Quiet college town? More like boomtown

Quiet college town? More like boomtown

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COLUMBIA, Mo. • One sign of this city's population boom wore a bright red dress and wireless headset. She was working an afternoon shift at Dunn Bros. coffee shop.

This is Aimee Swift. She works here part time. She is 24 years old. She is from St. Charles. And like so many others in this mid-Missouri town, she first came here to attend the University of Missouri.

But then something happened that illustrates how Columbia grew by 28 percent in a decade, why it so handily punched through the 100,000-population barrier with the 2010 census, becoming only the fifth city in Missouri to reach that lofty level.

What happened was Swift graduated from Mizzou ... and stayed. So did her husband, Chris Swift. He hails from Springfield, Mo. The couple have no plans to move back to St. Charles or Springfield. They might move out-of-state one day. But they like Columbia.

"If we're going to stay in Missouri," said Swift between coffee orders, "we'll stay here."

Columbia is still very much a college town. About 33,000 college students attend the three schools located in the city, most of them at Mizzou. Students have fueled the city's growth. Over the past decade, enrollment at Mizzou has shot up 31 percent, even faster than the city's population, adding 7,100 more students for the census to count.

"And, of course, that has multiplier effects in other parts of the community," said Bill Elder, director of Mizzou's Office of Social and Economic Data.

More students mean more restaurants, more rental housing, more teachers.

But the city has gained a reputation as being more than a college town, too, allowing it to appeal to recent graduates.

"They are finding they can stay here," said Don Laird, president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

Keeping graduates means having enough jobs.

Mizzou remains the biggest employer, providing more than 12,000 jobs when you also count staff at the University Hospital system.

Boone Hospital Center, run by BJC, supplies 1,600 jobs. The city's public school system, where Swift student-teaches when she's not at the coffee shop, employs 2,140. The insurance industry — with headquarters for Shelter Insurance and a regional office for State Farm — kicks in more than 2,500 jobs. Columbia also is close enough to Jefferson City that state capital workers can commute.

With relatively stable big employers, Columbia boasted a 5.7 percent unemployment rate last year, the envy of a state with a 9.6 percent rate.

And more jobs are coming: Late last year, IBM announced plans for 800 jobs at a new service center.

The "college town" label also has attracted new residents — like Mike Brooks, a former Indianapolis resident. He turned down job offers in two other communities in 2009 to become president of Columbia's Regional Economic Development Inc.

"The university community really does provide those quality-of-life attributes," Brooks said.

The university's presence is an element often cited in the "best places to live" surveys that have developed a fondness for Columbia. Late last year, the city was named No. 8 on the Forbes' "best small places for business and careers" list. (Down from a high of No. 3 in 2007, but still a good showing.)

Annexation also has been a key. The city added eight square miles of land, about 14 percent, since the 2000 census.

And Columbia has grown without an abundance of a factor often cited as crucial for the St. Louis region's future: air service. The only flights from Columbia Regional Airport are three round-trips a day to Memphis. That is one issue, officials said, they would like to address to seed future growth.

But the growth has been manageable, said Elder, who has lived in Columbia for three decades. Trouble exists, but even the worst rush hour lasts only 20 minutes.

"They are not O'Fallon," Elder said, referring to the St. Charles County suburb that exploded by 72 percent in the last census. "I think people in Columbia are happy with this rate of growth."

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