The first thing Alexis Ades noticed about St. Joseph was the color. The trees and grass provide a lushness that was lacking in the sunny, semi-arid landscape of Southern California.
“At first I thought, this is very green,” said Ades, a dance instructor who moved to St. Joseph this year. “I don’t know if I can do it. But then I loved it. The people were super nice and super great.”
Ades lived 22 years in San Diego and Los Angeles County before moving to St. Joseph, where she teaches at the Dance Arts Center. Whether she’s a trendsetter or an anomaly remains to be seen, but economic development officials are trying to lure more Californians to St. Joseph.
This year, the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce launched an effort to find skilled workers from other Midwestern states. With more than 800 unfilled positions in St. Joseph, that initiative was expanded to include California.
It marks quite a change form the days when other cities tried to poach workers as St. Joseph’s economy struggled.
“I didn’t think I’d live long enough in St. Joseph that we’d now be trying to attract people to the community to take jobs,” said Patt Lilly, president and chief executive of the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve come full circle when you talk about jobs.”
Today, the St. Joseph metro area unemployment rate is 1.9 percent, which creates a pressing need for some companies to find trained workers. Unemployment in California ranges from 2.7 percent in San Jose to 4.3 percent in Los Angeles and 6.6 percent in Fresno. But St. Joseph is pitching not only job opportunities but also a chance to escape an expensive, crowded state for a place that’s more calm and affordable. Gasoline sells for more than $4 a gallon in many California cities, while the median home value is $587,000.
Ades said she would have been lucky to get a studio apartment for $1,800 a month in San Diego. She found a one-bedroom unit for around $600 in St. Joseph.
“It’s way cheaper here,” she said. “I’ve had a few friends who have called and said, ‘How do you like it?’ They just kind of said they want a change of scenery from California.”
This trails east trend would mark a reversal from St. Joseph’s earliest days, when settlers headed west after gold was discovered in California.
“St. Joseph played a key role because it was a straight shot to California,” said Gary Chilcote, director of the Patee House Museum. “By 1848, there were thousands of people waiting in the springtime to cross the river and head out west.”
Today, St. Joseph isn’t the only community that sees opportunity as the Golden State loses its luster. Last month, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson traveled to California in a trade mission that was reminiscent of similar job-development expeditions in other countries. The governor tried to convince Bay Area technology executives to consider Missouri for relocation or expansion.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 38,000 more people left California than entered it in 2018. The problem is convincing those who flee to choose St. Joseph instead of Texas, Colorado or the Pacific Northwest.
“We’re going to continue to engage California with this effort,” Lilly said. “What’s interesting is we believe it’s that job that gets people interested, but the truth is people have opportunities to live lots of places.”
In digital marketing, St. Joseph plays up job opportunities and affordability. The city is able to promote small-town charm and proximity to Kansas City, but that can be a blessing as much as a curse if some choose to work in St. Joseph and live in Kansas City because of concerns about housing, past school issues or community appearance.
One thing that’s not a drawback, at least for Ades, is the weather. She misses the beach but is looking forward to all that green turning into gold and brilliant reds.
“We had the same weather all year around,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m really going to love the snow. I would love to see a little change. I like to see fall. In California, we don’t have fall. We have summer and then, kind of cold.”