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The Most Economically Innovative Small Communities In America

Big cities get all the attention as drivers of the economy and innovation, but a new ranking of smaller areas that are driving change shows they can get in on the action, too, by investing in a few key areas.

How can smaller communities achieve and sustain economic growth, even in the face of national economic volatility and companies exporting jobs overseas?

According to Fourth Economy, an economic development consultancy, the key ingredients are "investment, talent, sustainability, place, and diversity." And to make its point, the Pittsburgh-based group is ranking how various-sized communities are performing against those criteria.

The latest, covering those with 100,000 to 150,000 people, names Georgia’s Clarke County top in the nation, followed by Monroe County, Indiana; Johnson County, Iowa; Tompkins County, New York; and Lee County, Alabama.

Such communities, says Fourth Economy, have the characteristics "to attract modern investment and managed economic growth," and are preparing the ground for wage and employment growth, educational improvement, and other signs of health.

Stephen McKnight, the group’s vice president of community and market assessments, says top-performing communities often have strong and distinctive knowledge-based industries, and, frequently, university campuses.

Clarke County is home to the University of Georgia, for example, while Monroe has Bloomington, home of the 24,000-student University of Indiana.

"The more you have creative ways to leverage your knowledge assets, the more you are going to win, or be in a position to grow," he says.

"If communities have discrete and customized areas where they can build, that’s going to help them. It is very important they understand what those areas are."

Although Fourth Economy’s emphasis on its five criteria is subjective, based on its experience, the firm backs them up with statistics. So, for example, when it says diverse communities perform better than non-diverse ones, it is basing that on the proportion of women and minority-owned businesses to businesses as a whole. The statistics are taken from Stats-America, a rich source of community-level data.

A previous mid-sized community ranking (150,000 to 300,000 people) named Fayette County, Kentucky, top, with New Hanover County, North Carolina, and Sarpy County, Nebraska, just behind.

McKnight stresses that the "fourth economy" concept is a measure of economic resilience, not simply another "best place to live" or "great place to do business" survey, which offer only a current snapshot.

"These communities are all demonstrating they have assets to make the greatest sustainable impact."

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  • Skyler Yost

    This measurement is a great idea and long overdue, but 'diversity' as it is measured here is poorly designed.  If the goal is to find out how likely it is for minorities to own businesses, then the measurement should compare the percentage of minority-owned businesses to the percentage of minorities in the community.  As it is currently measured, a community that's comprised of 45% minorities is almost definitely going to score better than one made up of only 5%, even if the first community has massive problems with minorities not being able to gain financing from discriminating bankers.

    Also, while a revised 'diversity' measurement would be useful, the real mark of economic resilience lies in the annual number of startups per capita a community generates (possibly against the number of businesses that cease to exist annually), because new companies grow faster and adjust to changes in the market more quickly, diversifying the local economy in the process.

  • Kate Fugate

    Thought provoking article, however there is one error: Monroe County is home to Indiana University (not University of Indiana) with more than 40,000 students.