Finding a California dream in Oklahoma’s heartland

Published: Tuesday, June 16, 2009 7:00 am By: Phillip Reese

The Oklahoman

Fleeing the Great Depression and a drought unprecedented in American history, a vast wave of Oklahomans and Texans dubbed "Okies" loaded everything they could onto crowded vehicles during the 1930s and headed west for California. Today, in huge numbers, their grandchildren are moving back.

It doesn't take Loren O'Laughlin much time to come up with a reason why, in between bites of a burger at an Oklahoma City diner.

"There aren't really people lined up on the streets here competing for a few scraps," said O'Laughlin, 23, who grew up in Sacramento but recently graduated from Oklahoma Christian University and opted to stay. "Small businesses thrive here because networking is so easy."

As California housing prices went wild in the middle of this decade, hundreds of thousands of residents scratched their heads and moved to places where homes were still affordable, state and federal statistics show.

The result was five consecutive years when California saw more residents going to other states than coming. Although many stayed closer to home, the mid-South saw a large influx.

From 2004 through 2007, about 275,000 Californians left the Golden State for the old Dust Bowl states of Oklahoma and Texas, twice the number that left those two states for California, recent Internal Revenue Service figures show.

As a result, it's easy to find Californians living and working in Oklahoma City, a capital of the American heartland.

Ask these Okies-in-reverse why they traded the Golden State for the Sooner State and you'll hear a lot of similar themes: easier to find a job; cheaper to buy or rent a home; better place to make a fresh start. Ask them why they stay in Oklahoma and they'll add to that list a deep optimism that it's a place where things are about to take off.

"Oklahoma City is like Sacramento back when the Kings were in the playoffs," said Branddon Jones, 26, who moved about a year ago. "It's growing. You can get a job. It's just crazy."

A lot of that has to do with Bricktown, where, on a recent Thursday, former Sacramentan Tim Higgins sat on a restaurant patio, watching water taxis weave through a nearby canal.

"This would be the equivalent of Old Sacramento," said Higgins, 47, "except it's much more happening."

From the restaurant patio, Higgins could see a large crane working. Just to his south, workers toiled on a massive project to move an interstate highway away from downtown to make way for a park.

"When I left, all construction had stopped throughout California," he said. "Here I see a lot of construction, a lot of new businesses."

Branddon Jones certainly thinks his luck has improved since leaving Sacramento. He joined the Army as a cook after graduating from Grant High in 2001. Three years later, his mom died, and he came back to his hometown.

"You've got to have something to make it out of there," he said, referring to south Sacramento and Del Paso Heights. "In Oklahoma City, if you just wake up every morning and do what you are supposed to do, you won't have any problems."

In concrete terms: California is losing people like Loren O'Laughlin.

O'Laughlin is an artist and designer. He left Rancho Cordova, Calif., when he got a scholarship from Oklahoma Christian University, and he liked the college's vibe. He never planned to stay in the area, but he met his wife in college, and he was wooed by a local company months before he graduated.

Now O'Laughlin designs trophies for MTM Recognition. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. raises that massive trophy over his head after winning a big NASCAR race, there's a pretty good chance O'Laughlin helped design it.

As much as California could use more creative talent like O'Laughlin's, it needs newly minted nurses like Angela Outlaw even more. The state is short about 50,000 registered nurses, according to the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

But Outlaw has no intention of returning to California. She has many quality hospitals to choose from in Oklahoma, and if she does move, she said, it will be to someplace like Austin.

"I meet more Californians here than anyone else," said Outlaw, 42. "And, most of them are planning on staying here permanently."

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