TAMPA — Tiny Center Hill, deep in Sumter County, was once known as the Green Bean Capital of the World. Today, it gets a new title: the fastest-growing city in Florida.
Newly released 2013 population estimates from the Census Bureau show the little city an hour north of downtown Tampa grew nearly 7 percent between 2012 and 2013. Nearby Webster and Coleman — also in Sumter County — joined Center Hill at the top of the list.
But don’t rush out just yet to speculate in Sumter County real estate. Together, all three cities added fewer than 170 people.
“When you have such small numbers, you can get a distorted increase,” said Karl Holley, Sumter County’s developmental services director.
By comparison, the city of Tampa added 4,256 people over that same 12-month period. That was more than double combined populations of Center Hill, Webster and Coleman and enough to give Tampa an annual growth rate of 1.2 percent.
Tampa ranked sixth in growth among Florida cities with more than 100,000 residents. Lakeland ranked No. 8. on that list and St. Petersburg ranked No. 10.
Cape Coral in Lee County, ground zero for the 2008 housing crash in Florida, leads the state’s large cities in population growth. It grew by 2.7 percent in 2013, according to census estimates, making it the 14th fastest-growing city over 100,000 in the country.
The idea that their cities were the fastest-growing left people in Center Hill, Webster and Coleman scratching their heads.
“I find that hard to believe,” said Diane Lamb, Center Hill city clerk for the last 15 years.
Sure, the city annexed some land for a subdivision and high-end RV park, but neither of those projects got off the ground, she said.
After some thought, Lamb said the growth may have come from an expansion at Central Beef Industries Inc., a meat-packing plant in town.
The factory has attracted new employees, many of them Hispanic, at a time when the city’s long-time residents are dying out, she said.
“We have a lot of new people here,” Lamb said.
Central Beef officials didn’t return a call for comment.
Holley sees Central Beef’s influence extending to Webster and Coleman as well, though he also wonders where all those new people are living since they aren’t building houses. They may be doubling up in existing houses, he said.
Could the growth reflect the influence of The Villages? The sprawling retirement community half an hour away adds hundreds of houses each month. Population 54,000, it nearly doubled the size of Sumter County all by itself between the 2000 and 2010 national censuses.
Holley said he doubts that because The Villages is too far away.
While he spoke, Holley did a quick review of Center Hill’s building permits between mid-2012 and mid-2013. He turned up the new Dollar General store along with a relocated mobile home, a new pole barn and two tear-downs.
The other towns weren’t much different. Webster had no permits for new homes during the period, he said.
“The best I know is they built one house in Coleman and tore down two,” Holley said.
Center Hill may hold onto its spot atop the state’s list of fastest-growing cities. A developer has proposed building a 280-home subdivision.
That’s a month’s work in the The Villages, Holley said. But in Center Hill, it will keep the population booming for years to come.