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STRATEGY

Where Are the Best Cities to Do Business?

Our comprehensive annual guide to which places are thriving -- even in an economy many consider in recession.
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What a difference a year and a deflated housing bubble makes. Inc.com's 2008 list of the Best Cities for Doing Business, created in conjunction with Newgeography.com, uncovered some of the most dramatic changes since we started this ranking back in 2004. Five major trends were immediately revealed; trends that are shaping the business environment right now across the country and will continue to over the next several years.

The list focuses on short- and long-term job growth. It tells us precisely not just where jobs are being created -- a sure sign of economic vitality -- but where the momentum is shifting. For entrepreneurs, this suggests what may be the best places to locate or expand your business.

The Bubble and the Fall of the Sunshine Boys

Since the list's inception, Florida has been the standout state in each of our size-based categories -- small, midsize, and large. But not this year. Now, Florida is the state that fell back to earth. Stung by plummeting construction employment and the mortgage finance crisis, many of our former highfliers across the state are hurting. Ft. Lauderdale, last year's No. 3 among the large metros, dropped 24 places. West Palm Beach, No. 6 last year, dropped to No. 41. And Jacksonville, No. 12 in the large category, fell seven places.

The fall, however, was much more devastating for the smaller communities, such as Ft. Myers-Cape Coral. The area ranked No. 1 last year in the midsize category but plummeted 42 places this year. Lakeland-Winter Haven, down 45 places, Deltona-Daytona Beach, down 49, Palm Bay-Melbourne, down 53, and Bradentown, down 65, fared even worse. In even smaller towns, the scenario was bleaker. Ft. Walton Beach dropped 85 places and Naples-San Marco Island, No. 4 last year, plummeted 105 places, the most of any metro in our survey.

"We're the foreclosure capital of America," admits Bill Valenti, founder and CEO of Florida Gulf Bank, founded in 2001 in Fort Myers on the once booming west coast of the Sunshine State. Many of the people that moved into the area bought relatively expensive homes expecting continued asset appreciation to make up for the fact that many jobs in the area pay modest or low wages. Now the area has seen median house prices drop from $320,000 to $223,000 in two years. "Something had to give and it did."

Although Florida's fall was by far the biggest, the housing collapse has also humbled high fliers in other states as well. Last year's No. 1 among the large metros, Las Vegas, dropped seven places while No. 2, Phoenix, dropped 12; the other big Arizona city, Tucson, No. 12 last year among the midsize category, fell 34 places. Midsize Reno, No. 8 last year and previously No. 1, dropped 21 places.

Outside Florida, the sharpest pain was felt in California. Property-driven economies in Oakland, Santa Ana-Anaheim, Sacramento, and Riverside-San Bernardino all dropped by around 20 places or more. The big enchilada, Los Angeles, fell another eight places from its already mediocre 48th ranking last year. Almost every city below LA on the list is either a Rustbelt disaster or a perennially underperforming Northeastern big city.

If this trend continues to play out, California's problems could be worse than those in Florida. When the bubble corrects, Florida still can boast relatively low costs, no income taxes, and a favorable business climate in addition to warm weather. By contrast, California's land use laws, high taxes, and massive $20 billion state deficit don't bode well for the future of the state, suggests Bill Watkins, executive director of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Economic Forecast Project. "There's a lot of uncertainty," he says. "If you are expanding or starting a business, there's not a lot of reason now to come to California."

The Texas Ascendancy Continues

While California is struggling, says Los Angeles-based architect David Hidalgo, Texas is thriving. Hidalgo just completed a large Latino-themed shopping center in Ft. Worth and sees more of his business coming from the Lone Star State. "That's where the opportunities are," he says. "Its costs, regulation, and infrastructure drive you to Texas."

Our rankings certainly bear out Hidalgo's assertion. In many ways Texas has become the new Florida, dominating the top of the list. Among the largest metro areas, a remarkable five of the top 12 best places to do business are from the Lone Star State, ranging from Austin (No. 2) and Houston (No. 4) to Ft. Worth (No. 9) and Dallas (No. 12). Among the small cities, Midland, now ranks No. 1, up 10 places from last year. Odessa and Longview, both big gainers, round out the Texas stronghold on the top portion of the list.

Texas' boom reflects solid growth in a variety of industries, from energy and agriculture to manufacturing and trade. "The big difference for Texas is we did not rely on the real estate bubble," suggests Bill Gilmer, a Houston-based economist for the Federal Reserve. "Our gains are based on jobs elsewhere and that has insulated us pretty well."

Here Come the Carolinas

The other big winners this year are concentrated in the Carolinas. Like Texas, these two states are being fed by varied economies. Certainly, technology companies have been a factor here, many of them in Raleigh-Cary, N.C., which ranked No. 1, up six places, on our list of largest metro areas. Finance has played a large part, too, with Charlotte (No. 5), up 18 places, emerging as the big but low-cost, family-friendly alternative to the New York financial center.

Demographics are a big part of the story here. Our analysis from Praxis Strategy Group shows that Raleigh and Charlotte, are among the biggest magnets for young, educated workers, particularly those in their late 20s and early 30s.

"People are coming here for basic reasons and taking their families with them," observes Sociologist John D. Kasarda, director of the Kenan Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "They are coming for jobs, particularly from the Northeast, and an affordable quality of life."

To some extent, Kasarda adds, Raleigh and Charlotte are well-known success stories, but he points to wider, less documented successes in the region. Driven by gains in tourism, logistics, manufacturing, and technology, more and more midsize Carolina cities are joining the party. These emerging players include Charleston, S.C. (No. 6); Asheville, N.C. (No. 7); Durham, N.C. (No. 11); Greenville, S.C. (No. 18); and Columbia, S.C. (No. 19). These cities made considerable gains over last year and should be seriously considered for new business opportunities.

The Pacific Northwest-Intermountain West Surge Continues

Like last year, the northwestern quarter of the country did very well. Three of the top 11 big metro areas in the region between the foggy West Coast and the high mountains, including Salt Lake City (No. 3), Seattle (No. 10) and Portland, Ore. (No. 11), all gained ground. This ascendancy was even more evident at the midsize level, with the success of cities such as Provo-Orem, Utah (No. 1); Tacoma, Wash. (No. 2); Ogden, Utah (No. 8); Boise, Idaho (No. 12); and Spokane, Wash. (No. 14). Small cities, including St. George, Utah (No. 2), Coeur d'Alene, Idaho (No. 3), Bend, Ore. (No. 7) and Grand Junction, Colo. (No. 9), also saw gains.

In many ways, the gains here parallel those in the Carolinas. Places like Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Portland, according to the Praxis Strategy Group analysis, all continue to gain educated residents from other parts of the country. The lure, in many cases, lies with strong and diverse job growth and low housing prices compared to coastal California and the Northeast.

Seattle continued its strong growth, notes economist Paul Sommers, due largely to the success of two companies -- Microsoft and Boeing. These companies have been expanding, providing high-wage jobs, and attracting skilled talent to the area. Another key advantage in this high energy cost environment: the Northwest's prodigious supplies of cheap and clean hydroelectric power. This helps everyone, from people building airplane parts to dot-com firms sucking copious amounts of electricity to run their servers.

Some of the other areas in this vast region benefit from what might be called "grey power." Older, often more educated and affluent, baby boomers are flocking to the smaller towns and cities in this region, bringing capital and, in some cases, entrepreneurial know-how. Like the Carolinas, the area between the foggy Pacific Coast and the Rockies seems poised for sustained growth.

Revenge of the Superstars?

Perhaps the most surprising shift in the 2008 rankings, and in some ways the most subtle, has been the improvement in a host of very expensive, highly regulated urban regions that Wharton economist Joe Gyourko calls "superstar cities." For many years these cities -- New York, San Francisco, San Jose, Boston -- have clustered at the bottom of our growth-oriented list, all suffering big losses from the 2000-2001 dot-com bust.

This year has seen the revenge of the "superstars." Although not surpassing Texas, the Carolinas or the Northwest, these elite cities have made a strong showing. In just one year, New York (No. 22) propelled itself 21 places while San Francisco (No. 29) and San Jose (No. 33) gained at least 25 places, and Boston (No. 40) went up 19 places.

The main reason for this modest, but significant turnaround, suggests David Shulman, former managing director of Lehman Brothers, is simple: the powerful financial sector expansion of the past few years. These are all cities where big money plays a big role, either financing new dot-com start-ups or simply serving as the places where multimillion-dollar bonuses are spent on a host of high-priced services.

Yet, Shulman notes, these gains may be short lived. The impact of the subprime and mortgage meltdown hit first in places like California and Florida, and is only beginning to affect the major financial centers. Spurred by the credit crisis, Shulman fears new regulations will limit financial innovation and wipe out whole sections of industries like mortgage-backed securities and some derivatives.

"A lot of these gains are going to rewind," suggests Shulman. "New York is losing jobs as we speak. Anyplace with exposure to financial services is going to suffer over the next two years."

Joel Kotkin is a presidential fellow at Chapman University and executive editor of Newgeography.com

Michael Shires, Ph.D. is a professor at Pepperdine University School of Public Policy




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