Even In Down Economy, Northwest Draws New Residents

Apr 13, 2012

The Northwest has long been a draw for people moving here from other parts of the United States. That continues to be a key driver of the region’s economy. Despite high unemployment rates, Oregon and Washington still lure folks from the Midwest and elsewhere. And they bring in new money and job skills.

Ted Layman lives in Oregon. He almost didn't end up there, though. He almost moved to Chicago.

"Great place to visit and enjoy," Layman says. "But the noise, the congestion of people …"

But it turns out, Chicago was where his fiancée lived. That would be Marie Montalbano. Ted had a choice: Move to Chicago to be with Marie, or stay put in Athens, Ohio … a town Marie kind of liked, but it was way too small for her tastes.

"So we knew we would have to find a place that was a good compromise and a good fit for all three of us," Montalbano says.

The third person in the mix was Ted's teenage son, Forest. In the end, it was Forest who played a key role in getting the family to move to Portland. More on that later.

First a little about Portland Seems like everybody's talking about Portland these days. That's thanks in part to a certain television show on the Independent Film Channel called Portlandia.

But hold on a second. Ted Layman and Marie Montalbano aren't Portlandia slackers coming here to retire in their 20s. Ted's a social worker and Marie teaches special ed students in Portland Public Schools.

In fact, Oregon state economist Mark McMullen says professionals like them have long formed the backbone of the state's robust stream of in-migration.

"They tend to come because of a job opportunity," McMullen says. "They have a job opportunity, therefore they move here. This has always been the dynamic and it's certainly a good one."

McMullen says despite high unemployment rates, the Northwest remains an attractive destination. In the past three years, the region’s population growth has slowed but remained positive. In fact, according to the Census Bureau, more than half of everyone living in Oregon, Washington and Idaho were born somewhere else.

The exact opposite is true in rust belt states like Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. Most of those states’ residents were born and raised there. Of course, it’s more than a job that lures people to the Northwest.

"I had virtually no impression of Portland at all," says Jack Ohman. He is a nationally syndicated political cartoonist with the Oregonian newspaper. He's a Midwest native himself. And he remembers stepping off the plane in Portland for the first time nearly 30 years ago.

"And I saw roses at the airport," Ohman recalls. "And then we went to a Burger King. And there were roses and rhododendrons at the Burger King."

And while he was in town for the job interview, someone drove him over to the Oregon coast.

"And I had never seen the Pacific Ocean. And it was the most beautiful day in the history of the Pacific Northwest. And once you see that, you're not going back. You're not gonna go back to Detroit. You're not gonna go back to Columbus. You're not going back to Minneapolis."

Ted Layman also has memories of an early visit to Portland. He didn't go to the ocean, but "We did see a woman with her turtle on a leash walking it across the street. And that definitely had this like, oh my god, this is so Portland."

But unconventional pet care wasn't the deciding factor in why Ted and his fiancée settled on Portland. For that, we turn to Forest. He's Ted's 15-year-old son. And Forest takes his education seriously. Very seriously.

"I have very strong ideals about how children and kids and students should be equally respected and given more broad aspects in like learning and being able to pursue their own interests."

Forest figured the local public school system back in Athens, Ohio wasn't going to cut the mustard. So he launched a nationwide search for the perfect high school. Two of his top choices were in Portland.

A carefully crafted application essay later, he made it into the Metropolitan Learning Center. It's a public school, but Forest says in a lot of ways, it doesn't feel like one.

"It's totally different from my old middle school."

Forest leaves the house early -- before 7 am most mornings -- and rides the bus across the city.

He likes to get to school early to hang out, catch up with friends. He thinks the school is a good fit, and so does his father.

Ted and Marie are getting married this summer. They've invited friends and family from back home to come out to Oregon for the wedding. If history is any indication, some of them might end up staying.

This story was a collaboration with Changing Gears.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network