Carol Van Gorp had only one rough spot in her presentation to State Farm employees visiting what could become their new hometown. After telling her audience about moving her family to Columbia from southern Florida last year, the Columbia Board of Realtors CEO said, “... and I can tell you there’s more to life than warm weather and palm trees.”
The comment drew a collective groan from the audience, comprised mostly of Louisianans.
Gorp was talking on Friday to the second wave of State Farm employees coming from the mostly warm and sunny Monroe, La., to a cooler and stormier Columbia. After a shaky landing at Columbia Regional Airport, about 240 people, including the employees’ families, boarded buses headed for the Peachtree Banquet Center.
Spilling out of the buses carrying their new city of Columbia tote bags, they filed into the banquet hall for a welcome party that included presentations from the Board of Realtors and Columbia Public Schools. The audience sat in rapt attention, watching computerized presentations about home prices and turnover rates, teacher-to-student ratios and school accreditation records.
After lunch — and an apology for the quality of the sweet tea — they perused another room filled with booths offering information on Boone County towns, businesses and organizations, from local churches to the Columbia Rod & Gun Club.
Michael Stalloch, vice-president of operations for State Farm, told how he moved his family to Columbia seven years ago. After listing many positive things about the city, such as the quality of the public schools, he reminded them that “there are many things Columbia can do, but there is one thing it cannot do: Columbia cannot replace your home.”
Chris Coons, an auto team manager who helps process claims on totaled cars, isn’t hoping to replace Louisiana. His family is ready for a change of scenery.
“We’ve already lived in the South,” he said. “We’d like to give our kids a little more exposure to other parts of the country.”
Coons came to Missouri with his wife and two school-age children. By April 19, he has to rank his choices for cities to which he might relocate: The other options are Little Rock, Ark.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Baton Rouge, La.
“I’ll go where they need me, but Columbia is at the top of my list,” Coons said, citing information he received from his company, the Internet and friends. “I know people here who always brag about the place.”
The Coons family now lives in a historic home, so they planned to visit downtown Columbia to see the historic buildings and shops.
State Farm wants employees from its soon-to-be-closed Monroe office to know what to expect if they decide to relocate to Columbia. These visits are intended to give them and their families a chance to get to know the new office, the community and its leaders, said spokeswoman Vanda Easley. The trips are considered “orientations” by the company and not a guarantee that they’ll get their choice of relocation sites.
Columbia will become an auto-insurance hub for State Farm, which has had offices here since 1956. The company is consolidating offices after experiencing heavy losses in 2002. The state of Louisiana offered the company $33 million to stay in Monroe, but State Farm found Columbia and Tulsa, neither of which offered monetary incentives, more attractive in the long-term.
The company is already the 10th largest employer in Columbia, and the consolidation will bring another 200 to 300 workers. Also on the trip were people from offices in Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and other parts of Missouri and Louisiana.
Theresa Meza works in special investigations in Shreveport, La. This weekend’s visit is her first to Missouri. She said Columbia is her first choice for relocation.
“I enjoy outdoor activities, and I want to check out the state parks and recreation centers the city has to offer,” Meza said. “I like what I’ve seen so far; the air looks very clean.”
Meza graduated from college 10 years ago but recently enrolled at Louisiana State University to continue her education. She was looking forward to a tour of college campuses in town in case she decides to enroll here.
The group also took a one-hour driving tour, which highlighted Columbia’s cultural attractions, such as art galleries, museums and theatres.
“It was much more than I expected from a town this size,” Meza said, adding she was impressed with the people she met.
“Columbia is wonderful — everyone was so nice and attentive,” she said. “I want to thank you guys for the hospitality of the town; everyone just greeted us with open arms. I hadn’t expected this much hospitality out here in the Midwest, and I’m really grateful.”