America’s Best Places to Live, 2011

By Money Editors, CNNMoney.com
August 15, 2011
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With the current state of the economy — and the dispiriting sight of the nation’s leaders endlessly battling about how to fix it — the phrase “small town” conjures up images of a happier time. When unemployment wasn’t above 9%. When people didn’t stress out about home values. When school budgets weren’t under siege. Those were the days, right?

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“Those days” are right now — if you know where to go. A team of seven MONEY reporters spent months combing through reams of data provided by OnBoard Informatics and other sources and fanning out across the country to identify small towns (those with populations of less than 50,000) that stand out in the qualities American families care about most.

The goal: Find the best combination of job opportunities, fiscal strength, top-notch schools, safe streets, good healthcare, cultural and outdoor activities, even nice weather. The result: MONEY’s 100 Best Places to Live. The top 10 follow.

No. 10 – Chanhassen, MN
Population: 23,000
Unemployment: 5.5%

Chanhassen, MN is 10th.
Photo: Bob Firth

 

Despite some 2011 budgetary brouhahas in the state of Minnesota, Chanhassen has plenty going for it — including good jobs right within its borders (manufacturing and technology company Emerson is based here), evening diversion (the Chanhassen Dinner Theater is the nation’s oldest and largest), and nature galore (34 parks, 11 lakes, and the enormous Minnesota Landscape Arboretum). The town’s new state-of-the-art high school has racked up some national awards in just its second year. — Ismat Sarah Mangla

No. 9 – Mukilteo, WA
Population: 20,300
Unemployment: 8.2%

Mukilteo, WA is 9th.
Photo: Mukilteo Chamber of Commerce

 

As West Coast towns go, Mukilteo (pronounced MUCK-ill-TEE-oh) is in good economic shape. Bank-owned homes represent a small fraction of houses on the market, and area employers, including Boeing, are hiring again. It has affordable homes by Seattle standards, good schools, and a killer location right on Puget Sound. And the town is spending to beef up its attractions: A new 29,000-square-foot community center debuted in February, and historic Lighthouse Park recently got a makeover. — Sarah Max

No. 8 – Middleton, WI
Population: 17,400
Unemployment: 5.1%

Middleton, WI is 8th.
Photo: Ismat Sarah Mangla

 

Middleton is right next to state capitol Madison and boasts 17,000 jobs right in town (employers include pharmaceutical company PPD and Electronic Theater Controls, the world’s biggest theater lighting company). Its walkable downtown has plenty of good restaurants, shops, and quirky attractions (National Mustard Museum, anyone?). Even its developments are cool: a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired mixed-use project thoughtfully blends homes and businesses. And Middleton offers residents lots of parks and trails — including a new free splash park. — Ismat Sarah Mangla

No. 7 – Liberty, MO
Population: 29,100
Unemployment: 7.6%

Liberty, MO is 7th.
Photo: Vanessa Richardson

 

Known to tourists as the town where Jesse James’ gang staged its first daytime bank robbery–and where Mormon prophet Joseph Smith languished in jail before fleeing west–Liberty today is a charming place with a quick commute to Kansas City’s mix of jobs in telecom, engineering, and life sciences. The school district is consistently ranked as one of Missouri’s best; student musicians play in a new state-of-the-art facility, and budding broadcast journalists have their own public-access channel. William Jewell College, with its lovely hilltop campus overlooking Liberty, lets residents take advantage of many cultural offerings. — Vanessa Richardson

No. 6 – Hanover, NH
Population: 8,600
Unemployment: 4.4%

Hanover, NH is 6th.
Photo: Pieter van Noordennen

 

Dartmouth College, located in this hamlet near the White Mountains, gives Hanover an economic, social, and cultural advantage rare in towns so far from major urban centers. Unemployment in town is about half the statewide average (Dartmouth and its top-rated medical center provide over 12,000 jobs). Graduate programs spin out entrepreneurial start-ups in almost every industry. Housing — which ranges from century-old Victorians to new construction — isn’t cheap, however. And students account for some fraternity-style rowdiness. — Pieter van Noordennen

No. 5 – Papillion, NE
Population: 18,900
Unemployment: 4.2%

Papillion, NE is 5th.
Photo: City of Papillion

 

Nebraska, sexy? You’d better believe it. With agriculture booming, towns here are showing employment and housing-market strength that’s the envy of the coasts.

Papillion is no exception; its economy benefits from a broad base of industries, including health care and transportation, in nearby Omaha.

In June, energy company Black Hills Corp. moved its local headquarters — and 130 jobs — here. There are also excellent schools, a five-month-old AAA baseball stadium, a new retail and restaurant complex, and loads of green space. — Sarah Max

No. 4 – Leesburg, VA
Population: 42,600
Unemployment: 4.1%

Leesburg, VA is 4th.
Photo: Pieter van Noordennen

 

Leesburg, which snuggles up to the Virginia-Maryland border, offers proximity to plenty of good jobs not just in government but also in defense contracting, consulting, and technology. True, commutes can be abysmal. But residents say that the tradeoff to live in this pretty town, which has seen more history than a Ken Burns film, is worth it. Many antebellum red-brick buildings still stand, now filled with restaurants and art galleries. On the negative side, there are some run-down neighborhoods. — Pieter van Noordennen

No. 3 – Solon, OH
Population: 23,300
Unemployment: 8.2%

Solon, OH is 3rd.
Photo: City of Solon

 

Solon is a small town with a large tax base: Major employers include Nestle, L’Oreal, and industrial equipment maker Swagelok. Solon punches above its weight in other areas too. Health care? The world-renowned Clevelend Clinic has a family health center here. Culture? Solon has its own philharmonic orchestra. Schools? Solon was the highest-achieving district in Ohio last year. And the student body is diverse: 11% of residents are black, 10% Asian. — Anne C. Lee

No. 2 – Milton, MA
Population: 27,000
Unemployment: 6.6%

Milton, MA is 2nd.
Photo: City of Milton

 

Milton is just minutes from the jobs and culture of Boston but feels in places like a country getaway. Tree-lined streets are dotted with historic homes. Single-family home prices have remained essentially unchanged since the market’s peak in 2005. One major reason for this stability is the outstanding school system, which boasts six brand-new buildings and offers such rich opportunities as a French immersion program that begins in elementary school. The downside: high taxes. — Ismat Sarah Mangla

No. 1 – Louisville, CO
Population: 18,400
Unemployment: 6.3%

Louisville, CO is 1st.
Photo: Brad Kemp/City of Louisville

 

This sunny, lively mountain town is safe (crime rates are among the lowest in Colorado) and easy to navigate. Lots of good jobs in tech, telecom, aerospace, clean energy, and health care can be found right in Louisville, and more are on their way. And there’s world-class mountain biking, hiking, and skiing in the nearby Rockies. Real estate prices have barely budged since 2005, yet a typical three-bedroom house here still runs less than a comparable one in nearby Boulder. Its schools consistently rank among the top three academically in the Denver area. — Jessica Levine

Click here to see all of America’s Best Places to Live in 2011

 

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