OKLAHOMA CITY -- A lifelong Californian, Gricelda Fragoso never considered moving from the Golden State, not to mention to Oklahoma, even though her husband has roots here.
Fragoso, a clinical psychologist, didn't fancy the idea of taking more tests to be licensed by another state. Three years ago, she started her own private practice in San Diego, and the couple had just landed a $338,000 deal on a 1,500-square-foot condominium.
Then, she got pregnant.
Her son, now 18 months, was a driving factor, she said, in her family relocating a year ago to Oklahoma City, where her accountant husband joined the family business, Rail Unlimited.
"It became very important to me that our baby grow up around grandparents," said Fragoso, 35, who came for a test visit in fall 2009 and "fell in love" with the foliage of Oklahoma.
"It's fantastic," Fragoso said. "We're excited about having a backyard for our son, and being able to meet our financial goals, including paying off my graduate-school loan."
According to the Internal Revenue Service, Californians relocating to Oklahoma is a growing phenomenon in a sort of reverse "Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck's Depression-era account of Okies moving from the Dust Bowl to work in the California orchards.
Based roughly on tax-return exemptions, the number of Californians moving here outnumbered Sooners moving there by 21,376 from 1999 to 2008, the latest data available.
City and state leaders aren't surprised. According to the state Commerce Department, Oklahoma's population has grown an average of 1.2 percent for the last five years, and grew 1.7 percent -- nearly triple the 0.6 percent national growth rate -- between 2009 and 2010 alone. Meanwhile, unemployment here remains relatively low.
Though California is one of the top states to which young Oklahoman professionals migrate, it's not uncommon for them to move back, said Beth Schmidt, marketing director for the Commerce Department.
"The American dream is possible here," she said, "especially when it comes to homeownership."
To remind migrating Okies of that dream and attract them back to fill gaps in knowledge-based jobs, the Commerce Department four years ago launched Project Boomerang! -- initially sending postcards to Oklahoma State University engineering graduates to alert them of state job opportunities. The response was impressive, Schmidt said. More than 16 percent of recipients visited the project website.
Today, the site (okboomerang.com) averages 5,000 unique visits every year, Schmidt said. The Commerce Department has partnered with more schools and 20 statewide employers who must assure they have open jobs that require a bachelor's degree or higher and pay at least $50,000 annually.
When Oklahoma State University graduate Rod Whitson moved back to Oklahoma City in August 2007, he found it a "much cooler city" than the one he left a decade earlier. He found a vibrant economy, an innovative biotech research park and a professional basketball team.
"Southern California kind of wears on you if you're not from there," said Whitson, 52. "Everything's congested, everything's crowded."
Whitson traded a 40-minute commute to his marketing job with a high-tech firm for a five-minute commute.
Kip Welch and Kyle Rogers joke with their friends in San Francisco that they put their new house in Oklahoma City on a credit card. They paid under $300,000 for the 2,500-square-foot new construction, which easily would go for $2 million there, Welch said.
A headhunter recruited Welch, formerly with Starbucks staffing, to Oklahoma City in June 2008 to direct recruitment for Chesapeake Energy Corp.
"I had no idea of Oklahoma City," said Welch, 49. A native of northeast Arkansas, he didn't think it was much different, he said, and knew Arkansas wasn't a place he wanted to be.
"I've become a cheerleader for the city," said Welch, who is serving as vice president of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic and fundraising chair for Brightmusic Chamber Ensemble. "It really is an arts town, and has everything Dallas has, except for congested traffic and elevated attitudes."
(Reach Paul Burkes at pburkes(at)opubco.com. For more stories, visit scrippsnews.com.)