Despite troubled times, people and businesses in O'Fallon say they're mostly doing pretty well
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 9, 2009 - O'Fallon's known as a great place to raise families, a phrase repeated again and again by people who live there. And after looking at the impact of the economy on the city, it might become known as a good place to ride out a recession, too.
"We're fortunate we don't have a GM here, and we don't have a Chrysler," says Shashi Pathak, director of economic development with the city. "We're not a one-company town."
In fact, O'Fallon's portfolio is quite diverse -- technology, retail, small businesses and major companies.
"O'Fallon's doing a lot of things right," says Scott Drachnik, senior vice president of business development and marketing with the Economic Development Center of St. Charles County. "And one of the main ones has been that they've built a diverse economy for the community."
O'Fallon has No. 1, No. 3 and No. 7 of the top employers in the county: Citigroup, MasterCard and MEMC Electrical Materials.
It has experienced dizzying growth in the last 20-plus years, with a population of just 18,698 in 1990 swelling to 74,976 in 2007, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Home prices are affordable, with 39.3 of the population living in homes that cost between $200,000 and $299,999, according to the census.
So, how did a small town that once sat north of Interstate 70 become the second largest city in the metro area, the state's seventh largest, spanning past two major highways, adding big businesses, developments and a middle-class population?
It took a welcome mat from the city, lots of space and the promise of possibility.
FROM RURAL ROADS TO RETAIL
Technically, Lewis Swinger is not from O'Fallon. He moved here in the early 1960s with his family. He was in the 6th grade, remembers the blue buses that picked up workers for McDonnell Douglas and Boeing, where most people worked, and the miles of country fields that stretched out, beginning where O'Fallon ended around I-70.
"That was the city limits," he says.
In 1970, Swinger graduated from high school. His class was the first to have more than 200 graduates. He left for a few years and moved back in the late 80s, just as change began moving in as well.
"Farmland disappeared," Swinger remembers, "subdivisions going up to where you couldn't even keep track of them."
In the 1990s, St. Charles County as a whole experienced rapid growth. In 1990, there were 212,907 people. In 2007, 343,207.
So what made O'Fallon so ripe for boom? A major component was all that space, Drachnik thinks, and an already established and growing population which could serve as the workforce. "The rooftops began before the businesses came in," he says.
Now add to all that space a city government that saw the opportunity for what it was, thinking ahead on road expansion and offering Chapter 100 tax abatements.
During the mayorship of Ed Griesenauer, 1986 to 1995, and Paul Renaud, 1995 to 2005, the city added more subdivisions and encouraged businesses to relocate. During that time, the city funded the widening of Highway K, which runs from I-70 to Highway 40, expanding it from two lanes to five. Then, it added some major trophies to the trophy case with the help of Chapter 100 tax abatements and state-supported "Build Missouri" program under then-Gov. Mel Carnahan.
In 1999, O'Fallon attracted WingHaven, a 1,200 acre development with housing and businesses. The $750 million community stretched O'Fallon past the I-70 border all the way to Highway 40. Next, in 2001, came MasterCard, leaving their previous space in St. Louis County. O'Fallon also nabbed CitiGroup and MEMC.
"There was virtually nothing out there," says Jim Whalen, MasterCard's senior vice president.
But there was a growing community with a family focus and strong economic potential, and soon, virtually nothing became something
.'FOUR YEARS OF HELL'
Of course, all the growth hasn't come without some criticism and drama. During the Renaud's administration, an audit by then state auditor Claire McCaskill found questionable salary incentives given to employees for tasks that should have been part of their jobs, costly travel that was deemed potentially unnecessary, and a 72 percent increase in the city's debt from 1999 to 2003, among other things. To see the full audit report, click here.
Also in 2003, the city tried to redevelop part of downtown using eminent domain. That space would have included O'Fallon Plaza, owned by Steve Blechle, who's now the editor of the monthly conservative newspaper, the O'Fallon Observer. The $200 million development was killed, he says, but Blechle has a long list of other issues with the city and the major companies in O'Fallon.
This year, Renaud's successor, Donna Morrow, left office at the end of her term, calling it "four years of hell" because of internal struggles within city hall.
According to Drabelle, the city has had to make upgrades to the sewer system to keep up with the growth, and they continue expanding traffic flow.
And while Winghaven touts itself as a mixed-used development, Steve Patterson, with Urban Review STL, thinks they didn't try hard enough. And today, on the boardwalk in Winghaven, many storefronts sit empty. While driving through on Monday, this reporter noted that eight of 18 storefronts along the boardwalk were empty.
"I think (Paul) McKee wanted what New Town ended up being," Patterson says of the chairman and CEO of McEagle, which built Winghaven. "I think people in O'Fallon are going to realize they may get a lot of house for their money, but they won't get a whole lot else."
THEY WILL COME
In his lifetime, Swinger has seen O'Fallon turn from a small town to a booming one. But the boom has slowed considerably. Swinger, who runs Wabash Realty with his wife, Pat Swinger, says sales are down about 30 percent over the last two years.
"But we've had such a boom," he says. "The last 10 years, it was just crazy just trying to stay up with it."
Thanks to the slow down in the economy, he says, O'Fallon's growth is slowing, too, which might be a good thing. "I think it's below normal," he says of business. "But it probably is more where it should be."
And now, the city isn't dependent on any one industry. There are no blue buses taking everyone to work, but a mix of businesses and places to live. "Now, I think we're so diverse," Swinger says. "If one left O'Fallon, I could imagine it would hurt, but it's not gonna kill us."
- 2006, one of Money Magazine's Top 100 Places to Live
- 2008, one of Money Magazine's Top 100
- 2009, one of Relocate-America's top 100 Places to Live
- 2009, No. 3 in CQ Press' annual report on the safest places to live