Feb 6, 2024 - Economy

First on Axios: The best-performing U.S. cities

Illustration of a winner's medal shaped like a location pin.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Austin, Raleigh, Boise, Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah, top the Milken Institute's latest annual list of the Best Performing Cities, released first to Axios.

Why it matters: These metropolitan areas offer high wages, plentiful jobs, a (relatively) low cost of living and thriving tech sectors — making them economic models for the rest of the nation.

Driving the news: The Milken Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit, assessed 403 U.S. metropolitan areas using 13 economic metrics, based on data from January 2022-August 2023.

  • The report divided cities into large metros (more than 275,000 people) and smaller ones.

What they found: Rounding out the top 10 among large metro areas were Nashville; Northwest Arkansas; Dallas; Olympia, Washington; and Charlotte, North Carolina.

  • Among smaller cities, four of the top seven were in Idaho: Idaho Falls (#1), Coeur d'Alene (#2), Twin Falls (#5) and Pocatello (#7).
  • The other three small cities in the top seven were Gainesville, Georgia (#3); St. George, Utah (#4) and Bend, Oregon (#6).
  • Among smaller cities, Milken chose to group the top performers into a "top 7" rather than a "top 10" because those seven cities performed so much better than the rest.

Of note: This year's rankings took two new factors into consideration: income inequality and "resilience," defined as a city's ability to withstand severe weather and economic turmoil.

What they're saying: "These rankings really look at growth," Maggie Switek, an author of the Milken report, tells Axios. "What we mean by top-performing is that these are the cities that are growing the fastest."

  • "So if we think about New York or San Francisco, those are cities that have grown in the past and now are maintaining the status quo, whereas the cities that are performing at the top are really where jobs, wages and the high-tech sector are growing."

Where it stands: Austin/Round Rock, Texas, ranked first among large metropolitan areas because of its "rapid growth in jobs, wages, and high tech," bolstered by the presence of the University of Texas at Austin.

  • It moved up from its #2 position last year, displacing Provo/Orem, Utah (which saw declines in job and wage growth due to recent tech layoffs).
  • Among smaller cities, Idaho Falls won for the second consecutive year because of robust job growth, economic diversity and the strength of a top employer, the Idaho National Laboratory.

Biggest gainers: The large metro areas that rose the most in this year's rankings were Philadelphia; Elgin, Illinois; Houston; Richmond, Virginia; and Wichita, Kansas.

  • These cities "benefited primarily from robust employment growth between 2021 and 2023," the report found.
  • Three — Elgin, Richmond and Houston — saw the strongest job gains in leisure and hospitality.

Biggest losers: Of the five cities that dropped most in the rankings, four are in California (San Luis Obispo, Modesto, Merced and Oxnard), and one is in North Carolina (Greensboro).

  • The cities that fell "tended to underperform in two areas: one-year wage growth and the metrics of city resilience and income inequality," per the report.

Reality check: Most of the top-performing metropolitan areas are in landlocked states — significant in an age of rampant coastal flooding.

  • 🥔 Idaho's standout performance is due to "excellent five-year job and wage growth, bolstered by a small but growing high-tech sector and high rankings on resilience and income distribution metrics," the report found.
  • The lower-ranked cities correlated to "the least resilient metropolitan areas" and also tended to be "highly exposed to extreme heat."

Details: In terms of income inequality — as measured by the Gini coefficient — Ogden, Utah, got the best marks among large cities, followed by Provo, Utah; Clarksville, Tennessee; Olympia, Washington; and York-Hanover, Pennsylvania.

  • Among some of the nation's biggest cities, New York City ranked #199 on inequality, Miami #196, San Francisco #192, Los Angeles #188 and Chicago #177.

Between the lines: The pandemic exacerbated the trend toward thriving metropolitan areas becoming "donut cities" — hollower on the inside in terms of population and workers.

  • The "donut effect" is "quite evident in some of our top-performing cities, such as Dallas, Houston and Austin," says Switek, senior director of the Milken Institute's research department. "What this is leading to is high commercial vacancy rates in these major places."

Zoom out: The U.S. labor market added more than 6 million jobs in 2022, 90.7% of which were in metropolitan areas.

  • But the geographic distribution of this growth has changed, shifting from mega-cities like New York and Los Angeles to Texas and the Sun Belt.
  • Of the 403 metropolitan areas in the Milken ranking, only 52% had reached or exceeded their pre-pandemic employment levels by the end of 2022. (By July of 2023, the figure had risen to 71%).

What's next: Expect climate change, the migration of high-tech jobs and the evolution of remote work patterns to continue shaping the fortunes of cities across America.

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