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Defining community

Forbes publisher outlines seven areas describing Columbia's porch-swing status
Sunday, October 10, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:59 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

‘On Foot’

Residents can stroll the sidewalks to neighbors’ homes, the local bakery and the family doctor’s office.

Porch-swing cities are walker-friendly communities, where residents can saunter down the sidewalks to neighbors’ homes and to commercial areas, said Michael Goldschmidt, an architect and MU professor.

There was a time when parents didn’t have a problem with their children walking through neighborhoods, but today the prospect frightens them, he said. It isn’t that neighborhoods are less safe, but that they’re not as pedestrian-friendly, he said.

Number of square miles in Columbia: 53.5

Number of miles of paved streets: 371.44

Number of people who rode the Columbia Transit bus system in 2003: 496,000

Source: City of Columbia

Residents in traditional neighborhoods around MU, such as East Campus, can walk to a local grocery store, Goldschmidt said.

“Each of those areas have little things that take care of their needs, so it’s not required that people always drive outside of the neighborhood for the things they need.”

Roxanne Carr

During the Gulf of Mexico’s hurricane season, Roxanne Carr would feel occasional twinges of hopelessness.

Getting out of her Houston-area suburb would have been a feat if disaster hit, she said.

“I always figured I’d just stay home and I’d just soon die in my little garage apartment or drown on the road trying to get out,” said Carr, a Louisiana native with a soft Southern drawl.

The streets in her Texas neighborhood flooded easily, and the 45-year-old said she didn’t know how a city of 1.9 million could evacuate without stragglers being left behind.

In February, fed up with 10 years of living with congestion, she started scanning the Internet for a new place to live. Her requirements: It had to have a Cracker Barrel— her former place of employment, a college or university and a Unity Church. She also wanted to be less dependent on her blue ’88 Chevy Caprice.

In her search, she read about a Midwestern college town with a bike trail and public transportation.

Point. Click. Relocate.

On the last weekend of July, Carr — whose 20-something sons support themselves and whose 17-year-old daughter is finishing high school in Houston — filled three plastic bins with kitchenware, bathroom items and clothes. She stacked the boxes in her car and drove to Columbia to taste life in a less-crowded city.

Never having visited before, she spied a “For Rent” sign for a second-floor apartment in a house on Broadway, two miles west of the public library. On July 31, she rented her new home.

Carr found inexpensive and free furniture through classified ads, at street curbs and via her landlord. She scored a television from a stranger at a bar, who traded the tube for a Taco Bell meal.

Now a waitress at Jack’s Gourmet Restaurant, Carr said she finds herself walking to the library, the Missouri Theatre and to festivals downtown. On Sundays, she walks around Shelter Gardens after church, and she walks to Mojo’s to listen to blues.

“I don’t have to drive an hour and a half to get there, I don’t have to drive around the parking lot for 30 minutes looking for a place to park, and then I don’t have to deal with 50,000 other people when I get there,” Carr said.

Jobs

The unemployment rate is low, universities and colleges are primary employers, and employers aren’t striving to outsource or automate jobs.

A “cheap revolution” is taking hold in the United States. The Internet and broadband technology have put U.S. employers under pressure to cut costs of goods and operation. When those employers aren’t striving to automate jobs or outsource them to Asia, they’ll begin relocating in the American heartland because of the savings in costs, Rich Karlgaard writes.

Employment Numbers

MU: 13,950

Stephens College: 200

Columbia College: 375

University Hospitals and Clinics: 5,501

Columbia Public Schools: 3,000

Shelter Insurance Co.: 1,016

Sources: Regional Economic Development Inc.; Bureau of Labor Statistics

The low unemployment rate in Columbia is a factor that attracts potential residents, along with retirees who are seeking to go back to work, Chamber of Commerce President Donald Laird said.

Lynn Maloney

Acupuncturist Lynn Maloney was on pins and needles after visiting Columbia in September 2003.

Raised outside Chicago and educated at the universities of Wisconsin and Illinois, Maloney lived in San Diego and New York City before heading to Washington, D.C., to earn her license at the Traditional Acupuncture Institute.

She lived in the nation’s capital for six years before moving to Columbia in December.

In Washington, Maloney worked in an office with 10 other acupuncturists. There are more than 1,000 acupuncturists in the Baltimore/D.C. area, she said.

Friends in Columbia encouraged Maloney to consider moving her practice to this college town.

They told her there would be more demand for her services in Columbia, and her friends were right, Maloney said. The acupuncturist, who also teaches yoga, is one of two licensed acupuncturists in Columbia who have a master’s degree in the field.

There is a lot more curiosity about yoga and acupuncture in a university town, she said.

“People were much more familiar with acupuncture in D.C., but people here are intrigued by it,” she said.

Maloney runs her own practice three days a week in a rented office near College Avenue and Smith Street. She also teaches a yoga class at the Whole Health Family Wellness Center near Forum Boulevard and Chapel Hill Road.

“People would say to me, ‘I love living in Columbia, Missouri,’ ” Maloney said of her trip here last fall. “People don’t say that about Washington, D.C. D.C. is a great city; I don’t want to bad-mouth D.C. But people live there usually for a particular reason. There’s a lot of ambition, a lot of focus. People are saving the world. But not many of them live there because they love Washington, D.C.”

Family fun

Kids aren’t overly supervised, neighborhoods are a safe haven for outdoor activities, and family friendly events encourage parent-children togetherness.

Porch-swing communities are places where kids roaming the neighborhood are the norm, not an anomaly, Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes magazine and author of “Life 2.0,” said.

Total acres of parks: 2,128

Number of parks: 40

Miles of nature and fitness trails: More than 30

Number of volumes at Daniel Boone Regional Library: 441,376

Source: City of Columbia; Regional Economic Development Inc.; Columbia Chamber of Commerce

“I meant a place where kids aren’t overly supervised in the way they are in suburban America today, where every minute of their leisure life is accounted for,” the author said. “They get great education, but there isn’t this nervous suburban parent supervision that I really think has robbed children of joy and forced them to grow up too fast.”

Karlgaard writes that college sports, hiking and hanging out with your children are essential parts of porch-swing life.

Lorah Steiner of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau said Columbia is missing activities for children that are not seasonally dependent. “We need attractions that give children an experience and something to do 365 days a year,” Steiner said.

The public library, the Mud Room downtown pottery shop and city parks are noteworthy family-oriented locales in Columbia, Steiner said.

Jena Meyerpeter and Molly Swan

Jena Meyerpeter and Molly Swan watched their toddler girls prance in the fading sunshine as a breeze — the children’s invisible dance partner — led them in spirals around Cherry Hill’s Town Square.

D’Agostino’s fall concert series drew these mothers, their husbands and their daughters to an idle evening out.

The two couples like to meet at local parks for playtime with their children, and they also take Jalen and Lydia — both almost 2 — to Tumble Bee Gymnastics on Vandiver Drive.

Columbia is a friendly town that has a lot to offer young families, said Meyerpeter, who hails from Kansas City. She and her husband, Josh, had no family or friends before moving here three years ago.

Meyerpeter said she was familiar enough with the college town to know it would be a nice place to raise a family.

“With the colleges here, you have good lab schools, good pre-schools,” Meyerpeter said. “There are also some nice churches with good children’s programs around here.”

Both families worship at The Crossing church, which meets at Rock Bridge High School. They also find good family activities at the library and at the festivals in the city, Meyerpeter said.

“There’s always something going on,” she said.

Norman Rockwell-esque

Seasonal festivals, Fourth of July parades and weekly events like farmers markets allow families and neighbors to connect.

Porch-swing communities are suited for those “in search of that Norman Rockwell hometown feeling,” Rich Karlgaard writes in his book.

But Karlgaard said he didn’t mean porch-swing towns are hidebound to the past. Rather than being tethered to old-fashioned ideals, he sees them simply as authentic communities where families and neighbors can easily connect, as in Rockwell’s heyday.

Upcoming festivals and events

October — MU Homecoming

November — Downtown holiday lighting ceremony

December — Living Windows Festival, First Night Columbia New Year’s Eve celebration

January — Martin Luther King Jr. celebration

April — Super Tiger Weekend, Earth Day celebration

Steiner said the high number of quality festivals in Columbia make the town family-friendly. Volunteerism at the festivals is high, which allows the city to offer the breadth of festivals to residents, Steiner said.

Rockwell paintings capture a romantic rendering of American life. In his images, freckle-faced boys sit at local diner counters, families gather for dinner around tables gleaming with white lace and neighbors stroll down Main Street, USA.

Would a picture of Columbia today match a Rockwell painting of the past?

Pat and Claire Friedrichsen

To Pat Friedrichsen and her 14-year-old daughter, Claire, Saturdays are for swimming, strolling and squash — and tomatoes or potatoes, depending on the time of year.

The Columbia pair hit the 8 a.m. water aerobics class at the Activity & Recreation Center each Saturday, then walk to the Columbia Farmers Market across the parking lot.

“We do it together as a mother-daughter thing,” said Pat, 45.

The pair grows beans and flowers in their own garden, but they like coming to the farmers market to pick up fresh bread, garlic and seasonal vegetables, Pat said.

Sometimes they also split a cookie, she admitted as her daughter giggled.

Former residents of Lincoln, Neb., the Friedrichsens said coming to the farmers market is a nice social outing at which they can see familiar faces from town. A friend owns one of the vegetable stands at the market.

To them, Columbia boasts a quintessential Goldilocks quality: not too big, not too small — just right.

“We like the size,” Pat said. “It’s got enough stuff to do: the Twilight Festival, the farmers market, events on campus. It’s a good variety.”

Annette Burt said she hits the farmers market each weekend with a game plan.

The 52-year-old grandmother designs a weekly menu for herself, her 30-year-old daughter and her 9-month-old granddaughter. On the first weekend in October, she bargained for $6 worth of onions for the upcoming days’ recipes.

“We’re going to have vegetable soup and stir fry with peppers,” she said, her hands strapped with six bags of produce.

Burt has come to the farmers market every weekend for a year. Donning a gray fleece sweat suit on the crisp fall morning, her stroll among the vendors turned into an energetic scamper as she left the market.

“I’m going home to get these good vegetables in our bodies,” she said.

Education

Strong K-12 school districts, high-school graduates who decide to stay in the community and plenty of higher-education opportunities foster the diversity of ideas.

Good K-12 schools are a hallmark of a porch-swing community, Rich Karlgaard, Forbes editor and author of “Life 2.0” said.

High school graduation rate:

Columbia 83%

Missouri 85.1%

Verbal SAT average:

Columbia 612

Missouri 507

Math SAT average:

Columbia 625

Missouri 519

Sources: Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; www.bestplaces.net; Columbia Public School District

Karlgaard said the colleges and universities in Columbia also make the town attractive to employers, who are looking for the natural assets of 21st-century business: brains.

“And where do you find brains?” Karlgaard asked. “You find them at universities, particularly broad universities like the University of Missouri, because broader universities are going to be strong in science and engineering.”

Medium-size college towns are going to be the rising stars of the next several decades, Karlgaard said, because they offer urbanites the restaurants, entertainment and activities that keep life from being dull.

“You have stimulating people, you have smart people, you have cultural diversity because of the university,” he said.

Sandi Abell and Mark Volkmann

MU science education professors Sandi Abell and Mark Volkmann said education brought them to Columbia.

The Cherry Hill residents were looking for a mid-size college town that could offer them good jobs and good neighborhoods.

“The kind of challenges that both of us were looking for happened to be here,” Mark said.

Abell accepted a position directing MU’s Southwestern Bell Science Education Center, which offers training to science teachers.

The leadership role at the educational institution enticed her to take a look at Columbia, but community life and the quality of Columbia schools for their 11-year-old son, Luke, were also considerations in accepting the teaching positions.

“We were looking for a community that had cultural events, live music,” she said. “Whenever I try to sell this place to future faculty, I’m always talking about all the things you can do here that don’t involve the university or going to soccer games with your kids.”

Before moving to Columbia, the couple worked at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind. — which made the porch-swing town runner-up list in Karlgaard’s book.

University towns meet intellectual needs without the headache of traffic, Abell said.

“We knew we wanted the kind of neighborhood we had before: a close-knit neighborhood, where neighbors knew each other, where people walked and sat out in their front yards and didn’t go into their back yards.”

Cost of Living

A strong economy and a neighborhood feel make porch-swing towns a good place to raise a family, do business and retire.

Current economic forces make metropolitan living more attainable in a smaller city, said Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes magazine and author of the book “Life 2.0: How People Across America are Transforming Their Lives by Finding the Where of Their Happiness.”

Sales tax rate in Columbia: 7.35%

Cost of utilities in Columbia: 94.1% of the national average

Cost of utilities in St. Louis: 106.2% of the national average

Cost of utilities in New York City: 168.1% of the national average

Source: City of Columbia; Columbia Chamber of Commerce

“We will suffer with a small house, a hefty mortgage and a grinding commute if we think by these sacrifices we can retire by age 55, thanks to our rapidly appreciating house and retirement portfolio,” he wrote in his book.

Take away those dividends — as is happening in urban coastal cities — and the cost of living in smaller towns makes porch-swing communities all the more desirable, Karlgaard said.

According to the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, the city’s cost of living index rates 1.8 percent below the national average cost for groceries, housing, utilities, transportation, health care and miscellaneous goods and services. The average household income is $33,729.

Chamber of Commerce President Donald Laird said, “Columbia has a good economy, coupled with a good neighborhood feel.

“It’s a very good place to raise a family, do business and retire.”

Bruce and Stacy Summers

When Bruce and Stacy Summers of Denver were thinking about where to start a family, they decided to call 10 strangers for some advice.

“We were planning on having a family and to have Stacy be at home,” said Bruce, a computer consultant. “We couldn’t swing that in Denver — or we could have, but it would have been very, very tough.”

Married since October 1999, the couple decided to create their own short list of Midwestern cities they could afford to live in: Terre Haute, Ind.; Springfield and Urbana, Ill.; Topeka and Lawrence, Kan.; Green Bay, Wis.; and Columbia.

Bruce plucked 10 names out of each city’s phone book and dialed the residents for their opinions. They also called police stations and churches and checked school statistics.

In July 2002, the couple flew to Chicago and started a summer road trip through their list of towns. They compared housing prices and visited real-estate agents.

After 2½ days in Columbia, the Summerses were hooked. They picked out a house before heading back to the Mile High City. A complicated pregnancy kept the couple in Denver until March 2003, when they managed to make their way to their new home near Old 63 and Broadway.

Less than four months later, the Summers’ daughter, Isabelle, was born. Now 15 months old, Isabelle waddles through their living room, dodging Nugget — the family’s frisky cockapoo — to make her way to a pink Care Bears chair. The toddler sinks into her seat with a gurgle, blissfully at home in the only house she’s ever known.

The Summerses said they have no regrets about leaving Denver.

“It costs too much to live there,” said Bruce Summers, who runs his own consulting business from home. “It’s polluted and dangerous. Would you go walking through downtown Denver at night with a baby?

“When you watch the local news in Denver, they go through 10 murders. It’s just not the world I want to live in.”

‘Cheers’ factor

“Where everybody knows your name,” porch-swing towns don’t leave room for anonymity.

Like the television sitcom bar “where everybody knows your name,” porch-swing towns don’t leave room for anonymity.

Columbia’s population has grown by 22.3% in 10 years.

Columbia population in 1992: 70,490

Columbia population in 2004: 90,066

According to the latest Census data, total housing units in Columbia have risen by 30%, from 27,551 units in 1990 to 35,916 in 2000.

Source: City of Columbia

They’re the type of cities where waitress Roxanne Carr can get invited to a potluck dinner by one of her customers. Where neighbors bring food and flowers to Bruce and Stacy Summers at their new home. Where Lynn Maloney runs into new friends at the Ragtag Cinemacafé.

Debbie D’Agostino

When Debbie D’Agostino looks around the Italian restaurant that bears her last name, she doesn’t see a business.

She sees her home.

“This is my living room,” D’Agostino said, nodding to tables and chairs that occupy a corner spot in the Village of Cherry Hill’s commercial district.

D’Agostino has been a driving force behind the events and activities that give Cherry Hill the feel of a traditional neighborhood. She organizes a fall and spring outdoor concert series in the town square. She hosts a Broadway music night in her restaurant. A singer herself, she offers live music to customers several evenings each week.

She lives above her restaurant. She knows the names of her customers, and they know hers.

“A lot of us created families in Columbia,” she said, “I have a large family in Columbia, and they’re not all named D’Agostino.”

Frank and Nancy Rezabek brought their neighbor’s daughter, Paige Martin, to one of D’Agostino’s evening concerts last month.

The Rezabeks’ children are 24 and 28 years old — gone from home. But the couple keeps their gumball machine well stocked for the neighborhood kids.

“They show up every day, and they know where the candy is,” Frank said.

As residents of the West Point neighborhood, the pair likes staying friendly with the 10 other families on their cul-de-sac.

“I had an opportunity to leave Columbia two years ago with my company,” said Frank, who works for a tractor company in Boonville. “I figured it would have been my last move, and I figured I might as well stay here because we enjoy it so much. This is where I’ll retire.”


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