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Rust belt folks take liking to the area

When Will Joseph and his fiancee moved to Charlotte from Albany, N.Y., last year, they had nothing lined up for their new life but a hotel reservation.

No jobs. No place to live.

They had visited a couple times and “fell in love” with Charlotte.

“We got out a map and knew the places we didn't want to be in the South. Charlotte just really stuck out as dynamic, but not so big that it was like midtown Manhattan,” said Joseph, 42.

The flow of newcomers that has defined the Charlotte area for the past two decades continued in 2007, according to data released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau.

But there are signs that transplant growth could be leveling off – the rate of that growth in 2007 slowed compared with that of 2006.

An Observer analysis found:

2007 saw about 91,000 newcomers relocate to the nine-county Charlotte region, up from about 88,000 newcomers in 2006 and 80,000 in 2005. The study defined newcomers as people who moved here from out of state and doesn't take into account people who have left.

Midwestern Rust Belt states accounted for more newcomers in 2007 than the previous year, with Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania entering the list of top six places people moved from.

There was a flip-flop for the top spots transplants came from, with Florida beating New York.

Talking to transplants reveals many share the same motivation for their relocation to Charlotte. They often arrive seeking better job opportunities, more affordable housing and a warmer climate.

Joseph and his fiancee, Amy Zarro, 38, left good jobs – he in sales management for Pepsi and she a middle school French teacher. Over the long-term, they concluded, the Charlotte area promised better career advancement, and they were tired of New York's hustle and bustle and cold weather.

“I was just ready for a change,” said Joseph, a native New Yorker who after six months here landed another sales job. “There is just a lot going on. There is definitely a newness to it.”

The Charlotte region has a history of attracting transplants who move without jobs.

“What happens is people might not know anyone in Charlotte, but they start looking at economic news or job creation and sooner or later Charlotte pops up,” said Ed Turner, owner of Smith Turner Group, a job recruiting firm in Charlotte.

Turner said despite the nationwide economic downturn, he still gets about 20 calls and e-mails a week from out-of-state job seekers.

But Turner predicts that because North Carolina is lagging the nation in its slowdown, next year's batch of newcomer data will show a plateau. While North Carolina still looks better than many other places, it has entered a slump on the job front.

Since February, unemployment rates have been higher in North Carolina than the U.S. For August, the state's unemployment rate was 6.9 percent, compared with 6.1 percent for the nation. But Ohio was worse at 7.4 percent and Michigan suffered even more with 8.9 percent.

Among Midwestern transplants is the Farris family, who moved here over the summer from Wadsworth, Ohio, near Akron.

“It is horrible everywhere, but it is really bad in Ohio,” said Jenn, 35. “We researched for a long while and then we were like ‘Let's go for it.'” If they were researching Charlotte today, they might decide to stay put, she said, because the region wouldn't look as good on paper. But she still believes they made the right choice.

That's what Pam Bush thought when she left Akron in June, without a job.

She'd been working temp jobs for two years after being laid off as an administrative assistant at a bank. She knew Charlotte from visiting two nieces who live here.

“I liked the city and it was growing,” Bush said. “I thought that even though things were slowing down (everywhere) I had a better chance here.”

Bush's regret: not making the move sooner.

“I think I waited too long,” she said. “I would have been better (off) four years ago versus now. Everyone I meet is from somewhere else. And I meet a lot of people like me who moved without jobs.”

Observer database editor Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.