New home, new hope: Puerto Rican community exploding in Osceola County

The eighth annual Puerto Rican Day Parade was held in downtown Kissimmee in September. The event was designed to honor the heritage and people of Puerto Rico.

Osceola County’s Puerto Rican population is growing faster than ever in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data.

Of the 40,000 people from Puerto Rico who moved to the Sunshine State from 2017 to 2018 – two-thirds of them came to Osceola. It’s now the seventh fastest-growing county in the nation and 53.5 percent Hispanic.

By contrast, in The Villages – a sprawling retirement in Sumter County – more than 99 percent of the 5,251 people who moved there in 2018, were domestic transplants.

Overall, Osceola gained 15,329 new residents in 2018, and the population now stands at 367,990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Once a rural community reliant upon agriculture and tourism, Osceola is booming with new residents, new development and a burgeoning technology industry – some of it directly tied to Puerto Rico.

Kissimmee Mayor Jose Alvarez is working with the University of Central Florida to deepen the area’s connection with Puerto Rico through Kissimmee’s business incubator.

“It will give business owners here the opportunity to go to the incubator to learn how to do business in Puerto Rico,” Alvarez said, who is of Cuban descent.

“It could also provide an opportunity for them to learn how to do business in all of Latin America.”

Businesses from Puerto Rico have been setting up shop in Osceola more frequently in recent years, from Avionica, an aircraft technology company that opened at the Kissimmee Gateway Airport in 2015, to Willer’s Supermarket, a successful island chain that opened its third store in Kissimmee in 2018 after Hurricane Maria.

Thousands of evacuees poured into Osceola County following the devastating storm. Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, its residents are U.S. citizens and can easily relocate to the U.S. mainland.

The Osceola County School District, Osceola County government and other local government and nonprofit agencies led assistance efforts to assist the incoming Puerto Rican population with everything from enrolling their kids in school to finding employment.

The School District received $5 million in federal funding in 2018 to help offset the expense of taking in about 2,900 students from Puerto Rico during 2017 and 2018.  

Meanwhile, the influx of newcomers from Puerto Rico has exacerbated the ongoing housing crisis in Osceola County. There is a shortage of homes and apartments that are affordable for people earning minimum wage or relatively low salaries compared to the soaring cost of housing.

Still, the influx of Puerto Ricans to Osceola has been a net positive, said Alvarez, who moved to Kissimmee from Miami in 1997.

The massive change in the area’s population and demographics – not just Puerto Ricans – makes the community and economy more dynamic.  

“It’s beautiful to see how this city and this county have grown with so many people from all over the world,” he said. “It’s growing the way Miami grew, a true melting pot. This is what we see in Kissimmee and Osceola now, a melting pot of cultures living and working together.”