Friday, March 11, 2011

Tapping the Diaspora: How Does St. Louis Encourage a Boomerang Migration?

I recently had a Twitter exchange with Bradley Sabin, a St. Louis native graduating from the University of Missouri in May, about the need for an "outreach program" targeting St. Louisans that have located elsewhere in the country.  This got me thinking back to two things: one, the time I spent struggling to decide whether to remain in San Francisco or return to the Midwest; and two, the concept of "tapping the diaspora" explored by the Post-Dispatch's Tim Logan in last year's excellent "Can St. Louis Compete?" series.

As incredible as living in San Francisco was, the high cost of living thereeven with two salaries and no kidswas 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"?
At the time, my wife and I (and quite a few of our friends) would roughly have fit the definition of what Tim Logan called the "diaspora":  young Midwesterners (if not, in my case, an actual St. Louisan) "living, working and building careers" elsewhere in the country.  Tim noted that various Rust Belt cities have been pursuing "boomerang migration" strategies to lure these educated young people back to their hometowns.  Most notably, in Louisville, Kentucky "major employers and the chamber of commerce have been barnstorming through bigger cities reminding expatriates of the comforts of home."

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 countryout-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 residentsbut 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 itselfits 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, butparticularly in this economyit'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 wholike my wife and I five years agoare 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 peopleour current and potentially future diasporamake the right decision?


  1. My Fiance is from STL and we're moving back (from Orlando) next Jan after our wedding for many of the reasons you mentioned in this article. We love the area, the architecture, the people, the low cost of living, all of the free things to do in the city... etc. We can't wait.

  2. Provide jobs. As a young professional, there's a lack of jobs, especially in the central areas. Out in Chesterfield, sure, but so few exist in the city.

  3. the13blog--Thanks very much!

    Anonymous--glad you're moving back! I think you will really enjoy it here. (And congrats on the upcoming wedding.)

    Rencelas--Jobs, of course, are the key. But (as I said in a Twitter exchange earlier today), it's kind of a chicken-and-egg problem. We need to attract a pool of talented people to St. Louis so companies are attracted here, but we need companies/jobs here in order to attract the workers in the first place. It is a slow-growing process, and requires attacking the problem from all angles. It drives me nuts when people say things like "why should we work on getting people to move here--nobody will move here until there are jobs." (I am NOT suggesting you were saying that, I just hear that kind of thinking in a lot of contexts.) Thank you for your comment!

  4. You're playing my song!

    We need a Stl version of the Buffalo Expat Network, and we need it yesterday.

  5. Daron--Do you have a post on this somewhere? If so, can you please send me a link?

  6. Regarding the talent vs. jobs chicken-egg problem - the whole point is that STL _does_ (or did) have the talent, they are just leaving (or have already left) to find jobs elsewhere. It seems unrealistic to expect people to migrate back to STL to spark businesses to create jobs.

    I think you could get the most value out of focusing efforts on keeping people in STL who are already there. Perhaps you could help promote businesses built on snapping up the local university talent pool, giving this talent a viable reason to stay.

  7. Thanks Anonymous. I agree that STL must focus its efforts on keeping current residents/students here, improving livability for everyone already here, and promoting businesses who "hire local." But we can walk and chew gum at the same time, and I think that promoting STL to its expats is something worth devoting our time and energy to as well.

  8. It's not necessarily a bad thing for college grads to move away for a year or two and experience other cultures, and then move back and share their experiences with our city. Some of the great entrepreneurial ideas and minds have strewn from abroad.

  9. Ben, great post. So where do we former Californians who moved to STL for the same reasons you cite here fit? STL is a next generation city of choice for some people!

  10. There needs to be a comprehensive outreach to suburban high school students to educate them about the St. Louis story. Too often, these kids go off to college without ever knowing what their own city has to offer. It's sheer ignorance. I've been saying for years that St. Louis history/affairs should be a required part of any high school curriculum, just like American and World History. It helps people connect to where they live.

  11. I definitely agree about the neighborhoods, architecture and low housing costs. Another thing that is better here compared to many other midwest cities is the weather. I came from Indianapolis and the weather here is better. Same could be said when compared to Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland, etc. The temperature here is higher and the snows are shorter and the Spring comes sooner. Obviously that is not much of an advantage when compared to California but it is a great advantage to other colder midwest cities. I call St. Louis the "Sunbelt of the Midwest"!

  12. More about the Buffalo Expat Network:

    Networking city and state expatriates seems to be an emerging trend.

  13. Hi: I stumbled upon your blog and found this post so interesting. It comes at a time where my husband (who grew up in STL) and I (I am from Minnesota) are contemplating a move back to STL. We have lived for we have spent the past 12 years out West. We currently live in Portland, Oregon and have been here for 9 years. We Love it here!! However, our family and roots are SO far away. We have debated moving back to STL for some time and we keep getting cold feet about the decision. We are nervous about the crime, the hunt for jobs, the humidity, the change of environment. We are excited about the neighborhoods and the strong family values and the lower cost of living.
    Just thought I would write as we try to piece this decision together...... Any others out there with advice our ears are open.

  14. I'm definitely moving back home to STL. I have been living in Orlando, FL for 13 years and my "coastal adventure" has come to an end. I miss my family and friends. I must admit that I am concerned about the fact that STL is the murder capitol, but it has always been somewhere in the top ten most dangerous cities in which to live.

  15. I am terribly sorry that I have not responded to several of the commenters above. I thought I received automatic notices of comments but did not see these until just now. I obviously need to pay WAY closer attention to comments.

    1. StLRealtor: On the one hand, I agree that moving away and gaining "worldy experience" elsewhere can be invaluable (not to mention the adventure of a lifetime). On the other hand, I certainly don't want to encourage people to leave St. Louis! For those who do leave, I hope they come back. Obviously people move around and settle in different places for many different reasons. I hope St. Louis continues to improve and give people many more reasons to choose here as their long-term home.

    2. Rick--Well, I'm not really a Californian per se (although I did live in LA for 6 years as a kid and SF for 4 years as an adult). In any event, I think there are lots of important roles for non-natives to play in St. Louis' future. (And I wouldn't be the first to point out that non-natives often seem more excited about STL than those who have been here their whole lives.) Contrary to its reputation as a cliquey town that's hard to break into, I think there are great, open communities for people of varied interests to jump right into.

    There is so much untapped potential in STL and many people excited about its future, that I think it is important to just dive in, get involved, make connections, and bring positive energy to the table. For non-natives, bring what you have learned elsewhere (what works, what doesn't) to the party. Keep in touch with people from CA (or wherever) and let them know what a great decision moving to STL has been. And so on!

    3. Randy V.---I like that idea, although I'm not sure that it would need to be limited to just suburban kids for any reason.

    4. JJ--I agree that the weather in STL, relative to much of the Midwest, isn't too shabby. I had breakfast with Jeff Rainford (Mayor Slay's chief of staff) recently, and he mentioned "bad" weather as one of three factors that, collectively, create some unique challenges for STL (the other two being that STL is a post-industrial city, and the large minority population and corresponding racial divisions/tensions).

    In Jeff's view, many cities only have one or two, but very few have all three (I would have to think about this a bit more to see if I agree.) But the point about the weather was that people don't necessarily want to live here (relative to some other cities) because the weather isn't good, and it isn't offset by other natural factors (e.g., Denver has bad weather but it has mountains nearby).

    In any event, I would say that STL's weather doesn't seem that bad to me. Before moving to San Francisco, I lived in Kansas City for four years (and spent a lot of my life in St. Joe, north of KC), and I found the weather, particularly in the winter, to be much worse there.

  16. 5. Jim--Thanks for the link to the Buffalo Expat Network. I had received that from someone else as well and have checked it out. Do you agree that it doesn't seem that difficult to put something like that together? Would it be effective--even if only to some extent over the long-term? Or are efforts better focused elsewhere?

    6. Anonymous "M"--I am glad you liked the post--thanks. I can tell you that I had very similar feelings about moving from SF to STL. Without a doubt, leaving the coast (or, in your case, Portland) is painful. I missed the city, ocean, mountains, wine country, etc. terribly when I left. The flip side is that my concerns about living in St. Louis were misplaced, and I absolutely love it here. I can't speak to whether you will love it too, but I think anyone who gives it a fair chance, gets involved in things, really explores what STL and the surrounding area has to offer, etc. has a much better-than-even chance of having a great time here. What I do feel strongly about is that you should NOT base your decision on negative stereotypes about the City such as it being the "most dangerous city in the U.S." Yes, there is crime (as there is everywhere) and there is a lot of work to do on that point, but in general that is a crap statistic resulting from the weird city-county split in STL.

    Good luck. You are welcome to e-mail me at if you would like to discuss this further.

    7. "Anonymous"--We'll be glad to have you back! Sounds like family beat out the ocean for you, just like us. As noted above, the crime stat rankings are pretty bogus. Now, people debate this point ad nauseum. Some (I think rightly) point to the way the stats are reported by the city and the fact that it is (oddly) not part of the larger STL county as evidence that the rankings are complete B.S. and that the city and county should be merged or otherwise reorganized (Check out for more info on this). Others believe that focusing on that debate ignores the very real crime problems that DO exist---and, obviously, there's merit there too. I do not want to minimize the crime here because I think it disrespects the people (particularly some of the African-American community) who are fighting against drugs, gangs, and other criminal activity in their neighborhoods. Nonetheless, I can't say that I feel like I am living in a "murder capital," by a long shot. Others may have good reason to feel differently.

  17. I just stumbled on to this. Has anyone discovered a St. Louis Expat Network? If so, let me know. I am an STL Expat living in Boston.

  18. Anonymous---I am not aware of one at this point. Perhaps you are the person to get it going . . .?