For Tiffany Thompson, the day begins before dawn. She wakes up at 4:30 a.m., leaves the house, and walks through the inky darkness in Liberty, Missouri.
About 50 minutes later, after a leisurely ride in an SUV that she affectionately calls her “mom’s car,” this sixth-grade social studies teacher arrives at her destination: Spring Garden Middle School in St. Joseph’s.
âOh, it’s pitch black,â she said. âDefinitely pitch black. I don’t mind the ride at all. I love coming here.
Dr. Russell Grimes, a podiatrist, commutes every morning from Platte City to St. Joseph, where he has an independent practice. “These are all miles of highway,” he said. âIt gives me time to set the tone for the day and allows me to unwind on the way home. “
Noah Briles started making the long journey in the early 1990s when he opened a law firm in St. Joseph. He lives in northern Kansas City, which serves as a midpoint between his job and his wife’s workplace.
âI can usually put it on cruise control and it’s a pretty relaxing trip,â he said.
It is said that people vote with their feet, but it might be fairer to say that a point of view is expressed with four wheels. Every evening in St. Joseph’s, vehicles transport a significant portion of the local workforce to her home in suburban Kansas City. It’s a trend that benefits Saint-Joseph employers who draw on a larger labor pool, but it’s impacting the city’s declining population.
âYou can work almost anywhere these days, but where you want to live has become a much more thoughtful consideration for people,â said Patt Lilly, President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph. âAs some of the suburbs around Kansas City have grown over the past decade or more, particularly in northern Kansas City, these amenities can be found quite easily in places like Platte City or Smithville or even Liberty, while ‘a decade or more ago, that was not the case.
St. Joseph’s population fell to 72,473 in the official 2020 census count, a 5% drop from 2010. A closer look reveals a higher churn rate of hundreds of people moving to and from. Saint-Joseph every year.
The Missouri Census Data Center found that the number of people leaving Buchanan County exceeded newcomers by 4,800 from 2010 to 2020. At the same time, births exceeded deaths by about 2,200.
Year over year, Buchanan County’s migration has increased in the second half of the previous decade, with annual net losses of 695, 880, 1,170 and 775 over a four-year period starting in 2016.
“It appears that more and more people are starting to leave the region and the numbers are increasing,” said Dr Mark White, associate professor and specialist in the Work and Workforce Development Program of the University of Missouri Extension. âWith any kind of growth, there is a vicious cycle and there is a virtuous cycle. Some kind of growth breeds growth, and decline leads to more decline. “
Often, those who leave Saint-Joseph do not go far.
The US Census Bureau can map migration flows using population counts and IRS tax data. He found that Buchanan County had lost most of its population in two places: Platte and Andrew counties. The net population loss in Platte County never exceeded 95 from 2006 to 2010. From 2015 to 2019, the average population loss in this county was between 183 and 408.
Between 2015 and 2018, the St. Joseph metro area saw 1,250 more people move to the Kansas City metro area than the other way around. This does not include local workers who never moved to St. Joseph in the first place.
âWhat we see in Saint Joseph is not necessarily unique,â ââWhite said. âIt’s pretty common in many places in the Midwest and Northeast. “
Local authorities are unwilling to accept population decline as inevitable or allow St. Joseph to become the reverse of a dormitory community, where people want to work but do not want to live. It means addressing the main reasons someone would choose to live elsewhere.
Some of these factors include accommodation, restaurants, and entertainment in large cities.
âThere have been more housing developments outside of St. Joseph, particularly in the Platte County area, this has been a draw,â Lilly said. âOne of the challenges for us in St. Joseph, although we have very small town amenities and perks, but a lot of the lifestyle interest is based in Kansas City. “
Then there is the perception of schools.
“The most important element really revolves around the quality of education,” said Lilly, “how we stack up against our peer communities or communities in the region.”
Anyone who clicks on a website like realtor.com can find ratings for schools in a particular community. Like a product review on Amazon, it’s not always flattering. One site sums up a local school in one number: 5 out of 10 for Central High School, 3 out of 10 for Lafayette and 2 out of 10 for Benton.
âWe all know we have challenges academically,â said Dr. Doug Van Zyl, Superintendent of St. Joseph School District. âBut to be scored on maybe one criterion, two criteria, rather than how you educate and care for children as a whole? I think this can be a bit misleading.
More detailed information is available on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website. DESE’s Missouri Assessment Program portal ranked the St. Joseph School District behind Savannah, Kearney, and North Kansas City in math, language arts, and science skills for 2019.
To support military families, the US Air Force is doing its own analysis of school systems in communities with an air base. The Missouri report noted a lower relative ranking for suspension rate, student learning rate and graduation rate for school districts near Rosecrans Memorial Airport. The analysis included several districts in Buchanan and Andrew counties, with SJSD being the largest.
This does not mean that schools are the only ones responsible for the displacement of the population towards the suburbs of Kansas City. Two commuters, Grimes and Thompson, said they would be comfortable recommending St. Joseph to a colleague who is considering moving. Both have ties to St. Joseph and have attributed their decision to live elsewhere to the accommodation of a working spouse in Kansas City.
Grimes, who played football at Missouri Western State University, is married to a transportation nurse at Children’s Mercy Hospital. Thompson, a graduate of Central High School, is married to a Liberty lawyer.
âWe thought Platte City was a good halfway point,â said Grimes. âI managed to keep a lot of friends at Saint-Joseph. I think that’s one of the greatest strengths. We have the impression of being a very united community.
Those commuting from the Kansas City area said the decision came with compromises, but they were prepared to accept them.
âI don’t mind,â said Briles, the attorney. “There were a few times when I suddenly realized I had to go to court and wasn’t really dressed for the court appearance and had to run to the mall and grab some clothes and I thought : “Well, it would be nice to be able to run for 10 minutes at home.
But overall, schools will have to be a priority if Saint-Joseph is to grow.
âI think it’s at the heart,â Van Zyl said. âThis is one of the main things people are going to look at because young families are not going to move into a community and ignore education. They want a better life for their students, and education is one of the main effects of having that.
Thompson said she hopes St. Joseph can find a way to grow and invest in schools while retaining the things that make this city unique. After moving to Liberty, she was surprised to find that a sense of community was lacking. She’s just another commuter, going every morning to St. Joseph instead of Independence or Olathe.
âI love St. Joe. I love teaching for the school district, âshe said. “All the tradition and the feeling of being connected and feeling like family, I see it more in St. Joseph than in Kansas City.”