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Getting Out: The Great California Exodus : Remember us? We left Southern California looking for cheaper housing, employment opportunities and a better way of life. Well ... We're Ba-aack!

March 30, 1997|LISA TAYLOR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Lisa Taylor is a Laguna Niguel freelance writer

Getting Out: The Great California Exodus

--Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1991

California, Here I Go

--The Times, Feb. 21, 1993

Record Number Leaves State as Economy Drags

--The Times, Sept. 2, 1993

*

The headlines heralded what we already knew:

Southern Californians had been leaving since the late 1980s in search of safer, cheaper, bigger or greener pastures.

They went, they saw . . . and now they are coming home. They're not stampeding back; it's more like an intermittent trickle. The official term for it is "return migration."

And it's a fairly predictable phenomenon, according to Peter A. Morrison, a demographer for the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. Some of the reasons people may have left--the high home prices of the late '80s, the recession in the early '90s and the resulting downsizing, layoffs--have started to turn around as the state's economy continues to recover.

"They no longer need to be living somewhere else," said Morrison. "And if it isn't a place they want to live, then California now looks like a place they can."

Driver's license data show a net inflow into California for 1996--the first such influx since 1991, according to the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, a Palo Alto-based think tank.

The center estimates that the net inflow from other states exceeded 25,000 in 1996, a sharp reversal of the outflow of 127,000 licensed drivers in 1993-94.

Southern California is "undoubtedly drawing back some of the significant numbers of people who have left in the past few years," Morrison said.

Here are the stories of five families who followed their dreams and then came back. They're not tales of defeat. They're about people who, for their own reasons, decided that Southern California isn't such a bad place to live after all.

THE WILLIAMSES: Nuclear Nightmares Mar Their Move to Colorado

There is nothing like becoming a first-time parent to force you to reexamine your lifestyle and environment.

Even in suburban Irvine, attorneys Greg and Holly Williams felt that "elsewhere" might be a better place to raise their family. Someplace cheaper, with a slower lifestyle, one offering more time to spend together. Son Chase was born in December 1994. A month later, it was adios, Orange County.

Their destination: Boulder, Colo. Before leaving Irvine, Greg lined up a job at the Boulder office of a California-based law firm. The firm even leased the family a house while they looked for something to buy.

Trouble was, the Williamses were never able to sell their home in the Turtle Rock section of Irvine. Purchased in 1992 for just under $300,000, the three-bedroom townhouse sat on the market for nine months. With the exception of the baby's things, they left their furniture in the townhouse and Holly's parents stayed there for a while.

Even before they left, the couple had doubts that they were doing the right thing. "When the day came, we didn't feel like leaving," said Holly, 30. "We just said we'd try it out."

It was a try, albeit a brief one. They looked at houses but quickly deduced that the nice ones were comparable in price to those in Southern California--at least $400,000. "We couldn't get a ranch for what we thought we could get a ranch for," said Greg.

Then there was the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, a mere five miles from the development they were considering. "One of the reasons we left California was to get away from issues that cause anxiety, like smog and earthquakes," said Holly. "This raised a whole host of new ones."

And the small-town atmosphere they had hoped to find didn't exist in the Williamses' eyes. "Irvine is as white-collar and middle class as you can get," said Holly. "There's not a lot of bars, hippies and drug addicts. Because it's a college town, Boulder had lots of liquor stores and riff-raff. The reason we were moving was for a better place to raise kids, and that wasn't there."

It took only three months for the Williamses to realize that their move wasn't going to take, and the couple was soon back at their Irvine townhouse. They returned to their old jobs.

"Coming back, you tend to focus more on the positive points," Greg said. "You've seen other parts of the country and realize they have their problems too. It's not as idyllic as you imagined."

The couple have sold their townhouse and moved closer to the beach. Much of their concern about returning to California was "feeling like our friends and family would think we were idiots," Holly Williams said. "But you just have to do what you want and not worry about what others think."

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