Economic Development

Do You Really Want to be the Best?

Spend a morning walking around the historic pedestrian mall in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, and you'll want to move there. Cafes, bookshops, art galleries and theaters...
January 31, 2008

Spend a morning walking around the historic pedestrian mall in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, and you'll want to move there. Cafes, bookshops, art galleries and theaters line the brick-paved thoroughfare, which the city closed to automobile traffic in the 1970s. And it's not just tourist kitsch. Along with the clothing boutiques and handmade pottery stores are hallmarks of a workaday downtown -- a jewelry repair shop, a pharmacy and banks. A couple of years ago, the city helped build the Charlottesville Pavilion, a concert venue that now attracts national acts. The pavilion's swooping white tent roof anchors the mall's east end.

On warm nights, the whole mall teems with local families and students from the University of Virginia, whose campus -- with its life-sized statue of its founder, Thomas Jefferson -- is just a few blocks away. But even on a bone-chillingly cold morning in January, the mall is filled with residents bustling to work or running errands, stopping to chat or to warm themselves briefly at an impossibly cute espresso cart. Looking up over the roofs of the brick buildings lining the mall, you spot the rolling, steel-blue foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

This, you're thinking, would be a great place to live.

As it turns out, you could back up that opinion with empirical proof -- or as empirical as this kind of stuff gets. The Charlottesville area was named the best place to live in the 2004 edition of "Cities Ranked and Rated," a hefty compendium cataloging more than 400 metropolitan areas throughout the country. The book, by Bert Sperling, praised Charlottesville's clean air and water, good schools, healthy economy and manageable cost of living. The city cheered the recognition. Retail and housing developments 30 miles away started flaunting their location "in Charlottesville." The chamber of commerce printed bumper stickers touting "America's #1 community."

For this city of 40,000 and for surrounding Albemarle County, which has an additional 90,000 residents, the ranking has been a boon, according to Charlottesville city council member David Brown, who served as mayor for four years until he stepped down last month. "The good growth we've achieved -- being able to attract the creative class -- has been fueled by that ranking," he says over a cup of coffee at the Mudhouse, a cozy hangout at the west end of the mall. "We've improved as a destination, and I think there's some connection to the ranking. It's been helpful, and it's something we're really proud of."

Others in Charlottesville weren't so happy with the designation. "I wanted to strangle Bert Sperling," jokes Jack Marshall, the president of a nonprofit group called Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population, which pushes for a stationary population size in the region. "We'd rather keep it a secret what a nifty place this is. It's transparent that [the ranking] has exacerbated our growth problems." Reactions to the rankings, he says, fell into two camps. "A lot of the city fathers and mothers thought this was the best thing to hit Charlottesville since Thomas Jefferson. Those of us on the other side thought it was the kiss of death."

That tension seems to play out in any city or town that earns a "best of" ranking. Of course it's nice to be called the greatest town in the country. Economic development boosters plug the rating in hopes of attracting individuals and businesses interested in relocating. But such recognition can spark fears of a flood of incoming residents, sprawling growth and skyrocketing housing costs. Residents worry that their town's newfound attention will erode everything that made it a great city in the first place. Locals start blaming every civic ill on their city's best-in-the-nation status. Depending on who you talk to, being called the best place to live is an honor, a nuisance, a curse or a wash.

DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

These days, you can find city rankings based on just about any criteria imaginable. If you are so inclined, you can move to the Healthiest City for Women (San Francisco), the Best City for Dogs (Colorado Springs) or the Most Romantic City for Baby Boomers (Pittsburgh). It seems that every week, another magazine or news Web site has found a new "best of" niche.

But the most venerable and most well known is Money magazine's "Best Places to Live" issue. Published almost every year since 1987, it's the go-to guide for civic rankings. Bert Sperling provides the data for the magazine's report. Sperling, a former accountant and software designer in Oregon, has made a career out of compiling data on cities. In addition to his partnership with Money, he consults with various other magazines, such as Self and Ladies' Home Journal, on more narrowly tailored city lists. He runs Sperling's Best Places, a constantly updated online resource where visitors can access a trove of city data, and where municipalities, organizations and even neighborhoods can create their own profiles. And Sperling has also published two editions of "Cities Ranked and Rated."

To keep these lists fresh -- and to stoke ongoing interest -- Sperling and other researchers change the factors they use to determine city rankings. One year, crime statistics may be given more weight. The next, education is treated as a bigger concern. The focus depends, Sperling notes, on what current issues resonate with the public. As a result, these lists can vary widely from one year to the next. For that reason, many people view these kinds of rankings as arbitrary. But the methodology doesn't really matter to the cities themselves. The effect is the same: Someone's called you the best place to live. You'd better be ready to deal with the title.

Sperling himself is the first to admit that his rankings can have a downside. "When cities appear in the top 10, it has a very significant effect on the interest they get from businesses and individuals. But a lot of places do see this as a double-edged sword. They're flattered by the attention overall, but they also feel like, 'Please don't tell anyone else about us. We like our town the way it is.'"

There's no way to track exactly how many people move to a city based on its best-place ranking. Although a list-topping city might see a subsequent population increase or an uptick in interest from businesses, it's impossible to pinpoint what role a high ranking plays. Still, according to Census figures, 39 million Americans, about 14 percent of the population, move every year. And -- anecdotally, at least -- some of them do seek out a city specifically because it has sat atop a best-of list. That's been the experience of David Cieslewicz, the mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, which has garnered several "best place" nods, including Money magazine's top spot in 1996. "I do anecdotally hear from people who say they moved to Madison sight unseen because they did an Internet search for the best place to live," he says. "But obviously, that doesn't contribute to any appreciable growth."

Tell that to the citizens of Rochester, Minnesota, a place that's quite familiar with this kind of notoriety. The city of about 100,000, home to the Mayo Clinic, has been a steady fixture on Money's list, nabbing the No. 1 spot twice in the 1990s and consistently ranking near the top. During that decade, the populations of both Rochester and surrounding Olmsted County surged about 20 percent. Growth and sprawl became a concern. Violent crime jumped 150 percent. Minority populations increased, and racial skirmishes made headlines. Longtime residents linked the city's problems to the Money rankings. In a 1996 survey, 47 percent of people who had lived in Rochester for 15 years or more said they blamed these problems largely on the "best places" list. Moreover, they believed Rochester had become a welfare magnet as low-income families, attracted by Rochester's high marks, swarmed the city looking for jobs.

But, as an investigation by the Rochester Post-Bulletin discovered, those perceptions didn't match reality. True, the population had expanded, but Rochester's growth rate was low compared with similar cities around the country. Yes, more minorities had moved to Rochester, but that trend had begun before the city showed up on Money's list. Overall crime was down. The number of people on welfare had declined. Basically, the newspaper found, the Money rankings hadn't really had that much impact.

Despite fears such as those among Rochester residents, the truth is that cities receiving national attention all seem to go through the same pattern of phases. Initially, they're deluged with inquiries from out-of-towners. When, for example, Gainesville, Florida, found itself at the top of Money magazine's list in 1995, the local chamber of commerce had to hire an additional receptionist to help handle the calls. But that flurry of interest soon dies down, and cities are left wondering if the ranking had any effect at all.

Fort Collins, Colorado, about 60 miles north of Denver, is home to Colorado State University and about 130,000 residents. After it was named Money's best place in 2006, Fort Collins experienced the same arc as other previous winners. "Our personal relocation requests went way up, with people from around the country calling, walking in or e-mailing the chamber," says David May, president and CEO of the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce. "But has the notoriety and expressed interest translated into actual relocations of people? We have no evidence one way or the other." May adds that business recruiters had the same experience. "Their inquiries went up also. Being named as the best place to live in a prominent publication immediately puts your area on site-location lists for companies, because quality of place matters. But has the No. 1 ranking flooded us with new companies moving to the area? No, just more inquiries."

The same has been true for Charlottesville, notes the president and CEO of its regional chamber of commerce, Tim Hulbert. Over a lunch of crab soup and iced tea, Hulbert looks around Siips, a new bistro and wine bar that's set up shop on the downtown mall. This, he says, is certainly an example of a business that was attracted in part because of Charlottesville's ranking. But he adds that the bistro probably would have come anyway. "So then what's the impact of a No. 1 ranking?" he asks. "I would say none. I don't want to dismiss it, really. But mostly it was just acknowledging something that was already known."

NO. 1 IN EVERYTHING

Maybe these rankings don't result in a population explosion or an influx of new businesses, but cities say there's fallout nonetheless. As happened in Rochester, the biggest impact may be a shift in perception.

Take Moorestown, New Jersey. When you picture "hometown America," you're probably thinking of someplace like Moorestown. A relatively sleepy burg of just over 20,000, the town has a tree-lined Main Street dominated by a Quaker meeting house and school. The quaint feel of the place -- coupled with the fact that it's only a 15-minute drive from center-city Philadelphia -- earned Moorestown Money magazine's top spot in 2005. Moorestown celebrated the news with block parties, a parade and the town's first fireworks show in 30 years.

Councilman Dan Roccato says he was happy to hear about the ranking, but he also braced for potential fallout. "Almost overnight, Moorestown went from this quiet, modest town to being in the national spotlight." Moorestown's strength, Roccato says, is that it's been able to maintain its historic character against "the tide of pressure" to build new developments. "That pressure has only ratcheted up since the national recognition." The moment Moorestown was crowned the best place to live, real estate developers descended on town hall, Roccato says. "We had a flood of development offers, and each one was from someone who said he had the best way for us to capitalize on the ranking." Roccato says the town has politely declined them all.

The pressure came from residents, too. Moorestown citizens started using the No. 1 rating as justification for any number of pet projects, everything from repaving the sidewalks to building better ball fields to lowering taxes. "They'd come to us and say, 'For the best town in America, we should really have this,'" says Roccato. "From a public official's point of view, there was some irony and perhaps some downside to being recognized as No. 1. Everyone suddenly thought every single thing about us should be No. 1. And that's, of course, impossible."

Sometimes even municipal employees start trying to trade in on a town's supposed newfound cachet. That's what has happened in Middleton, Wisconsin, a 17,000-person suburb of Madison and Money magazine's 2007 pick for the best place to live. Mayor Kurt Sonnentag says his town's rating hasn't had much of an impact so far, except in one area: "City employees are coming in to ask for a raise. They'll say, "Hey, you're No. 1. You can afford to pay better.'"

Ask Jeff Werner about the effect the No. 1 ranking had on Charlottesville, and he starts groaning before you can finish the question. Werner is the Albemarle County land-use field officer for the Piedmont Environmental Council, a smart-growth group focused on a corridor stretching from Albemarle County north to the Washington, D.C., suburbs. PEC has won some high-profile land-conservation battles -- this was the group that led the fight against Disney's plan in the early 1990s to build a 3,000-acre history theme park in the middle of Virginia. Werner admits that he doesn't see a correlation between a best-of ranking and growth, but he bemoans the added attention all the same. "It's sort of a local joke for cities. 'Oh my God, what can we do to keep from being named a best place to live?'" When Moorestown was picked as a top city, Werner called a friend of his who lives there and told him, "Better you than us."

For Werner, the main result of a No. 1 ranking is something akin to a communal crisis of conscience. "If there's a spike in anything after these best-places designations, it's local discussion. What kind of a place do we want to be? It's almost more of an exercise in psychology than land use."

That's an exercise Charlottesville is undertaking right now. Funded in part by money from the city and the county, Advocates for a Sustainable Albemarle Population is launching a sweeping research effort to determine the area's "optimal sustainable population" -- that is, finding out what kind of city Charlottesville wants to be and the ideal population it should have to maintain that character. The project will examine a host of environmental, fiscal, demographic and philosophical issues, bringing together officials, advocates, academics and statisticians -- including Bert Sperling. "Growth is good, up to a point," Marshall says. "But there's a point where it ain't. Or, more articulately, there's a point where the costs outweigh the benefits." Being named the best place to live, says Marshall, has given Charlottesville the impetus to start asking where that point might be.

Last May, Sperling released a second edition of "Cities Ranked and Rated." Charlottesville was no longer No. 1. The city had fallen to 17th place, largely, according to the book, because of its escalating housing prices. Predictably, there were some who cheered the fact that the city no longer held the top honor. One chamber of commerce staffer said she was happy to learn that Charlottesville wasn't No. 1. After all the attention, she told a newspaper reporter, "maybe things will come back to the ground." On Internet message boards about the rankings, Charlottesville residents posted comments such as, "Thank God Charlottesville has fallen out of the 'number one' position. The ranking was a curse on our fair city. The cost of living skyrocketed and [we] attracted a boatload of people who apparently rely on someone else's assessment of a 'good place to live.'ÉGood riddance to that ranking and the rubbage that follows."

Even David Brown, the former mayor who was bullish about the ranking's ability to help attract the creative class, acknowledges a little relief over Charlottesville's lower rating. "There are a lot of great reasons to move here," he says. Being at the top of someone's rankings isn't one of them. "To the degree that people would move here simply because they saw us on a list, I'm glad we're not No. 1 anymore."

In Sperling's latest book, Gainesville, Florida, has taken over the top spot -- and the media attention, internal disagreements and philosophical hand-wringing that come with it. The recognition has meant a lot of good buzz, says Bob Woods, the city's communications and marketing manager. The city is experiencing renewed interest from families thinking about making a move. And economic development officials are eagerly promoting the ranking in an effort to bring in new businesses. "But it's important for us to maintain the environment that got us named the best city in the first place," he says. "That's the tension we're constantly working with."

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