Kansas City serves as sort of a big brother to St. Joseph. It’s a complex relationship of unequal status, with the smaller partner trying to gain value from proximity while still attempting to escape the bigger sibling’s stifling presence.
Here in St. Joseph, officials can promote our community’s closeness to Kansas City International Airport, Arrowhead Stadium and various restaurants and shopping venues. It’s all true, but then why not just live in Kansas City? It’s difficult to play it both ways.
Kansas City’s shadow has loomed large since the opening of the Hannibal Bridge in 1869, though it’s easy to overexaggerate this rail crossing’s role in the diverging destinies of the two cities. The bridge closed in 1917, giving St. Joseph ample time to find some sort of economic spark to match the big city’s allure.
A decade ago, economic-development types thought that maybe the key was Old Navy, Target and Olive Garden. They reasoned that better shopping and dining amenities would make people more likely to choose St. Joseph. The Shoppes at North Village came, but the population dynamics remained unchanged.
Now the focus has turned to schools. Modern high schools in Kansas City’s northern suburbs draw more families from St. Joseph, even if they retain jobs here. Some estimates suggest that 25 to 30% of St. Joseph’s workforce now lives outside this city.
A local doctor put it in blunt terms at a recent meeting to discuss the state of St. Joseph’s high school facilities. The doctor told school officials and business leaders that people now choose to live where taxes are higher, if they think better schools give their children more of an edge.
He’s right, because if you took schools out of the equation it actually would make more sense to live in St. Joseph and work in Kansas City. The median price of homes listed for sale is $115,500 in St. Joseph, compared to $189,900 in Kansas City and $239,900 in Liberty.
At $20.49, the average hourly wage in St. Joseph is 18% lower than the national average and 15% lower than the average in Kansas City, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compared to the national average, wages in St. Joseph are 2% lower for production work, 13% lower for management, 16% lower for teachers, 17% lower for health care support, 22% lower for IT workers and 24% lower for sales.
Construction and farming were the only occupations where workers in the St. Joseph area make more than the national average.
So why not live in St. Joseph, benefit from a lower cost of living and work in Kansas City, where wages are high?
Don’t blame the bridge; it’s long gone. But St. Joseph can still do something about its schools.