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In a family way: Young couples are choosing O'Fallon, Mo., as home, like family-oriented community

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 5, 2009 - Ask someone what's happening in O'Fallon, and they probably won't mention hot bars or gallery openings. Here, the scene is mostly parks and playgrounds.

"It just seemed like a great place to raise a family," says Theresa Shuffett, who moved to O'Fallon with her husband, Peter, in 1996 from St. Charles and St. Paul. The Shuffetts have five kids, ages 21 to 6. She stays at home with her children, he works at Boeing.

"It was more quiet back then," she says.

But O'Fallon's a little less quiet these days, thanks to a boom that expanded the city and its population. And despite the economic downturn that's hurting many communities, O'Fallon seems to be doing well.

While a diverse business community is certainly a part of that, a well-educated and well-employed population is, too.

  • Today, 57.5 percent of residents in O'Fallon are married, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In St. Charles County, that number is a little higher, at 60.9, in St. Louis, it's 24.3, and in St. Louis County, 48.4. Nationwide, the number is 50.5 percent.
  • The city estimates the median age was 32.2 in 2008.
  • The current median household income is $74,426, with 2.1 percent of families living below the poverty level.
  • Abd 67 percent of the population have household incomes between $50,000 and $150,000. And in 2008, the median house value was $201,532.

O'Fallon has become a mecca for middle-class families and for the same reasons the businesses attracted here in the last 20 years give -- space and affordability.'A small-town feel'On any given day, Shuffett says, go to a park in O'Fallon and you'll see tons of families. While the city's grown in her time here, she's comfortable with it. And many of those choosing O'Fallon probably did so for the same reasons -- affordability, proximity to the city and a small-town feel.

"I do kind of like the small-town feel," she says.

Apparently, she's not alone. From 1990 to 2000, the population increased 174 percent. In 2008, the city's ranked in Money Magazine's "Best Places to Live," for the second time.

Just like Lake Woebegone, the kids all seem to be above average. Test scores in reading were 26.5 percent above the state average, according to Money; in math, they were 10.8 percent above, and 82.9 percent of students attend public schools.

The Shuffett family has five children, and a big part of the culture in O'Fallon revolves around a strong word-of-mouth network. "That's how you'll end up finding a good place to eat," she says, and other services, too, like doctors and preschools.

Another major draw for Shuffett is that she feels safe in O'Fallon. "You can still open your windows at night and it's quiet," she says. This year, O'Fallon was named no. 3 for lowest crime rates among cities with populations of 75,000 to 99,999 by CQ Press.

"I just feel like O'Fallon is a great place to live," Shuffett says. "I wouldn't live anywhere else."

'Away from the hustle and bustle'

Sarah and Steven Curry and their three daughters, 2, 4 and 6, have lived in O'Fallon for five years. They moved here from St. Peters.

"We just were looking for something a little farther away from the hustle and bustle," she says.

But unlike many families new to the city, the Curry family chose the north side of town, the older side, to raise their family. They wanted to live in an established neighborhood, with trees and space.

Now, her children have many surrogate grandparents.

"I like the diversity," she says.

At least in age.

O'Fallon is pretty white, says Curry, who homeschools her children. Her husband is a teacher.

"We're a fairly homogenous community," agrees Shashi Pathak, director of economic development with the city. "I see more diversity than I see reflected in the statistics, but as far as statistics go, we're quite homogeneous."

And the statistics do reflect that: 93 percent of residents are white, according to the census; 3.2 percent are black; 2.1 are Asian; and 1.2 percent Hispanic or Latino.

'I have everything'

So, homes are affordable, the city feels safe. But what about the St. Louis Zoo? The Missouri Botanical Garden, Forest Park and all there is to do in the city?

"It's still within reach," says Amy Rhoades, who moved here with her husband, David, from West County about four years ago. She stays at home with her kids and he's a CPA. "I don't really go less often than I did before. So I feel like I have everything."

In fact, none of the families interviewed minds the drive, and all touted what O'Fallon has to offer. "I just feel a great sense of community," Rhoades says. "O'Fallon does a good job of that."

The Rhoades have two children, 10 months and 5 years, and are able to have affordable fun right here. "We can stay home and really have a good time for little money or no money," Rhoades says.

She loves all the festivals the city puts on, like the city's 4th of July event, Heritage and Freedom Fest. There are more than 350 acres of parks, Alligator's Creek, an outdoor water park, and Renaud Spirit Center, a 66,000 foot recreation complex.

"There are so many family activities for kids and families," she says, "and there are lots of kids my kids' ages."

What if you don't have kids?

Longtime resident Lewis Swinger has watched his hometown transform, and, in general, he's rolled with it.

"It's not that we tried to stop the growth," he says. "It was crazy and there was nothing you could do."

Now that the economy has slowed the growth, though, O'Fallon does have to consider residents that aren't in the "couples with kids" category.

O'Fallon might not be a great place to live if you're a young single, for instance. There are no major universities here, says Pathak, and nothing to keep young people here.

"I think people are trying," Curry says, "and that's what's hard."

There aren't numerous coffee shops. There isn't a thriving bar scene. "We have a Starbucks now, I guess," Curry says.

And there aren't high-end apartments, she says.

One spot of hipness can be found at Rendezvous Cafe and Wine Bar on South Main Street. There, they serve microbrews, martinis and have wine tastings. Still, the average client is early to mid-30s, says manager Kim McLeod.

What's missing, she thinks, is that O'Fallon needs to be walkable, and offer something different than the newer strip malls on the south side.

"There's no charm there," McLeod says. "You have to drive everywhere."

Another important group in O'Fallon is the aging. Pathak does see a graying of the north side of town. Currently, McEagle Properties is working on a redevelopment of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood campus; it will include care for the sisters currently there and retirement housing for the public.

Regardless of their age, for years, Swinger says, people have come here from other places but considered some place else home. But now, their children are from O'Fallon. This is home.

"I think it wants to be known as a safe place to raise your family," he says of the city.

And Swinger, president of the Historical Society, finds it funny these days when the newer residents protest continued growth. They want to protect what they've found here. They want the rural views, he says.

They don't know that O'Fallon used to be all rural views, and that there's no stopping growth when it's coming.

But maybe, like Swinger, they'll learn.