America’s micropolitans — or smaller cities with populations of 10,000-50,000 — faced unique challenges at the onset of the pandemic, but thanks to a "combination of luck and foresight," some have found ways to thrive.
Heartland Forward, a nonpartisan think tank focused on economic growth in the middle of the U.S., published its Most Dynamic Micropolitans: 2022 report in September. Researchers said micropolitans are generally at a "comparative disadvantage versus metropolitan areas because smaller workforces result in a less-diversified economy."
But cities with big food-producing or processing industries and places with ample outdoor recreation have fared better than others. Of the 25 small cities at the top of their list, 12 are in the Mountain West.
Communities that rely heavily on oil and gas faced more challenges than those with more diverse industries, researchers said. Pecos, Texas, for example, fell from No. 1 to No. 4 on the list because oil drilling, its main industry, was unprofitable for several months in 2020. Liberal, Kansas, meanwhile, also relies heavy on oil, but the added food production and processing plants, along with the presence of helium and ethanol processing, kept its economy stronger than other micros.
"Overall, the changes in fortunes for micropolitans dependent on a single industry provide a reminder of the stabilizing benefits of a diversified economy," the report said.
Researchers used the following metrics to rank the micropolitans: growth in average annual pay, employment numbers and gross domestic product (GDP); level of per capita personal income; share of total employment at companies in business for five or fewer years (young-firm employment share); and the share of employment at those young firms with a bachelor’s degree or higher (young-firm knowledge intensity).
The 25 ‘most dynamic’ micropolitans
Old and new forms of transportation share Main Street in downtown Breckenridge. (Photo By Glenn Asakawa/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
The micro that topped this year’s list is Los Alamos, New Mexico, but the reason why is an outlier, researchers said. Los Alamos is reaping the benefits of a $2.5-billion government contract for Triad National Security, LLC to manage the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The lab was formed to develop nuclear weapons during World War II, but today it’s a hub for a wide range of industries.
"The lab’s highly paid scientists support a vibrant town of about 13,000 residents nestled in the Jemez Mountains," researchers said.
Outside of Los Alamos, the Mountain West had the most micros in the top 25. Twelve of them are in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah or Wyoming.
"Mountain West micros offered an outdoor-centric respite from the stresses of COVID-19. When travel restrictions were relaxed in the latter half of 2020, tourists flocked to Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Heber, Utah; Bozeman, Montana; and other small towns at the doorstep to the Mountain West’s vast wilderness," researchers said.
East of the Mississippi River, only three micros made the top 25. In Brevard, North Carolina, No. 12 on the list, easy access to mountain biking, fly fishing, hiking and whitewater rafting are a big draw in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Brevard, North Carolina mountains near Asheville (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Here are the 25 most dynamic micropolitan areas, according to Heartland Forward:
1. Los Alamos, New Mexico
2. Jackson, Wyoming-Idaho
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
11. Moses Lake, Washington
12. Brevard, North Carolina
13. Key West, Florida
14. Oak Harbor, Washington
15. Breckenridge, Colorado
16. Steamboat Springs, Colorado
17. Sandpoint, Idaho
18. Othello, Washington
19. Gardnerville Ranchos, Nevada
20. Fernley, Nevada
21. Fredericksburg, Texas
22. Dodge City, Kansas
23. Fremont, Nebraska
24. Jesup, Georgia
25. Montrose, Colorado
Read the full list here.