Why the Best Places to Live May Be in Middle America

A city you always thought of as part of flyover country could become your dream hometown.

U.S. News & World Report

Is Middle America Best for You?

Salt Lake City, Utah

With a comfortable lifestyle and a strong workforce, Salt Lake City is attracting both millennials and companies.(Getty Images)

In previous years, metro areas considered small in comparison to the likes of New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco have fared well in the U.S. News Best Places to Live rankings. With affordability serving as a major factor for many people moving to a new place, smaller metro areas allow residents to keep more money in their pockets, rather than worry about high rent or mortgage payments.

In the data collected for the 2018 rankings, including cost of living, employment, crime rates, migration and morning commute time, it became apparent that corporations and individuals in the U.S. are looking inward from the coasts toward metro areas often referred to as part of “flyover country” as viable and even preferred places to live.

As has been the case for years, metro areas in Florida dominate the fastest-growing spots on the Best Places to Live list, as low tax rates and good weather continue to attract people to the coastal state. But metro areas in the center of the country have seen some of the greatest population growth between 2012 and 2016. It's no surprise that Austin, Texas, and Denver continue to attract many new residents since they both have strong job markets, but maybe more unexpectedly, Nashville, Tennessee; Boise, Idaho; and Fayetteville, Arkansas, all grew by more than 6 percent during the five-year period due to net migration alone.

Compare them to the largest metro areas in the U.S., including New York City, which saw a minor decrease in the population (0.25 percent between 2012 and 2016 in net migration), and Los Angeles, which saw an increase of just 0.27 percent during the same period. The Midwest's biggest metro area, Chicago, saw a drop of nearly 2.2 percent between 2012 and 2016 due to net migration.

So what is drawing an increasing number of people and companies to Middle America?

In many cases, it’s how the area manages to provide all the desirable amenities that a big city can offer, while also being sized proportionately for a smaller population. In Des Moines, Iowa (the No. 4 Best Place to Live), where the fastest-growing demographic is people between the ages of 25 and 34, it’s the ability to make an impact on the community through civic involvement combined with the job opportunities, says Jay Byers, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, which focuses on regional economic and community development.

“You can inherit a great city, but can you be a part of its future? Can you have coffee with the CEO – can you have coffee with the mayor pretty much any time you want?” Byers says.

As the No. 1 and 3 spots in Best Places to Live for 2018, respectively, Austin and Denver are prime examples of places beyond the traditional coastal hubs that have become destinations – not just for a business trip, but for people planning their future careers and personal lives. Now considered established destinations for both business and personal reasons, the increased interest in Austin and Denver serves as a prime example of the potential for many smaller, inland metro areas in the U.S. to take on new significance as the national economy, workforce and personal preferences change. These metro areas mistakenly viewed as flyover country have harnessed both what the biggest cities have, as well as a few things they lack.

Industry Magnets

While they may not be international seaports, many flourishing metro areas in Middle America have established industries that keep them poised for future growth.

Des Moines, for example, is recognized as a capital of the insurance and financial services industry. The area has managed to further solidify its role in the industry by ensuring that the tech companies that service the insurance industry are based nearby, rather than in another part of the country, like Silicon Valley. Byers explains that the Greater Des Moines Partnership helped launch the Global Insurance Accelerator, which provides programs to foster innovation for the insurance industry.

“Our goal with that was not only celebrating our great insurance history, but what can we do here in Des Moines to help set the course forward for the future of insurance?” Byers says.

More recently, Salt Lake City (No. 15 in Best Places to Live) has established itself as a leader in data analytics, attracting startups and venture capitalists looking to help grow the industry. The capital of Utah has been able to easily adapt its residential neighborhoods, business districts and roads connecting the metro area to appeal to the corporations and professionals relocating there, keeping them in the area longer.

“When you package it all up, now we have the city attracting the millennials for the workforce and we have the luxury suburbs … making it more desirable for the CEOs to want to be here,” says Paul Benson, a real estate agent and CEO of Engel & Volkers Park City in Park City, Utah.

In places like Colorado Springs, Colorado (No. 2 in Best Places to Live), and Huntsville, Alabama (No. 7 in Best Places to Live), the presence of military bases not only keep a steady population coming in for on-base jobs, but they also draw government contractors who often set up their own operations nearby.

Located on the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville is NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which made aerospace a leading industry in the area beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. While Huntsville is home to a variety of industries – including a recently announced Toyota-Mazda plant that's in the works – the area’s historic role in space exploration maintains a big part of the reputation for the local workforce and population, explains Claire Aiello, marketing and communications director for the Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville/Madison County.

“Aerospace is still our baby, so we attract a smart audience, we attract a smart workforce,” she says.

Getting Around Is Easy

A diehard city dweller may never fully adjust to a smaller metro area, but many of the places in Middle America that are seeing the most growth offer sleeper amenities that appeal to professionals looking to relocate: arts scenes, growing numbers of music venues and plenty of outdoor recreational activities – without the traffic you expect in the most populous parts of the U.S.

Salt Lake City has an average morning commute of just 22.3 minutes, but it’s not stopping at an easy drive. “Salt Lake has been very forward-thinking on their mass transportation locations and their layout,” Benson says, adding that owning a car isn’t a must anymore if you live downtown.

In Huntsville, affordability and a short commute may be a given, but Aiello says the many transplants to the area are often surprised by the community vibe. “We have this quality of life that they do not expect,” she says.

Aiello adds that residents are able to create the atmosphere they’d like to live in as well. Living in downtown Huntsville is an affordable option, but so is buying a ranch with some acreage just 20 minutes or so away.

While the need to be in contact with the big, coastal cities likely won’t go away, it’s easier than ever for companies and employees to be in constant communication with offices on either coast, making both offices and individual telecommuters in Middle America an appealing option for many companies.

And for those times that an in-person presence is necessary, air travel is more common than ever – as many as 5,000 aircrafts are in the sky over the U.S. at any given time, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

All combined, it’s becoming less and less necessary to live in the expensive major hubs for the right job or cultural community. So as you search coast-to-coast for your next ideal place to live, don’t discount those key locations located in the middle of the map.

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