A funny thing happened here in the past few years. More young adults moved into the St. Louis region than moved out.
Not as many as in some so-called "cooler" cities, and maybe only because fewer people were moving in general from 2008 to 2010 as the nation wrestled with a deep recession and weak recovery.
But in each of those three years, according to new census data crunched by the Brookings Institution, on average, 870 more people age 25 to 34 came to the St. Louis area than left it. That is the opposite of what happened the previous three years and runs counter to the general trend of recent decades. After a long time spent watching young adults move away, and the St. Louis region slowly get grayer, a lot of people say this seems like progress.
Wooing young people has been a big focus in recent years for the groups that try to grow St. Louis' economy. Ranging from efforts by the Regional Chamber and Growth Association to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, "talent" initiatives and young adult councils have been launched in a bid to stem what some call a "brain drain" and spur fresh thinking in a place that is sometimes seen as stodgy and closed. Grass-roots groups have sprung up with the same ideas.
For an aging region, young adults are a sort of economic vitamin boost. People in their late 20s and early 30s are building careers and choosing where to settle down. Capturing them, and their talent, can mean a stronger workforce, which helps grow and attract companies — which means more jobs.
Ironically, it is the weak economy itself that's likely driving the better numbers for places such as St. Louis, said William Frey, the Brookings demographer who conducted the study.
There aren't many jobs anywhere, which means fewer people are moving these days. The Census Bureau found that 2010 saw the fewest moves across state lines of any year since it started keeping track in 1948. That means fewer people are moving away from places that have traditionally lost migrants, like St. Louis.
"That's good news," Frey said. "It gives people a second look at staying there, and gives the region a chance to make them rethink that move."
Quest of cheaper living
Another factor is where people are moving.
From 2005 to 2007 — the peak of the housing bubble — the most popular destinations for footloose young adults were places such as Phoenix; Atlanta; and Riverside, Calif., where homes were cheap and construction and real estate drove a lot of job growth. When the housing market crashed, those jobs dried up, and places with more balanced economies, such as Denver and Seattle, now top the migration charts. While St. Louis has certainly suffered in the recession, it has fared better than many places and is one of a handful of cities — such as Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Boston — to flip from negative migration to positive.
St. Louis also is relatively affordable. When dollars are tight, they go further here than on the coasts, and many of the region's supporters say that affordability translates into greater opportunity, especially for people who want to build something.
"You can start a band or open a gallery and it's not going to cost you a fortune," said Anthony Bartlett. "You've got this canvas to work with. In someplace like Washington, D.C., you'd need a million dollars."
Bartlett, who grew up here, moved to Washington, and came back in 2003, runs an organization called St. Louis Transplants, designed to help newcomers here find their way. It hosts monthly gatherings and lots of "get to know you" type events intended to help people who are new to town develop the kind of social connections that natives have acquired through family, school and neighborhood ties.
"We try to help people find a life here in three months that would normally take five years," he said. "I want them to feel like a local, quickly."
The thinking, Bartlett said, is that those ties will make newcomers feel more connected to St. Louis, and open up opportunities, so they're more likely to stay.
Opportunity is a big part of why Shannon Miller came here.
Miller, 23, moved here in April from Kansas City for an advertising job. Her boyfriend lives here, so that didn't hurt, but she looked in other cities, too. She lives near Tower Grove Park, and likes that she can go to nice parks and free museums, or go out to dinner without spending a lot. She got some teasing from friends back home about "how I'll probably get shot," but that hasn't happened, either.
"I like St. Louis more than I thought I would," she said.
Miller is not sure she'll stay forever. The bright lights, and bigger professional opportunities, of a city like New York or Chicago do hold some appeal, she said. But for now, the combination of low price and high quality of life works well for her.
"It's almost like St. Louis is this hidden gem," she said. "I had no idea before I lived here."
Opportunity is a factor for Adrian Allen, too.
Allen, 27, moved to St. Louis last year from North Carolina, to join his wife who was working here. After a few months, he found a job in development at a local school, and they live in the Central West End. He is from Columbus, Ohio, and she is from Louisville, Ky., so there are no family ties keeping them here. But, Allen said, they like St. Louis — its neighborhoods, its parks, its accessibility — quite a bit. And they both have good jobs here.
"The only thing that would cause us to move would be either family or a job opportunity we couldn't get here," he said. "I'm employed and feeling fine about my job and prospects. If I was unemployed, I'd probably be having a different conversation. But I'm not feeling like opportunities are closed to me here."
That's important, said Frey, if a place like St. Louis hopes to build on its modest demographic success of the past few years. It needs to be a place where there is opportunity for smart young people like Allen. The economy will eventually recover. When it does, people will start moving again. Where? Well, he said, that depends.