Those of us who live in The North — and MSP, in particular — know the region is so much more than cold-weather clichés and “Fargo” references. But convincing people who’ve never been here of MSP’s vigor, vitality and all-around awesomeness can feel like an uphill battle, a massive chip on the region’s collective shoulder.
More important, the gap between MSP’s vibrant on-the-ground reality and the skeptical perceptions of outsiders — particularly those who live and work in the coastal population centers that drive the United States’ cultural conversation — is a perennial source of worry for the region’s business leaders and policymakers. How can MSP address its looming skills gap if it can’t convince talented knowledge workers to brave the cold, snow or whatever else they’re worried about and relocate here?
Talented people do move here from the coasts, of course. In fact, strike up a conversation with the person next to you at an art opening, microbrewery, maker event, co-working space, tech-entrepreneur gathering, placemaking conference, poetry reading, food truck (you get the idea), and chances are they’ve moved from the coast and are living the life they’ve always wanted.
Some come to reconnect with family or to start new families. Others come for school. Still others come for employment opportunities, the arts and culture, and the livability. Here’s a cross-section of MSP’s growing coastal-transplant community. All are adjusting to their adopted hometown, learning to love its unique blend of amenities and embracing its unique culture.
Fighting fear with coats
Zac Farber grew up in Olympia, Washington, about an hour southwest of Seattle. Keen to see another part of the country, he applied to Macalester College in St. Paul. “I read about Macalester in one of those three-pound guides to colleges,” he says, “and it established a place in my imagination for a reason that’s mostly obscure to me now.” To his (and his parents’) delight, he got in.
But Farber worried about his ability to deal with climatic extremes. “In Olympia, it rains incessantly, but temperatures rarely drop below 40,” he says. “I feared my first Minnesota winter as something elemental and unknown.”
Farber’s solution? “I fought my fear with coats,” he chuckles. He first visited MSP on a balmy spring weekend, but “when winter came, the coats did their duty and it really wasn’t all that bad,” he recalls.
With one exception: On an unseasonably cold afternoon at the St. Paul Winter Carnival, the plastic frame on Farber’s glasses literally froze off his face, snapping in half in the double-digit-below-zero chill. “That was my go-to, come-back-from-college anecdote for the next two years,” he says.
Aside from the inevitability of a long, cold winter, and a few stray cultural tidbits he’d gleaned from his bulky college guide, Farber didn’t quite know what to expect from MSP. “I’d never been to [Minnesota] before,” he says. “Minnesota’s appeal was in the prospect of a blank slate.”
Culturally speaking, what he found here wasn’t all that different from what he’d left behind. “I’ve never had much of an aptitude for demographic generalizations,” he muses, but “I suppose there are a lot of similarities between Washingtonians and Minnesotans in terms of unpretentiousness and fondness for the outdoors.”
Those similarities certainly eased Farber’s transition and likely factored into his decision to make a long-term home here. Aside from a year-long internship in Washington, D.C., and a brief interlude back home in Washington state, Farber has been a card-carrying Minnesotan since 2006.
He now lives in Minneapolis’ West Calhoun neighborhood. He regularly rides the 17 bus to WCCO’s downtown office, where he works as a web producer. When he’s not working, he uses the Midtown Greenway and Cedar Lake Trail to visit with college friends who’ve settled in Uptown, Downtown East and Northeast Minneapolis. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
“I like living in MSP because of the friends I made in college and the low cost of living, especially compared with D.C.,” he says.
A very different phone book
Scott Fagerstrom also came of age in the Pacific Northwest — specifically Vancouver, Washington, just outside Portland. He spent the first part of his career in the region, then worked his way down the West Coast, eventually landing in Orange County, California, and San Diego, where he served as business editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Life in southern California was a study in contrasts. “I was making good money at the Union-Tribune, but still couldn’t afford a house in San Diego,” he recalls.
Around the turn of the century, Fagerstrom almost moved to MSP: Looking at a management gig at the Star Tribune, he spent a few “glorious spring days” taking interviews in Minneapolis and hunting for places to live in St. Paul. Driving down Summit Avenue in full bloom, he fell in love with the broad lawns, lush vegetation, stately historic homes and eye-poppingly low list prices.
“I told myself, ‘I’m going to buy a house in this neighborhood one day,’” he recalls.
Just not then. When the Strib passed him over for another candidate, he took a position at the Los Angeles office of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, a global PR firm. Opportunity knocked again in 2004, when Northwest Airlines posted for a senior communications position. This time, Fagerstrom got the job, landing in a Merriam Park home not far from Summit Avenue.
Fagerstrom was mostly prepared for the region’s notorious winters. “What I wasn’t prepared for was the heat and humidity of summer,” he says. “We don’t get that kind of weather on the West Coast.” A tornado touched down near MSP the week after he arrived, adding to his sense of climatic dislocation.
On balance, Fagerstrom believes, MSP’s weather is a good thing. “Minnesotans have perfected the art of doing things indoors. There’s a reason one of our best-known cultural exports is a radio variety show held in a concert hall,” he says, referring to Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” “On the other hand, winter is so bad for so long that mild weather is truly a cause for celebration,” he adds.
Like Farber, Fagerstrom didn’t experience acute culture shock. “More like ‘culture surprise,’” he quips. He compares Minneapolis to Seattle: hip, culturally vibrant and business-oriented all at once. St. Paul reminds him of Portland: a low-key “city of neighborhoods.”
“The Pacific Northwest and Minnesota have a lot in common,” he adds, citing the active, outdoorsy lifestyle, high quality of life, reasonable living costs and Scandinavian heritage. (“In California, I got used to being the only Fagerstrom in the phone book,” he quips.)
MSP’s one cultural drawback: tight social and professional networks that occasionally make non-natives feel like, well, outsiders. “You can live here for a long time, develop good relationships with your colleagues and make great friends,” he says, “but still never be invited over for the holidays.” Fagerstrom chalks this up to the fact that many MSP natives remain in the area after completing their education and maintain largely intact networks over the course of their professional lives.
But this arm’s-length relationship with natives doesn’t make Fagerstrom feel any less at home here. And he hasn’t ruled out looking deeper into his background to see if any of those fellow Fagerstroms are long-lost relatives. Who knows? He might eventually get that holiday invite he’s been waiting for.
Rachel Franchi-Winters and her husband Kyle beat a circuitous, somewhat stressful path to MSP. Both grew up in rural Athol, Massachusetts, near the New Hampshire border. Like many of their peers, they moved to Boston for college: Kyle enrolled in Boston University’s aerospace engineering program, while Rachel studied biochemistry at Simmons College.
After graduation, they made the cross-country move to Phoenix, which had “a high concentration of aerospace jobs” for Kyle and a spot waiting for Rachel at the Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine. Kyle ended up pursuing an engineering master’s degree at Arizona State University instead; two years on, he got an offer to join a lab at the University of Minnesota and complete his Ph.D.
The pair scrambled to adjust Rachel’s career plans to the news. “We packed up our bags and moved from Phoenix to Minneapolis, never having been there before,” says Rachel. “I somehow managed to set up 7 months of [hospital and clinic] rotations there, which also gave me a chance to explore the family medicine residency programs I had applied to.”
Unlike Farber and Fagerstrom, the Franchi-Winters had a rudimentary local support network to fall back on when they arrived — and a place to celebrate the holidays. “I had a second cousin who lives in Prior Lake, MN, whom I had never met prior to coming,” Rachel says. “Now we celebrate all the major holidays together. It’s been such a blessing having some family here.”
Other aspects of the transition were smooth, even freeing. The weather here isn’t noticeably different from Boston’s, says Rachel, and the pair’s Northeast Minneapolis home is ideally placed between North Memorial Hospital, where Rachel works, and the U, where Kyle spends most of his time.
MSP’s bike friendliness has been a huge help, too. “We were expecting Minneapolis to be a bike-friendly city, so we sold one of our cars prior to coming,” Rachel says. “Kyle now rides his bike wherever he needs to go, which plays a huge role in keeping him healthy and happy.” Rachel alternates between driving and taking the 11 bus to North Memorial, depending on her schedule and the weather.
“We have a library, park, barber, market, yoga studio, farmers market, brewery, dry cleaners, and countless eateries and so many other essentials to our life within walking or biking distance,” she says with enthusiasm. “It has really allowed us to integrate into the community of Northeast and feel at home here.”
“And we do a family bike ride at least once a week,” she adds, “now with our 11-month-old in tow.” Overall, MSP’s “accessible outdoorsiness” is new to the Franchi-Winters’ experience, despite Phoenix’s rugged mountains and Boston’s sandy beaches. (Though Rachel does confess to missing the ocean.)
Also nice: MSP is much, much cheaper to live in than Boston — which, in spite of the family’s desire to “explore new places to live,” is a powerful incentive to stick around.
Alaska by way of California
Danielle Steer spent her formative years in Anchorage, Alaska, before moving down the coast and enrolling at Oregon’s Lewis & Clark College. Enamored with the West Coast lifestyle and energized by the possibilities of social entrepreneurship, she then headed south to Monterey, California, in pursuit of a Master’s of Public Administration in Social Change at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
California’s central coast suited Steer’s temperament and outlook well. With her MPA in hand, she accepted a full-time position with Middlebury’s recruitment and enrollment team — not quite “the title that I had envisioned in my quest to be a change agent,” she said in a recent blog post, but realistic given her youth and the state of the economy at the time.
Despite having “the world’s best boss,” who allowed her to tackle projects outside her official job duties and “really grow as a young professional,” Steer hit a wall in 2014. “I knew that I needed to take the skills, tools, and experiences from my grad degree and first ‘career girl’ job and apply them in a position that had more measurable impact,” she explained in the post.
Steer soon found that position; it just wasn’t where she thought it would be. Encouraged by her “bestie,” who grew up in Duluth, she applied for — and got — a leadership role at the newly minted MN Social Impact Center in Minneapolis. (Her exact title is Manager, Operations & Member Experience Design.)
Offer in hand, Steer and her husband packed up and moved to the Mill District, where they’re subleasing as they search for more permanent accommodations. “We’re really excited about Northeast Minneapolis,” she says — and about MSP’s manageable cost of living. “We’re not yet ready to buy a house but are definitely excited to live in a market where we can afford to buy,” she adds. “California just wasn’t accessible for us in that way.”
Steer and her husband are also experiencing a sort of positive culture shock. “Minnesotans are insanely loyal, valuing personal relationships and relatability over all else,” she says. That’s a welcome contrast with California, where tastes tend to be more fickle. A self-described “huge sports fan,” Steer was particularly pleased to find the Target Center packed to the gills for a late-season Timberwolves game, despite the team’s woeful performance and nonexistent playoff hopes.
Despite Steer’s relative newness, she already feels that supportiveness in her personal life. Her husband followed her here prior to lining up a job, but the Impact Center’s board “has been extremely helpful” in connecting him with employment opportunities. “MSP is tight-knit to a certain extent,” she explains, so “having support from my community has been invaluable.”
Steer also loves MSP’s “territorial loyalty.” When someone hears she and her husband are looking for a place to live, she says, “They immediately want to sell us on their neighborhood.” The city’s bike friendliness and a nearby off-leash dog park (the couple has a yellow lab) are also additional benefits. “We’re quickly falling in love with MSP,” she adds.
From the capital of tech to the capital of the North, Sujan Patel also came to MSP from California. But he didn’t have an Alaskan upbringing to prepare him for the region’s long winters or provide perspective on Northern culture.
Patel, an Orange County native, spent the first three decades of his life “moving up and down the California coast.” Since the late 2000s, he’d been planted in San Francisco’s trendy, techy SoMa district, heading up the digital marketing business he founded shortly after graduating from college.
“More than anywhere else I’d lived previously, I felt like San Francisco was my home,” he says. That started to change in late 2013, when he sold his business and began thinking about the next stage of his career. In early 2014, Chad Halvorson, founder of St. Paul-based tech startup thisCLICKS (now When I Work), courted Patel for the fast-growing company’s newly created VP of marketing position.
“I’d helped Chad with marketing and promotion for a few years, and I certainly believed in him and his company,” recalls Patel. “But honestly, having never lived outside California, I wasn’t sure about moving to Minnesota.”
Halvorson proved persuasive, though, and Patel accepted the offer. (It didn’t hurt that Halvorson first flew Patel to MSP in May, which “was probably intentional,” Patel laughs.)
He settled in a downtown St. Paul loft, partly for the proximity to When I Work’s West Side Flats offices and partly because he was apprehensive about snow-clearing responsibilities. According to Patel, the location couldn’t be better: He can walk to shops and restaurants, and has access to coffee shops (Spyhouse is his go-to) with long hours, a must for a driven startup employee who routinely catches up on work in the evenings and on weekends.
Despite its spread-out geography, Patel finds MSP at least as accessible as his more compact hometown. “The difference here is that you can certainly take transit if you want, but traffic and parking are also much more manageable,” he says. “It’s much easier to drive here, whereas in San Francisco transit is often the only option.”
That accessibility helps Patel connect with “like-minded communities” in vibrant parts of town. When he’s not working (and, often, even when he is), he spends time in Uptown, the North Loop and Northeast Minneapolis. And though he initially struggled to adjust to MSP’s “lower energy levels” and less developed startup scene, he’s come to see these apparent drawbacks as blessings in disguise.
“In San Francisco and other startup hubs, there’s so much noise and everyone is working on the next big thing. That means it’s really hard to cut through the hype and figure out what’s actually going to last, versus what’s just a fad,” he explains. “[In MSP], I have more of an outsider’s perspective, meaning I can evaluate opportunities objectively and connect with the people I should be connecting with.”
To be fair, many of those people aren’t from MSP. Ironically, adds Patel, he’s made more meaningful professional connections with people based in San Francisco in the past year than during his entire half-decade in the Bay Area. But perhaps the biggest perk of Patel’s move is simply being a key decision-maker at one of MSP’s most dynamic — and fastest-growing — tech startups.
“When I Work is hiring like crazy,” he says, “especially for developers, as we work to roll out new features faster than ever.” (According to Halvorson, the company recently passed the 50-employee mark, roughly tripling in size since the beginning of 2014.)
When I Work’s growth isn’t just great for Patel’s resume. It’s also a major plus for his overall quality of life, and probably the biggest reason he’s convinced that his decision to relocate to MSP was the right one.
“I’m fully committed to [When I Work’s] solution and have fallen in love with the team here,” he says. “When you’ve got a great product, inspirational coworkers and a clear mission, it doesn’t matter where you live — it only matters what you do.”
This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Brian Martucci is The Line‘s innovation and jobs news editor.