O’FALLON, Mo. • In the early 1970s, this city in St. Charles County comprised a mere 20 square blocks north of Interstate 70, in what was still a largely rural area surrounded by fields — a place where an occasional cow would wander the streets.
That was just before the four-decades-long population explosion that transformed the county into one of the nation’s fastest-growing — and lifted O’Fallon to second place in size among all cities in the region.
“If you remember watching Andy and Opie and Aunt Bee in Mayberry, it was a lot like that,” said Joe Cronin, 63, who grew up in O’Fallon and is the second generation of his family to run Western Lawn Equipment on Main Street.
That was when Highway K, today a four-lane thoroughfare surrounded by stores and restaurants, was a sleepy two-lane road. Cronin, now a member of the St. Charles County Council, said his parents built a house in the mid-1960s off K on Laura Hill Road, in what was still considered the country. Today, it’s home to a Target and a Kohl’s.
And the 86,000 people who call O’Fallon home today are expected to get even more neighbors. City leaders project the city will hit 125,000 residents by 2040, when the remaining developable land will be exhausted.
Such a population spike is especially remarkable in the slow-growing St. Louis region. Census data released in 2016 showed that among the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas, St. Louis had the third-slowest rate of growth since 2010 — ahead of Detroit and Chicago, which was the only large metro area to lose people.
The reasons for O’Fallon’s rapid growth largely mirror the ongoing westward population shift to St. Charles County, where suburban homebuyers and builders usually are able to get more bang for their buck in house and lot sizes than in west St. Louis County. A low crime rate and good public schools also are draws.
Between 2000 and 2010, more than a third of the city’s current 30-square-mile footprint was annexed and its population grew by about 72 percent.
Such robust development can come at a price and usually has consequences elsewhere in the metropolitan area, experts say.
Todd Swanstrom, professor of urban policy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, points out the St. Louis region is continuing to add more housing units than households.
Such growth, he says, requires more roads and their upkeep, as well as more sewer and electric lines in low-density areas.
“We are thinning out as a region,” he warns — and that’s not a sustainable form of development.
Still, O’Fallon’s approach to attracting jobs and new residents seems to be working.
Going on 20 years, the city’s leadership has been unusually focused on growth and development, both from a housing standpoint and in attracting jobs, said Greg Prestemon, president of the Economic Development Center of St. Charles County.
O’Fallon had some aces in its pocket that spurred development and drew new residents, specifically the moves by MasterCard and CitiMortgage, now the city’s biggest employers, to locate offices there.
Prestemon described the city’s efforts to lure MasterCard’s global technology headquarters from Maryland Heights to the WingHaven area — a move bolstered by at least $40 million in subsidies — as bold, and said the city offered the right mix of incentives at a time when cities weren’t making such offers.
They were able to convince the company to consolidate its operations under one roof in what then seemed like a distant location, Prestemon said, and make the needed infrastructure investments such as roads to accommodate commuters.
“The city would not take no for an answer. They were incapable of being discouraged,” he said. MasterCard broke ground there in 1999, and now employs 2,530 people, according to the city figures from last year.
Only Citi has a larger workforce, with 3,800. Like MasterCard, it left St. Louis County, choosing to consolidate its Ellisville and Town and Country offices into a headquarters in O’Fallon that opened in 2003 with the help of $22 million in state and local incentives.
Prestemon also said the city didn’t wait around for the state to pay to widen Highway K, a state road, but put up the money to expand to five lanes and waited for state reimbursement.
“The city, in my view, has done a good job of keeping pace with rapid growth,” Prestemon said.
O’Fallon’s labor force is 48,577 people, city data show. A little more than half work within St. Charles County.
O’Fallon has been named several times to Money magazine’s 100 Best Places to Live in America list, and earns accolades for being safe.
The city saw one homicide last year — a man charged with murdering his girlfriend — and one in 2016. There were none in the two years before. Robberies are rare, with 39 reported over the last five years, according to crime reports compiled by the Missouri Highway Patrol.
“It’s a vibrant community. It has great schools, great neighborhoods. These are the things that are attracting people to the area,” said Mark Stallmann, chief executive officer of St. Charles Realtors, a trade association of county real-estate professionals.
The appeal of good schools was a major draw to O’Fallon for Courtney Jeffreys and her family.
They left their home near New Town and bought a house in O’Fallon about a year ago. She and her husband, parents to a 3-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son, have friends in west St. Louis County and considered moving to Ballwin.
“We really felt we could get more for our money here,” said Jeffreys, who lives in Fort Zumwalt School District.
That’s the district where Max Mabry’s kids landed after the family was forced to move from their Bridgeton home in 2006 as part of a massive buyout to build a billion-dollar runway at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
Mabry, a Trans States Airlines pilot, needed to find a new home that was an easy drive to the airport. And houses were in short supply as 2,000 homes were bulldozed.
His neighbors from Bridgeton scattered to places including Wentzville, St. Charles and Warrenton.
“To me, it was the schools,” said Mabry of how his family ended up in O’Fallon. Three of his four kids were still in school, and he said houses in the Pattonville district were too expensive.
His kids grew up skating on a pond on an empty farmsite near their new house that is now senior-living apartments.
“We like our neighbors. It’s still a quiet, nice place,” Mabry said.
Tom Drabelle, a city spokesman, said the city doesn’t have numbers on how many people moved to O’Fallon from Bridgeton, but said it was a substantial number at a time when many new subdivisions were being built.
The city has hit hurdles as it has grown, including the failed $200 million downtown redevelopment Main Street Ventures plan in 2003 that called for new stores, offices, homes and parks on about 100 acres along and around the street. It would have used the city’s eminent domain power to force relocation of more than 40 homeowners and dozens of businesses. Plans for a smaller development, a pedestrian-style shopping and residential complex called O’Fallon Station, on 15 empty acres near City Hall fell apart a few years later.
Like most places, single-family home construction took a nosedive a decade ago, dropping from 806 residential building permits in 2007 to 394 the next year. And like most places, that market has rebounded.
Big projects have come to fruition in recent years include a new $28.5 million Justice Center. The new 57-acre O’Day Park off Highway DD with a lodge for banquets and meetings, an amphitheater and nature trails, as well as a camping area for groups and an “adventure” playground, is being built.
It’s south of Interstate 64, making it the city’s southernmost park and positioned to be accessed by population that has spread there, said Cindy Springer, the city’s director of parks and recreation at the park’s groundbreaking this month.
The city also is adding a new community center at Civic Park and expanding the Alligator’s Creek Aquatic Park. And a veteran’s museum is set to be built.
Much of O’Fallon falls into what’s dubbed as “the golden triangle,” the area of St. Charles County bounded by Interstate 70, the Missouri River and Interstate 64 that’s seeing tremendous growth, said John Posey, director of research for the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the region’s planning arm.
But with the growth comes infrastructure and road needs.
Mayor Bill Hennessy said no tax increases are planned to deal with coming infrastructure costs such as replacing aging subdivision streets and water lines.
The city is part of projects to deal with congestion along Interstate 70, including adding a new eastbound one-way south outer road between Highway K/Main Street and Woodlawn Avenue and converting the existing north outer road from a two-way to a one-way westbound outer road, as well as and building a new one-way south outer road.
“I worry that alternative development — more urbanized, more pedestrian-friendly, more linked to transit, more walkable — is being underserved,” said Swanstrom, the UMSL professor. “And the millennial generation is looking for those kinds of communities in many cases.”
Like the rest of St. Charles County, O’Fallon is predominantly white. The median household income in 2016 was about $81,000 and expected to grow to more than $97,000 in 2021, according to the city.
Last year, the city logged 245 residential building permits for new construction of single-family homes and villas, with an estimated value of more than $44 million, according to the city. Seven multifamily building permits were issued, with an estimated value of $17.5 million.
“If you look at what’s happening with expanding further and further west, it follows a long history in our region of white flight,” said Glenn Burleigh, a spokesman for the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council.
And a lack of affordable housing in the area is a serious problem, he said.
But Drabelle, the city spokesman, pointed out that O’Fallon has a strong mix of housing options for all income levels, including numerous apartment complexes and older, smaller houses in the low $100,000s. He also pointed to several newer developments, such as Homefield, that offering a mixture of apartments, condos, attached and detached villas and small and large single-family homes. He said the city continues to see developers propose new developments catering to lower-income homeowners, primarily apartments and senior housing options.
The city participates in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s down-payment assistance program, which offers forgivable loans of up to $5,000 to lower-income people looking to move to O’Fallon, he said.
And it seems the building will continue.
Room to grow
“There is plenty of land still out there,” said Jeff Schindler, president of McBride & Son Homes, a dominant builder in O’Fallon. Stretches with room to build include the Highway N and K corridors.
New McBride subdivisions include the Manors at Cobblestone Crossing, with 284 sites ranging in price from $160,000 to the $400,000s with playgrounds and pickleball courts, and the Estates at Keystone Ridge, with 86 home sites priced from $240,000 to the $500,000s, and lots up to 2.5 acres.
Sandy Grassmuck, owner and managing broker of Grassmuck Realty, echoed that there’s still room to build in O’Fallon. She said most of the people moving to the city are from around the region, but a few are from out of state. She expects to see continued growth and increasing home prices.
These days, ranches with finished basements and three-car garages are the hot sellers, Grassmuck said.
She then cited the boom in Wentzville, which sits west of O’Fallon.
Wentzville’s population trajectory is not unlike O’Fallon’s. In 1990, just shy of 5,000 people lived there.
Today, it’s more than 37,000, with space to grow.