Nov 13, 2019 - Economy

The U.S. cities that are thriving under the radar

Data: Emsi; Table: Axios Visuals 
Data: Emsi; Table: Axios Visuals 

In an age of superstar cities, in which 25 bustling metros account for half the country's economy, some under-the-radar cities and rural areas are thriving.

Why it matters: Much of the country is in search of a playbook that can bring in even a fraction of the riches that have rained on the economic frontrunners.

The big picture: The rift between superstars and laggards is in danger of widening, worsening political polarization as it goes.

  • It's a bleak outlook for the areas left behind — but it's not that great for the superstars, either.
  • These cities — notably San Francisco and Seattle — have been buried under homelessness and traffic as they exploded uncontrollably in recent years.

Driving the news: A report released Wednesday by Emsi, an economic analysis firm, charts the cities the company deemed most attractive to talent, with some unexpected results.

"There's a lot of talk out there about the superstar cities on the coastal metros that are taking all the jobs," says Josh Wright, an EVP at Emsi. But, he says, "there are places all over that are doing a lot better than people think."

  • Emsi ranked every county in the U.S. based on six variables it says contribute to attracting talent. They include job growth, migration flows, education and job openings for skilled work.
  • Among big cities, Jacksonville, Fla., Phoenix and Las Vegas came out on top.
  • The top smaller metros — cities with fewer than 100,000 people — were Lake Charles, La., Macon and Waynesboro, Ga.

Unlike traditional tech hubs, the front-running Jacksonville isn't built around a single industry or company. The top jobs, Emsi says, are in the ubiquitous restaurant and hospital sectors — but the area has been boosted by new Amazon and Wayfair distribution centers.

For smaller cities, an anchoring corporate headquarters or university can be a boon. But there's hope even for those without a flagship institution.

  • Cities are finding success with "placemaking," says Kristin Sharp, a partner at Entangled Solutions, an education consulting company. That means they're figuring out a brand that convinces people to move there — or, often, move back home after a stint in a bigger city.
  • Much of this is built around quality-of-life factors. Think Boulder's outdoorsy beer scene, or Detroit's mansions that are cheaper than a Brooklyn studio.

What's next: Automation threatens to throw the balance even further off kilter. New jobs are likely to accrue to already advantaged super-cities, while the losers stand to lose even more.

Go deeper: The cities where low-wage workers are being left behind

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