California Dreaming Returns

For first time in six years, more people are moving into the Golden State than are leaving it.

The California mystique is back.

Ever since the Gold Rush, California has been known as the cradle of the American dream, a land where ordinary people have a chance at a better way of life.

For many, that dream ended in the late 1980s, when the state suffered its worst recession since the Great Depression.

As a result, California has witnessed an exodus of residents fleeing the state for better jobs and cheaper living: The Los Angeles spandex set was packing its Range Rovers to move everywhere from Seattle to Sun Valley.

But times have changed.

For the first time in six years, more people are moving into California from other states than are exiting.

The turnaround signals not only that California's economy has rebounded, but so has Americans' faith in the Golden State as the land of opportunity. Paradise Lost has once again become Paradise Found.

"The decade-long ordeal of restructuring California has been accomplished and the California dream has been recovered," says Kevin Starr, a state historian at the California State Library in Sacramento.

According to the state Department of Finance, which tracks migration figures, 20,729 more people came to California from other states than moved away for the year ended last June 30 - the first increase since 1991. That compares with a decrease the year before of 202,729.

What's more, this wave is expected to continue. The Department of Finance forecasts a net migration of 55,000 in 1998 and 65,000 the following year. "We weathered the recession and have become a job-creating state with a vengeance," says H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Department of Finance.

Indeed, California has rebounded from the consolidation of the aerospace industry in the early 1990s, which cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. Since then, the economy has shifted away from defense. Today high-tech, Hollywood, and small businesses are fueling growth.

Last year, for example, California created an estimated 480,000 jobs and is on course to create 365,000 more this year. And that's putting the Golden State back on the map as a relocation destination.

Respite from disasters

At the same time, a lack of earthquakes, fires, floods, and urban unrest - which marked the early 1990s - leaves more people remembering the palm trees and 70-degree winters.

In the past six months, Dilbeck Realtors in Pasadena, Calif., for example, has seen a big jump in the number of people relocating to the area from other states.

"It's definitely a function of the economy being so much better and companies starting to grow again," says Jill Silvas, vice president of corporate services.

"We're not seeing people coming in disappointed they were here," adds Carole Carlton, a realtor with Prudential-Bryant in South Pasadena. "For a while, that was the case."

Take Joyce and Russell Richey. They had no trouble leaving Pasadena in 1995 when Mr. Richey landed a job with General Motors in Detroit. At the time, unemployment was in the double digits, their home lost 30 percent of its value, and they experienced one of the worst earthquakes on record.

"Quite a few of our friends had already left," says Mrs. Richey. "It was time to leave California."

Yet two years later, the couple and their young son are back in Pasadena after GM offered Mr. Richey a position in marketing. "California has a lot to offer," says Mrs. Richey, adding that now that the economy has improved it's even more appealing.

In its latest annual survey, Allied Van Lines of Chicago reports that for the first time in seven years as many people moved into California as moved out. That's a dramatic turnaround from 1993, when California recorded more outbound moves than any other state in the country, reports Allied.

Forget Salt Lake City

Neighboring states like Oregon, Nevada, and Utah - which saw masses of Californians cross their borders in the early '90s - have seen fewer people coming through the turnstiles recently.

In 1995, Utah experienced the first decline of Californians moving to the state since 1990, when the state's in-migration burst began. Still, California remains the No. 1 supplier of new residents to the Beehive State.

Nevada, too, has started to see a slowdown as California's economic recovery takes hold.

"Where there are jobs, people will go," says Dean Judson, a state demographer. "If there's anything true in demography, that's one of them."

Yet while growth means more skilled workers for California's burgeoning economy, analysts warn it also comes with a price: affecting clean air, transportation, water quality, and the cost of housing.

"Growth will be the issue of 1998 and 1999 in California," says Steve Levy, director of the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy in Palo Alto, Calif.

For Russell Richey, the issue will be getting his golf swing back in the groove. Now that they have moved from the frosty Midwest back to Pasadena, the Richeys say they will be doing more hiking and other outdoor activities - year round.

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