the most popular destinations for immigrants — counties in South Florida and counties that are home to Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Jose — international migration grew by double digits year-over-year.

The estimates don’t distinguish between legal immigration and illegal immigration, so it’s impossible to know if any of the growth came from unlawful border crossings. Arrests for illegal crossings hit a record high in December but fell by half in January.

In Miami-Dade County, there were almost 54,500 new residents from outside the U.S., the highest in the nation last year and an almost 40% increase over the previous year. The international migration offset the departure of more than 47,000 residents who left Miami-Dade County for other U.S. counties.

Among metro areas, which combine counties having social and economic connections, the Dallas metro area had the biggest growth last year — more than 152,000 residents — and surpassed 8 million residents for the first time. That growth was followed by metro Houston, with almost an additional 140,000 residents, and metro Atlanta, with an increase of more than 68,000 people.

Metro Atlanta jumped two spots from last year to become the sixth most populous metro area, with 6.3 million residents. It is surpassed only by metro New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Houston.

With more than 62,000 acres of citrus groves, Polk County is one of the leading producers of oranges in Florida. The state's citrus industry in recent years has been squeezed between a fast-spreading bacteria that has attacked the health of trees all over the state and relentless growth that has spilled over as its metro areas have expanded.

Despite that, Polk County has held onto its citrus heritage. Most of the growth has been concentrated in the northeastern part of the county, just a few miles from Walt Disney World in metro Orlando. But many of the citrus growers there who sold their land to subdivision builders have just moved to the southern part of the county, where citrus groves are still plentiful, said Joyner, CEO of Florida Citrus Mutual, a growers' advocacy group.

New residents to Polk County have something picturesque to see if they drive around the county’s groves right now — white flowers on citrus trees and a sweet aroma in the air.

“Everywhere you go right now, the groves are snow white and the smell is sweet,” Joyner said. “It reminds you of the old days.”