Max Meek could only spare a moment; The real estate agent was scurrying Wednesday between a contract signing and a showing of property, all in once-sleepy Ozark, Mo.
The Christian County town is sleepy no more.
"Business is not just good, business is fantastic. Everyone wants to move to Ozark. My company had 12 Internet hits since last night, from California, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin -- all looking to relocate to our area," Meek said by cell phone as he headed for his next appointment.
The U.S. Census Bureau's latest estimate of population growth validates Meek's report from the scene.
Ozark, along a boom belt between Springfield and Branson, grew by 7.7 percent between July 2001 and July 2002, the government reported Wednesday.
The numbers are just estimates, but they reinforced a trend noted by 2000's Census headcount -- that the Ozarks and suburbs around St. Louis and Kansas City are steadily growing, while the city of St. Louis continues decades-long shrinkage.
Ozark had the largest percentage of estimated population growth among Missouri cities for the one-year period -- from 10,818 residents in 2001 to 11,651 last year.
Meek said newcomers from all over are retiring or relocating families to the scenic Ozarks, where there is still plenty of property at relatively cheap prices.
"I had an older couple from an upscale area outside Los Angeles who sold their three-bedroom home out there for $825,000, and they paid full price for 11 acres near Ozark with a 5,000-square-foot home and a barn. It cost them $250,000 in cash, and they wanted it right then," Meek, who sells for ERA Rutherford-Jones Realty, said with a laugh.
Nearby along U.S. 65, Nixa expanded an estimated 5.7 percent -- from 12,935 to 13,671, making it No. 4 on the growth estimate list.
In second place on the list was O'Fallon in St. Charles County, with 6.3 percent growth. No. 3 was Raymore, outside Kansas City, with estimated growth of 6 percent.
Jim Geiss, sales manager at Century 21 Schneider Real Estate in St. Charles, said nearly one in five of his clients are migrating westward from neighboring St. Louis County.
Why? "More house for their dollar," Geiss said Wednesday -- in some cases, up to 40 percent lower property prices.
He also noted that some companies have moved west out of the St. Louis area, such as Mastercard, which employs hundreds at a center in O'Fallon. This means a shorter -- if still crowded -- commute for some workers.
The Census numbers showed steady growth in the St. Charles County communities of Lake St. Louis and St. Peters, and in the Kansas City suburbs of Grandview, Belton, Lee's Summit, Liberty, Blue Springs and Excelsior Springs.
Kansas City renewed bragging rights as Missouri's most populous city, with an estimated 443,471 residents, up two-tenths of one percent from a year earlier. The city of St. Louis was calculated to have shrunk by 1.3 percent, from 342,773 to 338,353.
Editors Note: Associated Press Correspondent Jim Salter in St. Louis contributed information for this story.
POPULATION IN MISSOURI
The following numbers represent Southeast Missouri towns with 10,000-plus residents ranked by percentage of change.
NOTE: Change from July 1, 2001, to July 1, 2002.
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau.