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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Metro Orlando Grows By 347 A Day
By Jeff Kunerth and Kelly Brewington | Sentinel Staff Writers
May 22, 2003
Even in tough economic times, metropolitan Orlando grew at a pace that added 347 people a day in 2001, with about one in five coming from abroad, according to figures released Wednesday.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 126,787 people moved into the metro Orlando area of Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Lake counties in 2001.
Only 16 cities nationwide added more people that year.
Among Florida's cities, only the Tampa area added more residents than Orlando in that one year and only Miami added more people from abroad than Orlando.
Of the 27,892 new residents who moved to metro Orlando from abroad, 24,072 were foreign-born. The other 3,820 were from Puerto Rico.
The Los Angeles-Long Beach area added 285,457 people -- or about 782 a day -- to lead the nation's metropolitan areas in growth. But even at half that pace, Orlando's ability to continue to attract new residents astounds many people.
"Three hundred a day is a lot of people. That is very scary," said Carlota Mendoza-Iglesias, principal of Stonewall Jackson Middle School.
"The impact is felt in the schools," she said. "We have to make sure our buildings can seat the number of kids we are receiving. We are pretty tight right now," she said. "And depending on where these kids are coming from, they are coming with a different language."
In her school, Mendoza-Iglesias is seeing students moving in from New York, Connecticut, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Columbia and Brazil. Hers is a school that reflects the increasingly diverse, cosmopolitan composition of Central Florida.
"When you think diversity, you think of South Florida. But Orlando is kind of a melting pot and a magnet in the central part of the state," said William Frey, a demographer with The Brookings Institution. "It's a diverse place and will change the image of Florida as a two-tone state with two halves -- retirees and foreign-born." Mendoza-Iglesias sees the transformation every day when she drives from her Hunter's Creek home to nearby Kissimmee.
That city has morphed from a mostly rural enclave to an urban area of Colombian-owned restaurants, Venezuelan-owned beauty parlors, British-owned taxi companies, Filipino-owned hotels and Vietnamese-owned nail salons.
"This is turning into a little New York because you have people of all nationalities," she said.
Even with its emphasis on low-wage service jobs, Orlando remains popular with residents from abroad who are drawn here by the area's climate and by economic opportunities that don't exist back home.
Political and economic turmoil has increased the exodus of people from Venezuela and Colombia to Orlando, said Mendoza-Iglesias.
"I'm seeing Venezuelans moving to Central Florida because of the uncertainty of the government there. They are coming with cash and investing in property," she said.
Although Central Florida has become increasingly international, Orlando has not done a good job reflecting that diversity in its politics and cultural arts, said Nelson Betancourt, a community activist in east Orlando.
"We don't have as many Hispanic people in positions of political and social responsibility," he said.
Part of the challenge is getting newcomers adjusted to the political system here as they struggle with the language and keeping food on the table.
Still, Betancourt thinks there are many new arrivals who are financially secure yet tend to shy away from becoming involved in their community. That's a shame, he said.
"We don't have the economic wherewithal to put people in power as much as we should," he said. "You have some political interest, but I think the gatekeepers in the power structure don't see the Hispanic element as something to take seriously."
Betancourt, who seven years ago lost a city election to Councilwoman Betty Wyman, said Orlando has a long way to go to be considered an international city that embraces diversity.
One way to accomplish that is through the arts, he said.
"I think we need to make sure we are bringing in all the art organizations, not just the Anglo ones," he said. "I'd like to see more art programs and exhibits sponsored by the city and county and cultural organizations that focus on rich international flair of Orlando."
Mitzy Vega, who moved to Orlando from Miami three years ago, thinks Central Florida has been slow to embrace change.
Still, she thinks Orlando is not hampered by the political and economic competition between Cubans and other Latinos in South Florida.
"People here are very accepting," said Vega, 44, a physical therapist's assistant who moved to Florida from Puerto Rico. "Latins still don't have the representation we should in government, but people here are open to newcomers."