Sep 30, 2022 - News

Manufacturing renaissance signaled for micropolitans

A stone sign welcomes motorists to Los Alamos, New Mexico, home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project.

A stone sign welcomes motorists to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the atom bomb was developed. Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Image

Micropolitans with outdoor recreation and some form of manufacturing fared better economically than others through the pandemic.

Driving the news: Bentonville's Heartland Forward on Thursday released its biennial study — "Most Dynamic Micropolitans" — ranking 536 U.S. cities with a population of at least 10,000 but less than 50,000.

Why it matters: Researchers sussed out what economic factors helped micropolitans navigate the COVID-19 crisis, what held others back and how they stack up to peers.

  • The ranking uses both historical and forward-looking data — such as entrepreneurship — so it shows where growth is likely.
  • The figures also can be used as a roadmap for micropolitans looking to grow their economies, Dave Shideler, Heartland Forward chief research officer, told Axios.

What they did: Researchers used growth in average annual pay, employment numbers, GDP, level of per capita income, young-firm employment share and share of degreed workers employed at young firms to rank each city.

What they found: Areas that count outdoor recreation or food production as part of their economy's makeup performed better than others.

  • Spirit Lake, Iowa, and Albertville, Alabama, for instance, both benefited from nearby lakes. Each climbed more than 50 spots due to their outdoor economies, as the U.S. workforce looked to get outside during the pandemic.
  • Dodge City, Kansas, leaped 336 spots because National Beef Packing Company — an essential service during the pandemic — kept the area's workforce stable.

Oil-producing micropolitans like Pecos, Texas, slipped slightly because drilling wasn't as profitable in 2020. Pecos fell from No. 1 to No. 4.

A photo of a flowing creek in the wilderness.
Outdoor recreation is what drew Worth to this creek in the Valles Caldera National Preserve near Los Alamos. Photo: Worth Sparkman/Axios

The top micropolitans according to Heartland Forward:

  1. Los Alamos, New Mexico
  2. Jackson, Wyoming
  3. Heber, Utah
  4. Pecos, Texas
  5. Jefferson, Georgia
  6. Bozeman, Montana
  7. Hailey, Idaho
  8. Cedar City, Utah
  9. Prineville, Oregon
  10. Edwards, Colorado

What they're saying: "A manufacturing renaissance is beginning to emerge," Shideler told us, attributing that to making more in the U.S. rather than depending on factories overseas.

Zoom in: Arkansas' 15 micropolitans are mostly in the north-central or southeastern part of the state and all were in the lower half of the rankings. Harrison, Mountain Home, Camden, Helena-West Helena and Searcy are examples.

The intrigue: A surprise was that Los Alamos ranked No. 1, Shideler said. While mathematically correct, it's an outlier because the rank is largely attributed to a $2.5 billion federal contract with startup Triad National Security during the reporting time.

The bottom line: Authors of the report conclude that a diversified economy is the best hedge against the unknown.


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