This article first appeared at Forbes.
Big city America has long demonstrated a distaste for its smaller cousins. This sentiment has, if anything, intensified with the election of President Donald Trump, whose improbable victory was made possible by strong support in small cities and towns across the country.
Once exemplars of de Tocquevillian American exceptionalism, now they’re subject to such jibes as a Silicon Valley executive’s infamous assertion last year that “no educated person wants to live in a s***hole with stupid people.” And to be sure, “the little town blues” as Brookings has characterized it, are real: many of these smaller communities are in demographic decline as the ambitious young go elsewhere, leaving them ever whiter and older, and the departures of large company headquarters, such as ADM and Caterpillar, has been a blow.
Yet America’s smaller communities are far more diverse — and have far greater potential — than is commonly believed. The resurgence of manufacturing and energy development has helped many smaller towns (these sectors tend to be more critical to smaller economies). Recent demographic data show a movement away from expensive coastal cities, including millennials, who tend to look for affordable single-family homes. The number of rural home mortgages has increased for five straight years, though the increase trails the rate in urban areas, and nearly twice as many millennials, according to the National Association of Realtors, bought home in small cities or rural areas last year than in denser urban areas.
Energizing Small City Growth
There is no question that opportunity is generated by agglomeration of talent and economic activity. Yet agglomeration creates benefits at the 10,000-person scale just as it does the 10 million-person scale. Local economic specialization and competitive advantage matter. Easier access to global markets and worker flexibility enabled by technology make local strategy execution more important, not less.
Many small cities present a promise of safety, quality education and work-life balance. The prospect of economic decentralization is a chance to leverage these qualities. However, success will not be evenly distributed. Only those small cities able to assemble the right mix of talent, market focus, and civic cooperation will succeed. Many small and rural places will not.
We have identified the stellar small places — metropolitan areas with populations between 12,800 and 300,000 – based on wages, and wage growth and job creation from 2007 to 2017. Even as most smaller towns have seen rather tepid job growth, these cities at the top of our list are outperforming not only their same-size counterparts, but some major urban competitors as well.
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