By Colleen Jenkins
PALM COAST, Fla (Reuters) - As snow blanketed the northern United States this winter, city leaders in Palm Coast, Florida, sent postcards to thousands of out-of-state landowners who have not yet built homes on their piece of paradise.
"It's sunny and 76 degrees in Palm Coast," the mailers read. "What's the temperature where you live?"
The postcards highlighted the scenic trails and uncrowded beaches that helped make this coastal community between Daytona Beach and St. Augustine the nation's fastest growing metro area in the past decade, according to new U.S. Census Bureau data.
What they didn't say: Palm Coast needs a boost after getting battered by the housing bust and foreclosure crisis.
"We grew too fast," said City Manager Jim Landon. "We fell very hard, too."
The Palm Coast metro area's population rose 92 percent between 2000 and 2010, far outpacing the second-fastest growing metro area of St. George, Utah, which increased nearly 53 percent, the census showed.
The metro areas of Las Vegas, Nevada; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Cape Coral, Florida, rounded out the top five.
Palm Coast also now ranks highest in unemployment out of Florida's 20 metro areas, according to national labor statistics. Its 14.9 percent unemployment rate in February was five percentage points above the national average.
Distressed property sales dominate the housing market. The city building division that once issued an average of 400 single-family home building permits a month during the construction boom has seen that number dwindle to about 10.
City leaders remain optimistic, in part because of the steady stream of national retailers including Kohl's, Belk and Lowe's that arrived during the economic slowdown.
But residents were surprised to learn of Palm Coast's fastest-growing status after seeing many neighbors move away.
"It's become a real depressed area," said retiree Phyllis Sieling, loading groceries from a Super Target into her car.
GROWTH, WITH EYE ON GREEN
It's hard to feel depressed in Waterfront Park, a 20-acre nature haven along Palm Coast's Intracoastal Waterway.
Opened last fall, the park boasts a fishing pier, playground and some of the city's 100 miles of connected hiking and biking trails. Recycling containers for bottles and fishing lines abound.
City leaders have worked to keep things "green" and to maintain the tranquil, outdoor lifestyle envisioned by developers who carved the planned community out of scrubland in the 1970s.
Back then, residents in northeastern states received Garfield the cat phones as gifts if they checked out Palm Coast for their retirement home.
There is still plenty of golf and tennis played, but good schools and a small-town feel also have drawn in families.
"That's what keeps us here, the schools," said 42-year-old mother Tommie Krawiec, who chose a move to Palm Coast over the more hectic Jacksonville.
On a sunny Saturday, Krawiec and another local couple watched from a shaded picnic table as their young daughters played along Waterfront Park's shoreline.
Ken Hemingway, 50, and his wife relocated from Connecticut in 1998, when the city of Palm Coast had just two stoplights and was a year away from incorporating.
He said the influx of residents -- from 49,832 in 2000 to 95,696 in 2010 -- hasn't hurt the quality of life.
"You couldn't drag me back kicking and screaming," he said. "Everybody says it's busy here. We're like, you have no clue."
Landon, the city manager, proudly notes that the only sign of this swiftly expanding city from I-95 is a blue water tower bearing Palm Coast's logo.
City officials said they have withstood pressure during the stalled economy to compromise on strict architectural standards. They require businesses to design attractive exteriors, plant thick vegetation and install signs that are monument-style rather than on poles.
On a main thoroughfare, a soon-to-open Mobil gas station features stone columns by its pumps, and the new ABC Fine Wine & Spirits store has a tile roof and lush landscaping.
"I defy you to find as attractive an ABC store in the state," said Mayor Jon Netts, a retired educator from New Jersey who drives a towing service tug boat on the side.
He's hoping the city can convince the owners of 18,000 vacant platted lots -- who received those tempting sales-pitch postcards -- to build homes and bring in new dollars.
Officials also expect a mixed commercial and residential development known as Town Center to fuel less frenzied growth. A 14-screen movie theater, Red Lobster and Olive Garden opened in recent months, and Panera Bread is on the way.
"We have great potential," Landon said. But, "I hope we're not the fastest growing community in the next decade."
(Edited by Greg McCune)