If you were a new Bakersfield resident 70 years ago, you might have received a visit from a cheery woman named Dorothy "Dottie" Hiatt. She would have pulled up to your home in a Chevrolet with “Bakersfield Hostess Courtesy Car” printed on the side, bearing a welcome basket with gifts including maps and a copy of The Californian, then sat down in your living room and asked about your migration story, family members and hobbies.
Hiatt worked for decades as the city’s unofficial greeter. Her welcome method was molded to the times. She actively greeted newcomers where they were, in person at their homes, and in her regular column published as part of The Californian.
Unfortunately, not all newcomer tales today go as smoothly. Recently, I have been hearing another story with a common theme, albeit a sad one.
One such example: After flying her out for interviews, putting her up at The Padre and wooing her with dinners at executives’ homes, a local hospital offered a medical professional from Chicago a position. It was a significant pay jump and an exciting career move for this respected doctor. She seemed eager to join the hospital’s team. However, her husband was less than thrilled with the prospect of moving to a town dubbed the “armpit of California” in online Reddit message boards.
Despite all the effort, including the lure of affordable real estate, the doctor ultimately declined the position in favor of a lateral move at her current place of employment in The Windy City. The short story is that she couldn’t convince her husband that Bakersfield was worth the move.
And please don’t think I wish to condense all high-level job offers into one stinking heap. For every declined offer, there is an acceptance. But even then, retention has become a problem. With the growth and progress of our city’s economy, especially expansion in the medical fields, more professionals are needed here for exciting job opportunities. What can we do to help lure skilled workers for longer than their original plan to stay temporarily?
First, we need to be honest about problems with our ability to attract and retain a professional workforce. It was a big reason why my husband and I helped start the grassroots campaign Be in Bakersfield. Among other endeavors, we saw a need for an organization that helps serve as a cheerful, tidy and honest first greeting for new residents. We hope for this group to be the online welcome mat and the in-person front door that sets the tone for newcomers as they join our community.
There are many groups already working to greet and inform new residents, including the convention and visitor bureau, Visit Bakersfield. But we saw the need for a grassroots version started by passionate young professionals. Be in Bakersfield organizers hope to host more gatherings like the popular Postcards to Bakersfield ambassador event last year. The group has already begun to help connect with new residents and announce their arrival. It seeks to encourage more outsiders to move here for work, get connected, find engaging things to do in off-hours and choose to make Bakersfield their forever home.
Be in Bakersfield members want to first meet people where they are: online. Just as the Chicago medical professional and her husband discovered, online interpretations of our city are inaccurate and incomplete. Be in Bakersfield hopes to help show the Bakersfield we’ve all come to know and love. This is a diverse place of thinkers and doers. Anyone can make a happy home here, but that story isn’t often told.
In 2019, Be in Bakersfield has plans to continue efforts to welcome and connect new residents. The team feels inspired by the original “Bakersfield Hostess” herself. I would love to sit down over a cup of tea with Hiatt and pick her brain. But unfortunately, she passed away more than a decade ago.
In 1947, Hiatt founded the City Hostess Service, a greeting service for newcomers to Bakersfield. In subsequent years, her business extended to other areas of Kern County and the Central Coast. For decades, she had been the city's unofficial greeter. She founded the Newcomers Club of Bakersfield, which is still active today. She wrote a regular column in this newspaper announcing new residents with quirky descriptions, including interesting pastimes, reasons for moving and anecdotes about their homes and families.
In 2010, a new business hoped to pick up where Dottie Hiatt left off, delivering gift baskets to new residents. But the increased population growth presented logistical challenges, including the fact that new residents were a little wary of strangers dropping off goods at their door. It appears that the business has since shut down. (The group’s website, citywelcomecommittee.com, is no longer active.)
In the spirit of Hiatt, Be In Bakersfield hopes to help welcome new residents in a way that speaks to the culture and trends in 2019. This group seeks to shine a light on all the good that already exists here and work to advocate for positive change where that is needed.
Hiatt infused her work with a personal touch and often ended her column with “Brighten that corner where you are!” This sentiment is still so relevant today. We could learn from Hiatt’s efforts to encourage civic pride and personal responsibility at a time when both are still so desperately needed.
Special thanks to Crissy Cochran at Be in Bakersfield for her ideas and research about the beloved Dottie Hiatt for this column.