As incredible as living in San Francisco was, the high cost of living there—even with two salaries and no kids—was almost untenable. (For a rough idea, here's a cost of living calculator that suggests that St. Louis is 60% cheaper than San Francisco, with housing alone being 83% cheaper.) Once my wife and I had our first child, the difficulties associated with remaining on the West Coast for the long-term came into sharp focus, and suddenly the Midwest became a very attractive option for putting down long-term roots. This was true for other transients I knew in California, many of whom have since moved "home" (wherever that may be) after their temporary coastal adventure.
|How does St. Louis encourage a "boomerang migration"?|
So how can St. Louis encourage its own boomerang migration? I suppose the effort would start with identifying large groups of expatriates to receive targeted messaging from "home." That doesn't seem like it would be that difficult. In San Francisco, for example, there was an active alumni association for the University of Missouri (the "Bay Area Tigers"). I assume there must be similar organizations all over the country—out-of-town alumni association chapters for SLU, Washington University, UMSL, Mizzou, SIUE, and other area colleges. Many of these alumni are originally St. Louisans. There are surely ways also to identify St. Louisans who went to non-local colleges and have not returned home.
It wouldn't seem that difficult to put together a mailing list, Facebook page, or other network to connect directly with these thousands of St. Louisans spread across the country, and then engage with them on a regular basis through various outreach efforts. Imagine, for example, circulating a quarterly newsletter to this network that discusses improvements to the region, explores the livability of both established and up-and-coming neighborhoods, highlights businesses and job-related opportunities, and examines other exciting developments (for example, the Arch grounds project).
I realize that people aren't going to move to St. Louis because a newsletter tells them to, and there are almost certainly better ideas than that for engaging our diaspora. The idea, though, is about being on the radar screen of those who might be considering making a move back to the Midwest. As Tim Logan noted in the case of Louisville, it's more about "building buzz and telling people [a city] has changed for the better . . . reminding natives that there is opportunity back home . . . [and] making the city a little bigger on people's mental map."
One thing that I think might weigh heavily on people's mental map is St. Louis' affordabilty. As noted in David Nicklaus' recent article, "[t]he Midwest in general is an inexpensive place to live and, among the 28 largest U.S. cities, St. Louis edges out Kansas City as cheapest of the cheap."
Now, I understand that being "cheap" is not the "hippest" selling point a community can offer potential residents—but I absolutely would not discount its attractiveness. Many, perhaps most, young people who are moving back to St. Louis from places like San Francisco and New York are almost certainly doing so at least partly for economic reasons. They're not leaving because they hate the ocean and the mountains.
|St. Louis should promote its amazing architecture|
and cheap housing stock to its diaspora.
St. Louis has many great things to market about itself—its numerous vibrant neighborhoods; its incredible history, architecture, and urban parks; and the opportunities it presents for the civic-minded to be a meaningful part of the rebuilding of the City and region.
But the bottom line is that, in addition to these attributes, St. Louis is cheap. We don't need to hang our hat solely on being most the affordable major city, but—particularly in this economy—it's far from our worst selling point.
So are there currently any coordinated efforts to engage the St. Louis diaspora in ways that are intended to bring them back to the region? There probably are, but I'm not aware of them, and there is surely room for more. Outreach along these lines does not seem that difficult to implement, and would probably pay some dividends over the long haul (for example, between now and the next census). It is just one of many "low investment, high yield" efforts that, if sustained over a long period of time, could end up making a big difference in perceptions of (and hopefully the population of) St. Louis.
Of course, any outreach program geared toward people who have left should complement a focused effort to reduce the number of St. Louis college graduates who leave the region in the first place. As Tim stated in his column:
"[B]etween freshman orientation and graduation day, St. Louis has a great shot to sell itself and then to reap all the talent, ideas and energy these students can bring. . . . Yet the region doesn't make much of that opportunity. There's no sustained effort to connect students with the broader city, to give them much reason to stay."Tim's column described Philadelphia's efforts to "sell students on Philadelphia," where "civic leaders teamed up with the universities to keep Philadelphia's students in town, launching programs to make the city more student-friendly and to encourage businesses to hire more new graduates." The "sustained, comprehensive effort that makes students think about Philadelphia from the start" appears to be paying off; 150,000 residents with bachelor's degrees were added to Philadelphia's ranks between 2000 and 2008, and the city just announced an end to a 50-year population slide.
Couldn't St. Louis implement programs similar to those that have worked in Philadelphia easily enough? Can't our civic leaders work with university leaders to encourage them to promote not only their school, but St. Louis as a place to stay after school?
As the "Campus Philly" program has done, can't St. Louis' schools come together to organize student discounts (maybe a Groupon-type program geared directly toward St. Louis students and local activities); advertise weekend events and volunteer opportunities; hold career fairs for local employers; encourage students (e.g., Wash U students who profess never to leave The Loop) to explore the entire city and not just their immediate surroundings; and take other steps designed to help students fall in love with the amazing city they are studying in?
These types of efforts can work for St. Louis as they have for other cities, if nurtured over the long-term. As a city and region, we need to make sure that we're not just reading about these concepts over Sunday coffee and forgetting about them, but are fleshing them out into actionable programs that will work for St. Louis. Just as other states have "gone to school" on highly successful Missouri programs (think: our model historic tax credit program), St. Louis should be going to school on programs that have worked to help turn around other urban areas across the country.
It seems like one of the many organizations already working to improve St. Louis could add these type of programs to their platforms easily enough. What about, for example, the Regional Chamber and Growth Association, whose mission includes "to investigate and support public policy initiatives that help the region thrive and grow"? Or FOCUS St. Louis, which strives to "spark positive community change by developing leadership, influencing policy, and promoting community connections"? Does FOCUS' "Connect with Young Professionals" program already work to retain current residents and re-attract prior residents? Would corporate sponsorship/funding be needed, and if so, how about a buyers' relocation company (like Wm. French) which would benefit from people moving to St. Louis?
Right now, tens of thousands of students are attending college in St. Louis, but are weighing the pros and cons of a move out of town upon graduation. There are also many expatriates around the country who—like my wife and I five years ago—are seriously weighing a possible move back to St. Louis. Many of these are people who are ready to "settle down" and raise a family in the Midwest, giving us an opportunity to target a demographic that the urban core has been losing in droves (perhaps at a time in their lives when they're not yet focused on where they'll send their kids to school, giving the City the further opportunity to attract them in the first place and retain them down the road as the school situation hopefully improves over the upcoming years).
What can we do to help these people—our current and potentially future diaspora—make the right decision? Tweet