Mike McBride grew up in Spokane, attending Ferris High School and community college.
“Like most, I grew up here kind of hating it, because you’ve never really seen anything else,” the 29-year-old said.
So he left, spending a few years living in Europe, then bouncing around to Portland, Houston and Seattle. He wasn’t planning to come back, but after finishing a master’s in public administration at the University of Washington, McBride started job hunting.
The Seattle area had good jobs, but he found that even with the salary he might make, he’d struggle to afford basics.
“I wouldn’t be able to save a dime after paying rent,” he said. So, McBride applied for a job as the business and industry analyst at the Spokane Workforce Development Council. He’s been back about 18 months.
McBride is one of several analysts and economists in the region who have heard people saying that more young people are moving – or moving back – to Spokane in recent years. But is that actually true?
The short answer: probably not. What does appear to be changing is that fewer young people are leaving Spokane.
Lots of government agencies try to track where people move in different ways, but few break it down by age. The census is the one exception. From 2006-15, census data estimated between 9,859 and 14,038 people ages 18-29 have moved to Spokane each year.
Those numbers show no clear trend, and the margins of error are large because the sample size is so small. The true number of 20-somethings moving to Spokane in 2015 could be anywhere between 8,434 and 19,642.
The number of young Spokanites leaving has a similarly large margin of error, but it does show a downward trend. In 2015, about 7,470 18- to 29-year-olds left Spokane, the lowest number since at least 2007. In 2014, about 9,038 young adults left.
Though it doesn’t break it down by age, the Internal Revenue Service also tracks migration based on changes in the address people file taxes from. For the 2014-15 year, they estimate 7,457 tax returns, including about 13,423 individuals, moved to Spokane County. About 11,778 left the county during the same year, based on those returns.
What draws 20-somethings to Spokane? Many who have moved here in recent years said they were drawn by a spouse or partner who had family in the area, graduate school programs and the desire to live somewhere affordable that still had elements of city life.
Drew Jordan, 25, moved to Spokane with his now-wife after they both graduated from Washington State University. He was originally from southern Oregon and his wife had family here. He said the decision was an easy one because of the cost of living and range of outdoor activities, but he did get some flak from people in Pullman about Spokane’s perceived lack of safety.
“You heard a lot of the Spocompton, Spokanistan, Felony Flats,” he said. “I haven’t felt that way since we moved back here because it has everything that we want and more.”
Growing up in the suburbs to the east of Seattle, Arthur Whitten, 25, was used to spending one hour driving to work each way. He moved to Spokane about a year ago because his fiancee was attending Gonzaga Law School. He said Spokane is a city where it’s still affordable to live a middle-class life.
“It’s a great place to start a family. You can get married, buy a home, settle down,” he said.
Queena Hale, 32, likes to keep busy. She moved to Spokane after meeting her now-husband online nine years ago and fell in love with the city. With recreational sports leagues, outdoor events and the downtown scene, she finds plenty to keep busy.
The combination of low traffic and low cost of living makes it easier to have fun, she said. When you’re not spending hours a day in traffic and most of your income on rent, it’s easier to go camping or out with friends. She’s seen a lot of born-and-raised Spokanites who like to insult the city, but she said it’s been her favorite place she’s lived after growing up in Texas, Michigan and California.
“The longer I lived here, the more I liked it,” she said.
Of course, not every young Spokane transplant plans to stick around. Jimmy Jaffin, 26, moved from Maryland in 2015 because his girlfriend was working toward a doctoral degree at WSU. He said he’s been pleasantly surprised by how “cosmopolitan” Spokane is but sees himself moving to a bigger city to continue working as a software engineer.
“There’s just not a lot of opportunities for my line of work here, so I probably would not want to live here long-term, unfortunately, as much as I’d like the area. But if that sort of industry started coming here to Spokane, I’d change my mind,” Jaffin said.
Grant Forsyth, Avista’s chief economist, said keeping young people around will rely, in part, on having skilled jobs available in areas like web development, scientific fields and legal fields.
“Spokane does have affordability. The one thing that Spokane doesn’t necessarily have … is the depth of the labor market,” Forsyth said.
Whether more young people are moving here or not, people who grew up in Spokane and came back said the city feels younger now.
McBride suspects that might be because millennials, those born roughly between 1981 and 1997, are a bigger generation than the Gen Xers who came before them.
Compared to when millennials were still in high school, “that age group is more visible and present now,” McBride said.
The shift in culture is apparent to Liz Wood, 33, who left Spokane in 2010 for a doctoral program at the University of North Carolina. She came back after she got a research grant at WSU Spokane in May 2016.
Because Spokane is cheaper to live in, she and her husband were able to live on her income while he pursued his dream of writing a book about comics. Wood said downtown Spokane has become much more vibrant since she left, and she said the relative affordability of the city helps keep it that way.
“It’s not like Seattle or San Francisco where the downtown rent is absolutely prohibitive. You can try something out,” she said.
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