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Alexandria Hernandez is a boomerang, at least from an economic development perspective. She’s part of a contingent of local people who grew up in Amarillo, moved away for education or career opportunities, and then returned. In her case, she came back to her hometown just a few weeks ago, in November, after having lived in New York City for several years.
A 2010 Palo Duro High School graduate, Hernandez attended Texas Tech University before heading off to a career in San Francisco. Then she moved to the East Coast.
And then she came home. “I honestly didn’t want to really come back until probably this past year,” she says. But as she entered her 30s, the things she took for granted about the Texas Panhandle began to beckon, like the quality of life and cost of living. “I’m getting to the age where I do want to settle down, you know, and it’s so hard to do that over there because it’s so expensive. You don’t get a backyard and a front yard. You can’t see kids riding around on their bikes like you used to,” she says. “It’s very different. It’s very loud. There’s no quiet.”
Hernandez also felt the pull of family ties. She was tired of missing out on family events and holidays, and wanted to see her niece and nephew on their birthdays. Thanks to a long career in retail, she was able to move seamlessly back to the Panhandle to work at the same company she worked for in those larger cities.
Most importantly, Hernandez is comfortable with her choice. It might have surprised her to admit this at age 18, but she’s happy to be home.
Amarillo’s city leaders and growing businesses are passionate about finding more residents like Hernandez. For a variety of reasons, boomerangers can be important sources of economic life, vibrant communities and new ideas. Living in the same place for decades and decades can sometimes result in a kind of civic inertia—a “this is how we’ve always done it” mindset.
Boomerangers know otherwise. They’ve seen the best, and worst, of other cities. And their perspectives are valuable.
That’s part of the reason the Amarillo Economic Development Corp. has launched a new campaign inviting former residents to “ReRoot” in Amarillo. “We are asking for referrals from current residents, higher education institutions, and other community partners to help recruit those individuals and families back to the area,” says Caylar Harper, director of marketing and workforce initiatives at AEDC.
Each person referred through the AEDC website will receive a gift box of Amarillo souvenirs and be added to a quarterly mailing list for a newsletter reminding them what the city has to offer, including stories about local residents, developments in education, job training opportunities, quality of life and our rapidly evolving arts culture.
According to AEDC data, 56,650 people between the ages of 20 and 39 years old live in Amarillo right now. That number is expected to decrease over the next five years—other cities our size are seeing similar trends—and initiatives like ReRoot hope to address the demographic slide by attracting boomerang and transplant residents.
Harper’s role at the AEDC was established to work closely with local businesses to attract and retain a strong workforce in the area. She’s got a challenge ahead of her. Development Counselors International, a national economic development marketing agency, says that employers and communities across the U.S. are experiencing labor and talent shortages. With an estimated 9.6 million open jobs across the U.S. and only 5.7 million actively unemployed workers, there are not enough people to fill the open jobs.
But the good news is that Amarillo has an abundance of what a future local workforce—including boomerangers like Hernandez—say they value. DCI research indicates cost of living, housing cost and availability and safety/security remain the most important factors for job seekers in the 20 to 39 age group. Also important to them is the ability to live, work and play without a long commute.
The cost of living in Amarillo is about 16 percent lower than the national average. The median household income has increased to $58,125, and as of October 2023, the unemployment rate was 3 percent, which is one of the lowest in the state.
Exposure to Diversity
A couple of decades ago, the same trends that attracted Hernandez also called to Stephanie Goins, an annual giving officer with the Amarillo Area Foundation, who had spent time in Midland and the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex before making this area home.
“I decided to stay in Amarillo because it’s a great place to raise a family, and I’ve also noticed recently Amarillo has worked hard to make education more accessible to lower-income families,” she says. “There are plenty of jobs here, and the economy is doing well in my eyes.“
Her children are part of that highly desirable younger workforce, and two of them—also Palo Duro grads—chose not to stay. Goins says she sees that trend among friends’ families and her kids’ generation. She worries that young people, particularly those of color, are leaving in pursuit of cities with more diverse populations.
Goins says Amarillo has made important strides in recent years. She’s seen increased Black representation in the workplace, as well as highly visible mentorship and support programs like 101 Elite Men and the Northside Toy Drive. But she doesn’t just believe Amarillo needs to just continue down that path. As she describes it, we need to intensify our commitment to diversity.
“The perception is that bigger cities offer more for families in terms of activities and exposure to diversity,” she says. “Unfortunately, the limited offerings for the Black community in Amarillo contribute to this trend, and I worry that our community might face challenges if this continues. My hope for Amarillo is to become an inclusive and flourishing community with more things to do for our younger generation and have better opportunities for people from different backgrounds. It’s about creating a comprehensive environment where everyone feels comfortable, welcome and can enjoy being themselves.”
Low Taxes vs. Livability
Andrew Hall is one of the local leaders helping build that kind of comprehensive environment, and he’s a boomeranger himself. After graduating from Tascosa High School in 2004, he quickly and confidently moved to Dallas to attend college. He had no plans to return. But after working in the Metroplex and then in Oklahoma City, he saw the impact he could make in Amarillo if he chose to come back home.
So, after graduating with an MBA in 2013, Hall and his then-fiance Lauren took a leap, sold their house and moved back to Amarillo without much of a plan.
“It wasn’t the plan to come straight home, but by the winter of the next year, we just decided to stay,” he says. The Halls returned around the time Amarillo voters were rejecting a proposed $37.5 million bond election for the Amarillo Recreation Center, a sports complex designed to appeal to young families like his.
Before long, Andrew found himself getting involved in other quality-of-life campaigns, including the one for the downtown ballpark. His tenure in Oklahoma City convinced him that Amarillo could experience a downtown revival similar to the one triggered by OKC’s highly successful Bricktown. And while he is proud of the advances the city has made in the downtown space, including Hodgetown and the arrival of the Sod Poodles, other endeavors have gone the way of the ARC.
“It’s challenging to get people to just see that it can be done in Amarillo, too,” he says. From advocating for a revitalized Civic Center Complex to other growth projects, he’s passionate about showing local residents what Amarillo could be. In fact, that’s one reason he’s now the chairman of the AEDC board of directors.
One hurdle has been communicating about the necessity of big quality-of-life projects like a new or remodeled Civic Center. Another hurdle has been local residents’ prioritization of the city’s low tax rate, which sometimes comes at the expense of major livability improvements.
Andrew says he thinks city leaders have to better communicate the message of why citizens should support the growth he’d like to see.
“I think we have to get away from this mentality of ‘We don’t want to pay for anything,’” he says. “Of course I don’t want more taxes and all of that, but I want to invest in things that need to be invested in.”
He knows infrastructure is important and applauds the city’s effort to begin investing in it again. Everyone values clean water and toilets that flush. At the same time, those are expected comforts and conveniences. But young people aren’t looking at sewer lines and water systems before deciding where to live, and boomerangers aren’t looking at tax rates. They’re looking for quality of life.
Music and Art
In true boomeranger fashion, Andrew hasn’t just longed for what he experienced while living in other places. He and Lauren took it upon themselves to bring some of that big-city vibe to Amarillo. They are the founders of the now-annual Hoodoo Mural Festival, which has become one of the most exciting events downtown since it began in 2019.
This year’s festival saw a 31 percent increase in attendance over last year. It attracted nearly 2,500 people, both locals and visitors, downtown to see art and live music.
It hasn’t been easy. And Andrew realizes that some residents—especially older generations—don’t fully understand the appeal of large-scale public art and high-energy events like Hoodoo. “I’ve learned how important it is to have these fun things to do,” he says. “Sometimes, it just takes a small group to get a project started. Knowing that our city has so many [infrastructure] issues, it’s hard to focus on these quality-of-life projects. We want to get them started and maybe the city can help to grow them later on.”
He and Lauren first bonded through music and art, and they know their experience is common among their generation and those that will follow. “It’s just neat to see what happens when you put up interesting art and people flock to it, and they come and talk about it. And, honestly, I want that, too, for myself,” he says.
He wants to create those things for himself and his children to enjoy. Stephanie Goins wants to create a diverse Amarillo that keeps and attracts young people of color here. The AEDC wants to convince former residents to boomerang back in its “ReRoot” campaign.
And Alexandria Hernandez wants her hometown to reflect just a tiny bit more of the vibrancy she gave up when she moved here from New York City. She knew choosing peace and quiet meant exchanging more diverse live music offerings and world-famous art museums.
For her, that tradeoff was worth it.
Even so, she takes comfort that Amarillo is moving forward. This city is changing. “I did get lost coming here for this interview,” she says with a laugh and a touch of nostalgia. “That’s something I never thought I’d say.”
It’s definitely not the city she left 13 years ago. As the city attracts more people like her, it won’t look the same 13 years from now, either.