CALIFORNIA—When a visitor dropped by Chuck’s Barber Shop recently, owner Chuck McGinnis shared something he said he tries to keep secret.

“Whenever people move to California, I always tell them don’t tell anybody,” he said. “We are right in the middle of everything.”

Aside from Columbia, California has grown the fastest since 1970 among the principal cities in an eight-county region of Boone and adjacent counties. It has added 1,300 new residents in that time – 42 percent growth – while other communities have seen more modest growth or even declines in population.

In comparison, Columbia has, on average, added more than 1,300 new residents each year since 1970.

From the community of about 4,400, the seat of Moniteau County, sitting on Highway 50, residents can cover the 155 miles to St. Louis in about two and a half hours, with four-lane highways the entire distance. Kansas City, about 125 miles away, is slower driving on two-lane Highway 50 but still only two hours away.

“This is really just a nice little bedroom community for Columbia, Fulton, Jefferson City, Sedalia, Lake of the Ozarks,” McGinnis said as he cut Allen Needy’s hair. “We are just right in the middle of all that stuff.

“In 30 miles, you can be at any Walmart you want to be at,” he joked.

Needy said there are other practical reasons to live in smaller community. One is housing costs.

“I can own in California,” he said. “I can’t in Columbia.”

Highway improvements over the past 50 years – beginning with the construction of Interstate 70 and continuing after the enactment of fuel tax increases in 1987 and 1992 – have made it much easier for people to live in rural counties and commute to jobs in Columbia or Jefferson City, the two largest population centers.

Highway 63, the principal north-south highway, has gone from two lanes to four from Jefferson City to Moberly in that time. Extra lanes have been added to Highway 50 from California to Jefferson City along with other major improvements.

“I worked for 20 years in Jefferson City,” said John Truesdell, presiding commissioner of Randolph County. “I watched Highway 63 go to four lanes. I can get from house to the office in Jefferson City in 45 minutes. When you have got a great piece of transportation, you can get an awful lot done pretty quickly.”

Over the past nine months, GateHouse Media gathered statistics and conducted interviews about life in eight counties of Central Missouri – Audrain, Boone, Callaway, Cole, Cooper, Howard, Moniteau and Randolph – and how things have changed over the past 20 to 50 years. Through nine previous articles, the Tribune and its sister GateHouse publications have explored topics ranging from jobs and poverty to education, health care and farming to illustrate what unites – and what divides – the region.

Communications development from early motion pictures and radio brought urban and rural residents into mass contact in ways that had never been possible, and the exchange of information and knowledge has only grown with modern improvements, said Marshall Stewart, vice chancellor for Extension and Engagement for the University of Missouri and university system Chief Engagement Officer.

“I grew up in rural eastern North Carolina, which is very much like rural Missouri,” Stewart said. “There is a lot of pride in community, shared experiences and shared families.”

The divide between rural and urban areas today is more the level of services residents expect, he said.

“If you have grown up in an area with 911 service, access to health care and your streets and roads paved, and you go to a rural area where those things don’t exist (at the same level), it is very different,” Stewart said.

For people who live in Boone County, population growth rates that have averaged 2 percent per year since 1990 have meant more property taxes for schools, more sales tax revenue and more jobs. It hasn’t gone unnoticed in the surrounding region.

“I have a 97-year-old customer,” McGinnis said. “When Missouri joined the SEC conference, he told us that day, it will be non-stop building and growth in Columbia Missouri from that day forward. And so far he’s exactly right.”

Preparing for Growth

When former City Manager Ray Beck took a job in the Columbia Public Works Department on Feb. 1, 1960, the decennial national census was underway that would show it was a city of 36,650 people. That fall, the University of Missouri had a student body of 11,216. When he retired 46 years later, the city had almost tripled and MU had more than doubled in size.

“When I came to Columbia it was just basically downtown,” Beck said in a recent interview.

Over the next 10 years, large annexations of surrounding territory would more than double the city’s geographic size. With no planning and zoning at that time in unincorporated portions of the county, Beck said, those annexations were important to manage new development and prevent the city from being hemmed in by numerous small incorporations that would lock in sub-standard infrastructure.

The annexations – a series of expansions in 1962, 1964, 1966 and 1968 – gave the city authority to eliminate 100 to 200 small sewage lagoons as subdivisions were linked to the city sewer system. Other steps – development of a well system in the McBaine river bottoms to supply the city’s water, moving the airport from what is now Cosmo Park to its current location south of town and persuading the Missouri Highway Department – now the Missouri Department of Transportation – to build Stadium Boulevard to Highway 63 – were also important for the future, Beck said.

“We developed the basis for Columbia to expand,” he said. “The only question was the rate of expansion.”

Those large annexations stopped because state lawmakers stepped in to control annexations. It created the two-election process for involuntary annexation, with separate votes in the incorporated place and the area to be annexed, with majorities in both required for approval. Other laws limited expansion as well, such as setting time limits for providing full city services and locking library districts in their 1967 boundaries so the taxes to support them would not be paid by the newly acquired areas.

“That legislation was really bad for cities,” Beck said. “What it did was it left islands in the city.”

Since that time, Columbia has relied on voluntary annexations, with the council approving more than 50 agreements with developers who wants city services for new residences. The islands of unincorporated property, however, can be as small as three homes in a developed block and almost as large, geographically, as small cities elsewhere in the county.

The growth has made Boone County wealthier, taking the county’s assessed value from $64.2 million in 1960 – $546.5 million when adjusted for inflation – to $2.9 billion in 2018. In other terms, Boone County had about 20 percent of the property wealth in the region in 1960, while it has more than 43 percent today.

“Boone County has grown so incredibly fast, you have to have extra tax revenues to fund things,” said Truesdell. “It is all to scale, adding that many more extra people.”

Along with property values, jobs are being created in Boone County at a much faster pace than surrounding regions or the state as a whole.

Columbia’s voluntary annexation policy and its focus on connecting new areas to city’s sewer and other services is being reviewed by the Columbia City Council, which spent its June 17 work session on annexation. The city will hire a consultant to study whether new development is paying for the services required or if that burden is being shifted to existing residents.

“We can create this oasis and paradise within city limits, but if we make it a museum and we can't afford to live here, then we haven't really won anything, just pushed our development problems into other areas and then created a less affordable place to live,” Second Ward Councilman Mike Trapp said during the work session.

Development will continue, Beck said in the interview, and the city should be ahead of it. Annexation becomes more costly when the property is already developed, he said.

“What is hard sometimes even for the council or for some of our departments, the thing they overlook is that an urbanized area will begin to demand urban services,” he said. “Then the question is who provides it more efficiently for those circumstances.”

Regional benefits

As rural counties in the region have struggled, in some ways unsuccessfully, to maintain a local employment base, Columbia and Boone County have provided replacement jobs that outnumber those lost. More people are commuting into Boone County every day to work.

The federal government recognized this fact in September, when Cooper County was added to the Columbia Metropolitan Statistical Area, which means that 25 percent or more of the people with jobs who live in Cooper County are employed in Columbia.

For several decades, the Columbia MSA was Boone and Howard counties.

Howard County has the smallest population – and the smallest workforce – of the eight counties studied for this series of articles. Cooper County has the third smallest workforce, but the designation is likely to join other counties to Boone as growth continues in Columbia.

A half-hour drive to work is common in many major metropolitan areas. Within a half-hour of Columbia are communities with lower housing costs and other attractive advantages, such as lower violent crime rates. The trade-off, however, can be less immediate access to services such as specialized medical care or public transportation.

The people who work in Columbia and live in neighboring counties bring wealth home, said Sarah Low, a rural economist with the University of Missouri.

“The answer is developing kind of these home-grown, home rooted businesses,” she said. “Every community, if they are going to be a successful bedroom community, they need a grocery store, they need a library, they need good schools, they need some community-building activity.”

Restaurants and other services can be successful in smaller communities because of the jobs that bring people to Columbia.

“If they can get coffee and get dinner locally, those are dollars that are staying in their local communities and they are bringing dollars from Columbia out to their local community,” she said.

Another aspect of life outside Boone County that can have its advantages – and disadvantages – is laxer regulation, Truesdell said.

No county except Boone has zoning for unincorporated areas. In a “To Whom it May Concern” notice issued in November by the Callaway County Commission, Presiding Commissioner Gary Jungermann reminded people of that fact.

“No occupancy permits or building permits are required in unincorporated areas of Callaway County,” Jungermann wrote.

That has good and bad aspects, Truesdell said.

“We’ve had our share of things I haven’t liked in Randolph County, like adult stores, put out in the middle of everything where everybody has to look at them,” he said.

It can make it difficult to attract investment, he said, but that is what the majority wants.

“People are fearful of government being too big and on their backs,” he said.

The rural communities of central Missouri can benefit by attracting people working in Boone County as tourists and residents, Stewart said.

“They are looking for infrastructure, restaurants and services they want,” Stewart said. “It doesn’t have to be on a grand scale, but it is access to those things.”

Good broadband internet access is one of the most important, he said. It is important for keeping jobs and people in those communities, he said.

When young people “start seeing the world, and their cousins in more metropolitan areas have that, they say, why can’t I have that?” Stewart said.

Political shifts

In an important Missouri U.S. Senate election, a young and ambitious Republican attorney general was challenging a veteran incumbent Democrat who had strong credentials in national security issues.

It was 1970 and Jack Danforth, elected to his post in 1968, took on Stuart Symington. Danforth carried Cooper and Moniteau counties, both reliably Republican since the Civil War, and Callaway County, in the region of Boone and adjoining counties. Symington won the rest, with Boone providing him the narrowest of victories while Howard County gave him 61 percent of its votes.

Danforth ended up losing the race only to win the same seat after Symington retired in 1976.

In an almost identical race last year, then-Attorney General Josh Hawley – urged by Danforth – defeated U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a veteran Democratic incumbent with significant achievements in military reform.

Like 1970, the race was the top contest on the ballot. Unlike 1970, every county except Boone supported Hawley, while Boone gave McCaskill a much larger majority than Symington. Howard County gave Hawley 62 percent of its votes.

Former Gov. Roger Wilson, a popular Boone County Democrat who held county and state offices from 1977 to 2001, said he thinks the shift in party allegiance is a trend of bringing national partisan differences into local politics.

The two issues that have been most effective in turning rural voters away from Democrats are abortion and guns, he said.

“The start of it was the Rush Limbaughs and the electronic media that followed with Fox and Rupert Murdoch,” Wilson said. “When it took effect it was like a prairie fire.”

It was a major investment with a purpose and the “dark money” that has flowed into politics since the Citizens United decision made secret corporate spending legal has been used very effectively, he said.

“I don’t like where politics has gone because everybody thinks it is a war game,” Wilson said.

Another message embraced by the conservative side, that all tax increases are bad, hurt the Proposition D fuel tax increase in November despite being put on the ballot by the Republican legislative supermajority and campaigning by Republican Gov. Mike Parson, Wilson said.

“The people who came out of World War II, the greatest generation, built the interstate highway system because they understood the need to work together for a shared goal,” Wilson said. “My generation was born on third base and the one after us is born halfway home.”

On Proposition D, almost all the counties that supported it have large populations and most of those that opposed it are more rural.

On other issues, the differences don’t appear to be as large. The eight-county region had a consensus in 1998 that it should be easier to raise local taxes for schools and in 2018 that medical marijuana should be legal and the minimum wage should be higher.

Marijuana is not a scary substance the way it was once viewed by many, Truesdell said.

“Let’s legalize marijuana and quit fighting this losing battle,” he said.

The medical marijuana vote – Randolph County passed it with a 62 percent majority – is easy to explain, he said.

“I am about as far to the right as most things that go and my idea is if you are dying, and need this medicine, it is your body,” he said.

Looking forward

University Extension has developed a data platform called All Things Missouri to provide in-depth, current data on every county and past data for comparison. It can help regions work together for mutual benefit, Stewart said.

The site brings together 18,000 to 20,000 data streams that is updated constantly, Stewart said.

The purpose is to bring all the data together in one place for economic development, making local efforts more agile and, most importantly, an accurate portrayal of the resources available.

“It is not a solution in itself, it is a tool,” Stewart said. “It is a tool that helps inform us. We are all guilty of making a decision based on hunch or innuendo, and we want people to have more access to data-based decisions.”

It will allow regions to align their efforts, working with their strengths. For central Missouri, that means building on the economic power of Boone County to support nearby communities as they develop. Few communities can count on a new large employer to come in so the pieces must be built a little at a time, he said.

That is how the entire state should view its efforts, he said.

“What do we want Missouri to be like in 25 years?” Stewart said. “That is something we have to think about as leaders. The university plays a role, to dream a little bit and figure out what that is. That is the game I want to be in.”