Most Dynamic Metropolitans

By Ross Devol and Jonas Crews

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Table of Contents

  1. Executive Summary
  2. Introduction
  3. Measure Table
  4. Overview
  5. Industry Characteristics
  6. Structural Characteristics
  7. Midland, TX
  8. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA
  9. Midland, MI
  10. Elkhart-Goshen, IN
  11. Bend-Redmond, Oregon

Executive Summary

As the dominant economic geography of America, metropolitan statistical areas largely determine our success as a nation. These groups of counties with a large central core account for 88.6 percent of jobs, 89.1 percent of wages and 90.0 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Further, metropolitan statistical areas account for the bulk of innovation such as research and development and patenting activity. Understanding the mechanisms underpinning the growth of top-performing metropolitan areas, and sharing best practices, could assist other communities in boosting their economic fortunes. The Most Dynamic Metropolitan Index, ranking 379 metropolitan areas, seeks to provide an objective measure of the economic vibrancy of communities where the lion’s share of Americans work and live.

Our Most Dynamic Metropolitan Index, and the analysis contained in this report provides objective insight into the communities providing economic opportunity for their residents, separating high performers from the low. Most Dynamic Metropolitans provides fact-based metrics on near-term and medium-term performance and prospects for long-term growth. The index allows economic development officials the ability to monitor their metro’s vivacity relative to others on a national basis or within their region and state. We also look through the lens of the Heartland—the 20 states in the middle of the nation—to discern its performance and understand practices that can boost economic prospects.

While international and national economic and geopolitical factors can influence growth patterns, the index provides an objective measure of whether local development strategies have the desired effect. Additionally, Most Dynamic Metropolitans aids public-policy groups, elected officials, academics, businesses and other researchers in monitoring and assessing metropolitan dynamism across the nation.

The Most Dynamic Metropolitan rankings are generated using performance-based metrics such as job growth, average annual earnings and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) gains and a new metric, the proportion of total jobs at young firms. The young firm employment ratio influences economic growth as new firms develop new products, services and advance innovation. It encapsulates information on the capability of entrepreneurs to start businesses and scale them—critical for future job and wage gains. For example, just four metros out of the top 30 and 12 out of the top 100 have a young-firm share below the mean of all metropolitan areas.

We include new data on regional price parities from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). These regional price parities are indexes indicating whether goods and services are generally more or less expensive than the national average. We use the indexes to adjust income measures for varying inflation rates and differences in purchasing power across metropolitan areas. Per-capita personal income reflects these adjustments and can be viewed as a measure of longer-term economic development because it is the stock of all prior welfare improvements.


Metropolitan Statistical Areas capture the preponderance of economic activity in the United States. If metropolitan areas are not performing well, growth in the American economy will stagnate. Further, innovative activities such as research and development, and patenting are concentrated in metropolitan areas. The long-term potential output of the U.S. is underpinned by the mechanisms determining economic growth at the metropolitan level. Consequently, it is critical to discern those factors and share best practices of top-performing metropolitan areas so that other regions can evaluate whether emulating some best practices could boost their economic performance.

The Most Dynamic Metropolitan Index is an objective measure of the economic vibrancy of metropolitan areas across the nation. The Most Dynamic Metropolitan Index seeks to provide fact-based metrics on near-term and medium-term performance and prospects for long-term growth. There is a variety of potential applications for this index. The index allows economic development officials the ability to monitor their metro’s vitality relative to others on a national basis or within their region and state. While international and national economic and geopolitical factors can influence growth patterns, the index provides an objective measure of whether local development strategies have the desired effect. Additionally, Most Dynamic Metropolitans aids public-policy groups, elected officials, academics and other researchers and businesses in monitoring and assessing metropolitan dynamism across the nation. If economic outcomes are not benchmarked, it is difficult to understand how a region is performing. Most Dynamic Metropolitans provide that benchmark, allowing change-agents to discern and address economic weaknesses.

Metropolitan areas can pursue a variety of economic development strategies to achieve their goals for business expansion, job creation, income generation and expanding their tax base. Each metropolitan area must establish its pathway forward but should be aware of what factors have contributed to the success of other communities. We believe that the Most Dynamic Metropolitans provides additional information to assist metropolitan areas in improving their economic performance. The written analysis in this document is very detailed and provides a thorough perspective on what is working.

We utilize the metropolitan statistical area definitions developed by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), based upon the most recent U.S. Census of 2010. A metropolitan statistical area (MSA) is defined as a region having a large population nucleus with an adjacent population bearing a strong degree of economic and social interaction, including such measures as commuting patterns. Metropolitan areas are groups of counties. Data availability allows us to include 379 MSAs in our analysis.

The Most Dynamic Metropolitan rankings are generated using performance-based metrics such as job growth, wage and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) gains and a new metric, the proportion of total jobs at young firms. The set of criteria is consistent with that used in our Most Dynamic Micropolitan Index.1 This measure captures which metropolitan areas are building economic opportunity for their residents and for those that might desire to in-migrate. Our index is comprised of three types of metrics: recent economic development metrics and backward-and forward-looking metrics of longer-term economic development.

Measures of recent economic development are 2016-2017 average annual pay growth, 2016-2017 real GDP growth, 2017-2018 job growth and job growth over the most recent 12-months ending in December 2018. Measures of longer-term economic development are the 2017 level of per-capita personal income, 2013-2017 growth in average annual pay, 2013-2017 growth in real GDP, 2013-2018 job growth and the 2016 ratio of employment at firms five years or younger to employment at all firms (young firm employment ratio). The level of per-capita personal income can be viewed as a measure of longer-term economic development because it is the stock of all prior welfare improvements.

The young firm employment ratio has implications for future economic growth as new firms develop new products and drive innovation. It provides information on the ability of entrepreneurs to start new businesses and scale them—critical for future job and wage gains. The time period of each metric is restricted to data availability, with the most recent data incorporated and longer-term growth rates having as close to a five-year span as possible.

We standardize all metrics via z-scores. That is, we calculate the mean and standard deviation of a metric across all metropolitan areas, subtract the mean of the metric from each metropolitan area’s metric value, and divide that difference by the standard deviation of the metric. The result is a number telling us how many standard deviations above the mean (positive z-score) or below the mean (negative z-score) a metropolitan area’s metric value is. A metropolitan area’s index value is its average z-score across all nine economic development metrics. If a metropolitan area has a positive average z-score, then, on average, it performs better than the mean metropolitan area for each metric.

While most of our metrics are commonly used indicators of economic development, the young firm employment ratio is a relatively new measure. We use factor analysis to test our hypothesis that the ratio is an indicator of longer-term economic growth. Factor analysis is a statistical tool that can derive categories, called factors, from several variables by finding the ways clusters of variables move together. A factor analysis on all of our metrics tells us that we generally have the two factors we claimed to have above: one closely relating to variables such as 2016-2017 growth in average annual pay and 2017-2018 job growth. The second most closely relating to per-capita personal income, 2013-2017 growth in real GDP, 2013-2017 average annual pay growth and the young firm employment ratio. Thus, our hypothesis regarding the young firm employment ratio seems valid.

Beyond the new firm employment ratio, we incorporate new data on regional price parities from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). These regional price parities are indexes indicating whether goods and services are generally more or less expensive than the national average. Therefore, the indexes can be used to adjust income measures for differing inflation rates and differing levels of purchasing power across regions.

Measure Table

MeasureTime PeriodSource
Young Firm Employment Ratio2016Census Bureau
Per-Capita Personal Income2016Bureau of Economic Analysis
Medium-Term Job Growth2013-2018Bureau of Labor Statistics
Short-Term Job Growth2017-2018Bureau of Labor Statistics
Short-Term Job MomentumDec. 2017 – Dec. 2018Bureau of Labor Statistics
Medium-Term Average Annual Pay Growth2013-2017Bureau of Labor Statistics
Short-Term Average Annual Pay Growth2016-2017Bureau of Labor Statistics
Medium-Term GDP Growth2012-2017Bureau of Economic Analysis
Short-Term GDP Growth2016-2017Bureau of Economic Analysis
100%Chart created using amCharts library
Zoom level changed to 1
Top 30 Most Dynamic Metropolitans (Z-Score)
2.25 – 3.10
1.50 – 2.25
0.75 – 1.50
0.00 – 0.75


Many of the top performing metropolitan areas share common industry and structural characteristics, separating them from lower performers over the evaluation period. Perhaps the most important differentiator was the degree to which metropolitan areas participated in knowledge-intensive, high value-added industries that hire an above average share of employees in STEM and invest more than the average share of revenues back into research and development. This manifests itself in high-tech service categories such as professional, scientific and technical services, along with information services and bioscience areas. West Coast metros benefitted the most from this industry composition, but some East Coast and Heartland locations are among the mix.

Industry Characteristics

Metropolitan areas with flourishing professional, scientific and technical services were boosted in the rankings. These include categories such as scientific research services, engineering services, accounting and business management consulting services. Professional, scientific and technical services have been among the fastest-growing industries since 2012. Metros with a high concentration of these activities were bolstered by the secular shift underway in the national economy. Examples of communities include San Jose, Austin, San Francisco, Seattle, Provo, Fort Collins, Boulder and Denver. Professional and technical services serve as important anchors for communities with a high concentration as they pay above-average wages and provide strong economic spillovers. Professional, scientific and technical services shape growth across a broad swath of communities.

Information and communication services, data processing services and hosting services, cloud-based software, data visualization software, computer systems design, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, mobile applications, web design, internet publishing, social media, digital media and gaming software are another group of industries propelling growth in many metropolitan areas. These sectors are creating high-paying jobs at a prolific rate in the United States as the demand for these activities proliferates. These industries have a high multiplier effect on local economies. In many cases, three to four other jobs generate by one job in these sectors. Metros with a strong concentration, and the ability to expand them, are reaping the rewards. At the top of this list is San Francisco, closely followed by Seattle, Austin, Provo, Nashville, Boulder, Denver and Boston.

Other key industries differentiating the top from the bottom performers are biomedical and the life sciences. The demand for cures to disease, effective treatment options and monitoring ongoing chronic conditions are driving research into drugs, diagnostics and a range of medical devices. This research requires extensive scientific, medical and technical expertise. Most of these occupations pay in excess of $150,000 annually. All of these metros have university research centers with expertise in the life sciences, especially in biotechnology. For example, in the Seattle metro area, life science and engineering research and development are almost 14 times greater than the U.S overall. San Francisco, San Jose, Raleigh, Austin, Nashville, Boulder and Boston have large concentrations of these biomedical activities.

A rebound in high-tech and advanced manufacturing since the Great Recession has thrust many metropolitan economies forward. Semiconductors, electronic instruments, computers, communications hardware such as routers and switches, energy-related clean tech, aerospace and aircraft, automotive, battery manufacturing, industrial control systems and material sciences are among high-tech manufacturing. The high-wage occupations associated with these industries have strong ripple effects across the regional economy. Furthermore, they provide middle-class jobs for many technical professions that do not require a four-year college degree. Boise City, Reno, Dallas, Midland, Michigan, Austin, Dallas, Seattle, Provo, Nashville and San Jose are among those metros supported by the expansion in these manufacturing sectors.

Travel and tourism, recreation and lifestyle activities have advanced at a strong pace in recent years. Travel and tourism purchases were delayed during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Pent-up demand for travel and tourism generated and when the economy improved, these deferred purchases accelerated. This was especially the case for tourism-destination locations where visitors travel long distances to enjoy their amenities. The resurgence in these sectors was aided by the preference for experiential experiences of millennials. The Millennial age cohort allocates less of its consumption toward hard assets and more toward soft amenities.

At the top of the list of places benefitting from travel and tourism, recreation and lifestyle activities is Heartland-located Elkhart-Goshen, Indiana. This might seem counter-intuitive since Elkhart is a manufacturing center. However, Elkhart is the top producer of recreation vehicles in the world, and the demand has exploded. Other smaller metropolitan areas such as Bend, Oregon; Saint George, Utah; Reno, Nevada; Fort Collins, Colorado; Boise City, Idaho, and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, are in this group. Larger metropolitan areas such as Fayetteville=Springdale-Rogers, Arkansas; Naples, Florida; Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Florida; North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton Florida and Seattle are experiencing gains.

Oil prices recovered from 2012 to 2015 but collapsed again in 2016, harming the economic performance of metropolitan areas with a heavy reliance on exploration and the downstream pipeline. The exception being metropolitan areas with high productivity shale deposits or those located close to them. Overall first-place, Midland, Texas, is the capital of the Permian Basin, the most productive basin in the U.S. Lake Charles, Louisiana, is another metropolitan area reaping rewards, but it is due to having the largest liquefied natural gas export facility in the contiguous U.S. Greeley, Colorado, and Odessa, Texas, are among the beneficiaries, along with Dallas.

A critical restraint on economic advances across a swath of metropolitans was a high dependence on mining activity, principally coal mining. Coal’s share of electricity generation has plummeted in recent years as natural gas has replaced it in the generation mix and renewables have gained market share. This has affected metropolitan areas in the eastern and western interior. Charleston, West Virginia, Cumberland, Maryland, and Beckley, West Virginia, are examples of metropolitan areas feeling the ill effects of declining coal production.

Metropolitan areas with adjacent communities dependent on agricultural crop production have witnessed slower economic growth from 2013 to 2018. Prices of agricultural products have fallen since 2014 and harmed the economic fortunes of those agricultural-based communities—most of whom reside in the American Heartland. The trade dispute between the U.S. and China will weigh heavily on whether many metropolitan areas in the Heartland remain less vibrant. China implemented tariffs on imports of American agricultural products in retaliation for U.S. tariffs placed on Chinese imported products. If these trade negotiations lead to a deal, it will benefit communities in the middle of the country.

Structural Characteristics

Key characteristics separating top performing metropolitan areas from their colleagues are structural. Metropolitan areas with leading research universities and four-year colleges embedded within the regional business milieu recorded exemplary economic gains, even after adjusting for other determinants. Research universities become ever more critical to metropolitan performance as their fundamental output—knowledge—is central to an economy driven by innovative endeavors.2 The best create substantial talent, particularly in STEM fields; license their IP to established firms or startups and by business engagement through consulting and sharing tacit information.

Several metropolitan areas with research universities—critical components of their metropolitan area’s innovation ecosystem— were among the leaders in Most Dynamic Metropolitans. These include Stanford, a uniquely entrepreneurial institution assisting to drive the San Jose metropolitan area; the University of TexasAustin in the Austin metro area; the University of California, Berkeley and University of California, San Francisco in the San Francisco metro area; the University of Washington in Seattle; Brigham Young University in Provo-Orem; Vanderbilt University in Nashville; the University of Colorado-Boulder; Colorado State University in Fort Collins; the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville in Northwest Arkansas; North Carolina State University in Raleigh and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. These universities, among others, had faculty engaged in the commercialization of their research and founded companies that led to job creation. Much of their impact was in technology-based industries. Additionally, human capital assists in attracting knowledge-intensive firms.

Metropolitan areas with a culture of entrepreneurship supported by numerous public and private groups are among the overall leaders and improved the performance of several others. A measure of entrepreneurship and scale-up success, the share of total employment represented by firms five years of age or fewer, is included in our metrics for Most Dynamic Metropolitans. While it should not be a surprise that metros scoring high on this measure performed well in our index since it is among the metrics, the relationships are intertwined and seemingly causal in nature. By examining other measures of economic performance such as job growth and gains in real GDP, they are closely correlated with metros with a high percentage of total employment at young firms. Only four metros out of the top 30 and 12 out of the top 100 have a young-firm share below the mean of all metropolitan areas. Metropolitan areas that support entrepreneurs and small businesses in expanding are more dynamic and resilient in the face of structural change. Incubators, accelerators and a variety of spaces that provide services to new or recently established firms are important.

Access to early-stage financing such as crowdfunding, angel investors and venture capital fuel startup activity and scale-up. Angel investors, and venture capitalists in particular, provide not mere money, but smart money. In other words, they have expertise in management, product development and marketing. Moreover, they provide partnering opportunities. San Francisco and San Jose have access to the densest venture capital located on Sand Hill Road. However, rising venture capital availability in Austin, Denver, San Diego, Seattle and Raleigh is spurring growth. Local angel investors are assisting smaller areas such as Bend, Oregon, and a variety of other Most Dynamic Metropolitans.

Metropolitan areas with a portfolio approach to economic development seem to perform better, in a fashion similar to that found for micropolitan areas. From our Most Dynamic Micropolitans3, “Communities actively recruiting firms from other locations to relocate or start local establishments appear to achieve stronger economic growth. In addition, their approach supports indigenous expansion and startup activity. Communities with economic development officials actively engaged in scanning for best practices in regulatory and tax policies, technical assistance, strategies for workforce development and business retention and recruitment exhibit stronger economic growth.” 4

Metropolitan areas with multiple community colleges developing curriculum geared to requirements of local employers seem to gain a competitive advantage. Employers must adjust to alternations in skill requirements within their industries to be competitive. Community colleges that quickly adapt curriculum lend support to their students in obtaining local employment. Apprenticeship programs established at local firms linked to the curriculum at community colleges and certification programs assist retention of graduates.

Smaller metropolitan areas located closest to large metropolitan areas that are exhibiting stronger economic growth share in that prosperity. Stronger economic linkages create a spillover effect. Access to sophisticated business services, adjacent angel and venture capital availability, supply-chain relationships and numerous other interactions explain the advantages of proximity. On average over the period of study, large metropolitan areas (population of one million or above) recorded higher economic advances than smaller ones.

The arts, cultural, recreational and lifestyle amenities provide substantial advantages for metropolitan areas; in particular, research points toward smaller communities that emphasize them early during the growth cycle reach a 750,000-population threshold sooner. They retain more residents who might otherwise seek career opportunities in other locations. Quality of place also includes good K-12 education, access to quality health care, crime rates and a variety of other factors. A growing body of evidence suggests a correlation between arts and culture and economic success.

Figure 3: Top 30 Metropolitans

RankIndex ValueMetro
12.9795Midland, TX
22.5132San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA
32.4351Midland, MI
42.1555Elkhart-Goshen, IN
51.9654Bend-Redmond, OR
61.7048St. George, UT
71.6149Austin-Round Rock, TX
81.6085Greeley, CO
91.4944San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA
101.4283Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA
111.311Reno, NV
121.3892Provo-Orem, UT
131.3178Lake Charles, LA
141.3141Fort Collins, CO
151.2092Gainesville, GA
161.1081Wenatchee, WA
171.0965Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, AR-MO
181.0567Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island, FL
191.0241Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL
200.9299Boise City, ID
210.9182Mount Vernon-Anacortes, WA
220.9048Boulder, CO
230.8959North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton, FL
240.8870Coeur d’Alene, ID
250.8387The Villages, FL
260.8372Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin, TN
270.8301Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX
280.8268Raleigh, NC
290.8234Redding, CA
300.8233Charlottesville, VA
Midland, Texas downtown skyline view. Midland, Texas is the hometown of First Lady Laura Bush and one time residence of former president George W. Bush. It is also the largest city on Interstate 20 between El Paso, TX and Dallas, TX.

1. Midland, TX

Founded as the midway point between Fort Worth and El Paso on the Texas and Pacific Railroad in 1881, Midland, Texas, takes the top position in our foundational Most Dynamic Metropolitan Index. The economic performance of Midland is exceptional—not only is it the fastest-growing metropolitan area, it is expanding at a pace more rapid than any micropolitan area in the United States as well, with a labor force that increased by over eight percent in 2018.

Our analysis shows Midland had consistent high-performance metrics. It hailed first in two categories: job growth in 2018 and job growth between December 2017 and December 2018. It ranked in the top 10 in four other index components: third in the growth of average annual pay in 2017; fourth in per capita income in 2016; seventh in real GDP growth in 2017 and eighth in the proportion of total employment at young firms. For the statisticians among our readers, Midland’s performance was three standard deviation units above the mean of all metropolitan areas. For those less versed in statistics, that is an extremely low probability occurrence. Midland is the capital of the Permian Basin that produces one in five barrels of oil in the U.S.5 The explosion in shale oil exploration activity is driving the economy and the Tall City is the most reliant on oil activity in the nation.6

Less than a decade ago, the Permian Basin was viewed as an oil reservoir in remission and Midland had witnessed its best days. The fortuitous simultaneous development of horizontal drilling technology and advances in hydraulic fracturing techniques, combined with some of the thickest shale deposits in the U.S., have changed the fortunes of Midland and the communities of the Permian Basin. In 2018, Permian oil production increased by over a million barrels a day. Production has jumped by 400 percent since 2010. Many believe that production will eclipse the Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest, within three years. Even today, Permian oil production exceeds that of all 14 members of OPEC other than Saudi Arabia and Iraq.7 The Midland metro area is 100 times more dependent on the oil and gas extraction industry than the U.S. economy overall. Further, the metro is 73 times more reliant on support activities for mining than the rest of the nation, and five times more reliant than the nation on machinery, equipment and supply merchant wholesalers.8

Some Midland officials feel that the boom-and-bust cycles of the past could return. Drilling activity is extremely sensitive to the price of oil. When the price plummets, rigs are withdrawn and the entire supply chain contracts. However, it is likely that exploration activity in the Permian will not be as sensitive to oil price declines in the future. New technologies and techniques have brought the break-even price to around $33 per barrel from over $60 from just a few years ago.9 This has convinced majors such as Chevron, Exxon Mobil, BP and Shell to make significant new investments in the Permian despite the decline in oil prices in November 2018. Chevron has increased its production projection from 650,000 barrels per day to 900,000 by 2023. Chevron believes that close to 20 percent of its worldwide oil production will originate in the Permian by 2021.10

Gross Metro Product rose an estimated 8.8 percent in 2018 after jumping 14.8 percent in 2017. The unemployment rate averaged 2.5 percent for the 2018 calendar year and fell to 2.3 percent in December 2018. The multiplier effect of oil exploration on the supply chain and the induced effect on ancillary services through income gains are substantial. Average annual earnings in oil exploration in Midland was $91,000 in 2017, double the non-energy wage. High wages are paid to professionals at petroleum engineering service firms like BCCK Engineering, Dawson Geophysical Company and Hy-Bon Engineering because they possess specialized knowledge on the latest technological advances in geologic sciences used in the fracking industry. Specialized software firms, such as Enertia Software, support oil exploration, and are part of the dense cluster of activity.11 According to S&P Global Platts, the expansion of oil pipeline transmission capacity will bring an anticipated 2.6 million barrels per day, providing another source of growth for the Midland area. The existing infrastructure is unable to transport the added oil production and much of it is going into local storage facilities, which are full.

Besides oil, ranching, agriculture, healthcare and transportation remain economic pillars; however, focused efforts on diversifying its economy are underway in Midland. Aerospace has emerged as an important engine of its economy. The Midland Altitude Chamber Complex supports the testing and qualification of space and pressure suits, payloads, components and trains new flight crews. RBC | Sargent Aerospace & Defense, a leading provider of precision-engineered customized components and aftermarket aviation services, has expanded in the metro area, along with several other aerospace suppliers establishing operations. As demand in aerospace has increased so has the need for information technology service firms. Percento Technologies has located in the metro area.

Both non-residential and residential construction have been primary beneficiaries of the spillover effects of oil exploration. The real value of total building permits surged by 38 percent in 2018—the highest since the previous peaks in 2013 and 2014. The rapid growth has forced many oil-related workers to live in temporary man-camps.12 In December 2018, construction employment rose 7.2 percent from the same period in 2017. Single-family permits rose 34 percent in 2018 to 1,722 units. The Case-Shiller house price index rose 9.0 percent in 2018. Affordability is becoming an issue for many residents.

Consumer spending has grown at a rapid clip. Real retail sales increased by 35 percent in 2018 and auto purchases jumped by 32 percent—to the highest level on record.13 Several new restaurants are planned for 2019 as leisure and hospitality spending is growing. Hotel occupancy taxes advanced by 62 percent through October 2018 from the same interval in 2017.

Based upon the Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics, Quarterly Workforce Indicators, Midland is eighth in the nation in the percentage of total employment represented by young firms. Texas Governor Greg Abbott made a claim in January 2017 during his State of the State address that Midland generates more jobs attributable to startups than San Francisco. This led to an investigative search by Based upon 2014 Census Bureau information, it concluded that startups in San Francisco were responsible for 2.3 percent of total jobs while startups in Midland accounted for 4.5 percent.14 The analysis concluded that San Francisco excelled relative to Midland in the proportion of jobs at new technology firms.

Every thriving smaller community has a female entrepreneurial-success story which serves as a role model for others. Midland has Susie Hitchcock Hall, founder and owner of Susie’s South Forty Confections, a maker of custom candies, and well known for its Texas Pecan Toffee that ships around the world.15 The Roden Entrepreneurial Development Center at the University of Texas, Permian Basin (UTPB) promotes building entrepreneurial skills. The program helps students develop a common frame of reference for the commercialization of innovative ideas best described as “Real Business” projects.16 UTPB has an Entrepreneurial Challenge that is a business plan competition. After qualification, entrants have access to pertinent resources like one-on-one business coaching. Midland also supports black businesses with the African American Chamber of Entrepreneurs, Inc.

Midland has a vibrant art and cultural scene that attracts and retains skilled workers and their families. The Midland Performing Arts Center is regarded as one of the best for a community of its size, and is home to the known Midland Symphony Orchestra. The Midland Chamber of Commerce is a key player in the economic growth of the community as it promotes quality of place with a primary focus on business development.

2. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA

Many were prepared to declare that Silicon Valley was passé;17 however, its unparalleled technology innovation ecosystem placed San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California, second in our Most Dynamic Metropolitans and tops among metros with a population above one million. Economic growth slowed in 2017, but a burst of activity has pushed it back among the top job creators in the country. Year-over-year job growth, between December 2017 and December 2018, was 3.3 percent—37th among all metros in the nation and seventh for metropolitan areas with a population over 1 million. San Jose was first in the nation for the growth of real GDP and second in real average pay from 2012 to 2017. Its innovations in the softer side of technology include: AI, machine learning, cloud computing, data processing and hosting services, web design, social media, blockchain technology and autonomous vehicles that are keeping the region on an expansion path.18

San Jose performs well in several other metrics included in our analysis. Despite having a median house price of $1.25 million and one of the highest costs of living in the nation, even after making the adjustments for relative purchasing power, San Jose’s per capita income is fifth in the nation. An astonishing 26 percent of San Jose households earn more than $200,000 annually and 39 percent earn $150,000 or above.19 San Jose is 84th on the proportion of total employment at young firms; perhaps lower than might be expected, but it is the high share within the technology fields that distinguish San Jose from other regions. The high-skilled workforce fuels, and is fueled by, the symbiotic relationship that exists with the broad employment category of professional, scientific and technical services, the largest category in the San Jose metro. Between 2012 and 2017, professional, scientific and technical services added 32,600 jobs. Even with weaker gains in this category in 2017, growth in average annual pay was sixth in the nation.

Other information services created 21,600 jobs from 2012 to 2017, the most of any metro in the nation, and the preponderance were in cloud computing. The startup scene is still hot in this category, in 2017 alone, 5,800 new positions were added to this sector. One rapidly growing startup in this space is Cohesity, Inc.; the firm quadrupled its global employees over the past year.20 Cohesity believes its growth prospects are so strong that it committed to additional space, permitting it to double its workforce again. Even traditional communications equipment makers are entering this market with Broadsoft, a communications software firm, acquired by Cisco for $1.9 billion in late 2017.21

San Jose’s success is driven by its ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship. Stanford is a bedrock of Silicon Valley’s high-quality university research and commercialization with a unique breed of entrepreneurial undergraduates, graduate students and faculty fueling its economy. San Jose State University has one of the top-ranked computer sciences programs in the country courtesy of major tech firms’ investments. These companies and smaller tech firms hire the computer programming talent that San Jose State produces—making it an underappreciated member of the Silicon Valley ecosystem. Santa Clara University and the nearby University of California, Berkeley are important institutions in the cluster. Tech stalwarts Alphabet, Apple, Cisco, Facebook, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Oracle invest a high share of their revenues back into R&D in an attempt to keep ahead of newly emerging competition that might disrupt their current lines of business (see Figure 6 for a list of the top employers in the San Jose metropolitan area.) Further, they invest in early-stage firms (captive venture capitalists (VCs) that they may later acquire to develop a new product or service offering.

Many employees of large tech firms go on to establish their own enterprises, underpinning an entrepreneurial culture. A disproportionate share of these tech entrepreneurs was foreign-born. Studies performed by Joint Venture Silicon Valley indicate that approximately 40 percent of tech firms had a least one founder that was foreign-born. Research and development (R&D), technology transfer, patenting, angel investing, venture capital, management talent, initial public offerings (IPOs), mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and market capitalization are the capstones of the regional innovation ecosystem.22

Around 15 years ago, venture capitalists from Silicon Valley publicized that they were often traveling abroad looking for attractive investment opportunities; many now hold the view that staying within a 50-mile radius of Sand Hill Road is a more efficient use of their time.23 Most do not want to fly to the center of the U.S. It is hard to argue with this perspective as the density of knowledge creation in Silicon Valley provides numerous opportunities for investing and they can manage a broader portfolio of firms. Talent and the ongoing creation of human capital at California universities fuel this growth, in addition to technical expertise coming from abroad. Data from the Census Bureau for 2017 show that 51 percent of the region’s residents 25 or older have graduated from college. A remarkable 24 percent hold an advanced degree, contrasted to only 12 percent in the U.S. population overall. Venture capital funding became even more concentrated in Silicon Valley and the surrounding region in 2018. Silicon Valley and San Francisco venture capital investments reached $50 billion ($19 billion in Silicon Valley) in 2018 representing 45 percent of all venture placements in the nation.24 Internet-related firms recorded 38 percent of VC placements in Silicon Valley in 2018. However, early-stage angel investing declined substantially in 2018, indicating that the next generation of tech firms may not evolve at the same pace.

Rapid growth among tech firms is spurring demand for office, industrial and retail space. Tight office occupancy rates and the attendant rise in rent is inducing developers and large tech firms to add space. A wave of firms announcing expansions are led by Facebook, Google, Apple and Nvidia.25 For example, Google has received approval to demolish 872,000 square feet at North Bayshore to build more than 2 million square feet in its place. In addition, construction continues at Google’s new campus at Charleston East near Diridon Station. It plans on adding 20,000 jobs in the immediate area by 2035.26 However, several tech titans such as Cisco have announced layoffs, with Cisco’s coming as it moves from a communications-plumbing firm to a communications software networking company.

The friction generated by the scale of economic activity located in a dense peninsula is causing the centrifugal forces to limit future growth. As Silicon Valley added 34,000 jobs in 2018, it built just 12,000 new housing units. Developers face the challenge of ongoing opposition to necessary housing. Residents fear that more housing will lead to even-greater congestion problems. Since 2010, apartment rents have risen by 54 percent.27 Because housing costs are beginning to outstrip compensation gains for many workers, Silicon Valley had a net domestic migration of negative 22,900 in 2017. What has become a challenge for Silicon Valley is now becoming an opportunity for non-coastal sections of the country with lower housing costs.

The Tridge is the formal name of a three-way wooden footbridge spanning the confluence of the Chippewa and Tittabawassee Rivers near downtown Midland, Michigan, in the Tri-Cities region

3. Midland, MI

Midland, Michigan, claims third in Most Dynamic Metropolitans and second among small metropolitan areas. Its job growth over the past few years has not been as stellar as other top performers, but advances in average annual pay and real GDP place it in the upper echelon. Midland’s real GDP growth between 2012 and 2017 was second. However, average annual pay growth over the same interval, and in 2017, were first in the nation. Midland’s 2017 z-score for average annual pay growth was roughly 11 standard deviations above the mean of all metropolitan areas. Its primary industry is chemical manufacturing with Herbert Henry Dow moving his fledgling company from his native Canada in 1897. Today’s Dow is the result of a combination of material science assets from Dupont, Dow Chemical and Dow Corning.28

Midland, Michigan, became a metropolitan area in 2013. However, Dow has long dominated its economy at 6,100 employees; its workforce accounts for approximately one-half of Midland’s manufacturing employment.29 This employment level is down from a few years ago, but the consolidation of material science research, management and operations of the combined organization has resulted in higher average compensation in Midland. As recently as 2015, the average annual earnings in Midland were below the national and Michigan averages, but currently, exceed both after rising $5 per hour.30

The material science and engineering assets of Dow in Midland are formidable. Dow provides customers with integrated technology platforms primarily serving core packaging, infrastructure and consumer end markets.31 Midland is unique for a smaller metro area having the chemical industry play such a dominant role it is economy. Dow is the anchor for a material science and engineering cluster.32 The supply chain effect of Dow’s operations in the metro area extends from other manufacturing inputs to a wide selection of professional services. Based upon this tight supply-chain relationship, Dow directly or indirectly supports 18,000 in employment or 43 percent of all jobs in the Midland metropolitan area.

Dow exports more than half of its chemical output produced in the metro area. There have been no material signs of slowing in exports despite its products being subject to retaliatory tariffs from China. In the aftermath of the severe devastation inflicted by the Great Recession in Michigan’s heavy manufacturing-dependent economy, former Governor Rick Snyder led a re-engineering of Michigan’s tax code that vastly improved the competitive position of large firms based in the state. A Tax Foundation analysis demonstrates that Michigan’s corporate tax rate is the eighth most competitive in the nation, a dramatic improvement from ten years ago. Dow has announced plans to convert its Midland manufacturing facility into a multi-company industrial park encompassing 2,600 acres.33 Further, Dow’s new Innovation Center in adjacent Bay County should provide substantial demand for new professional, technical and business services in the area.

Dow has an open and diverse management philosophy as evidenced by its CEO, Jeff Fitterling. Fitterling is a long-time Dow manager and holds the distinction as the second openly gay CEO of a major public company; the first was Tim Cook at Apple.34 Dow has recorded a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index every year since 2005, a strong endorsement of its LGBT-friendly policies. In conservative Midland, this substantial statement allows Dow to recruit a deep and diverse talent base for the community. More than 40 percent of adults in the metro area have a bachelor’s degree or above; it has the highest concentration of PhDs in the nation and more engineers and chemists per capita than any metro area in the nation.35 Further, Midland has one of the highest ratios of patents to the population in the nation. Northwood University-Michigan is the largest four-year degree granting institution, but Central Michigan University and several other major institutions such as Michigan State University are nearby.36

Midland’s second-largest employer and part of the University of Michigan Health Systems is MidMichigan Health. Despite some recent year’s pullback in health service employment in the community, MidMichigan has displayed its commitment by announcing a $57 million expansion over the next three years.37 MidMichigan Medical Center features the Neuroscience Institute and Pardee Cancer Center.38 Midland’s tight labor force, poses health professional recruiting challenges, it will have to attract staff from other parts of the state and beyond. Nevertheless, this expansion promises diversification of the local economy and should aid in attracting STEM workers for Dow and other employers.

Midland provides entrepreneurial support services for startup and scaleup firms through Midland Tomorrow, a countywide economic development agency. Midland Tomorrow states its goal is “enhancing quality of life for residents through retention and creation of quality jobs and diversification of the economic base.”39 The Innovation Center, an incubator/accelerator, provides a variety of educational services such as business planning and marketing to grow their businesses. This includes MITCON, a provider of information technology solutions. Another vital resource is Blue Water Angels, a group of high net-worth investors looking to place capital in promising companies that have prospects to offer a high rate of return.40

Midland entrepreneurial support organizations have collaborated to garner several awards like the University of Michigan-Dearborn Center for Innovation Research, a 5-star “best practice” community.41 Right is achieving success in the Software-as-a-Service industry. It delivers data solutions and documentation systems to chemical manufacturers. As recipients of the prestigious Phase 1 and Phase 2 Small Business Innovation Research Awards from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Right demonstrates its sophistication. It is developing drug safety information for over the counter medications to assess risks for pregnant mothers. Another client firm, Aberro Creative, is a marketing and advertising agency offering brand identity, graphic design, web design and video services.

Midland’s cultural scene is vibrant with the Midland Center for the Arts at its core. It offers a variety of cultural amenities including science, the arts and theater. All the positive qualities ranked Midland nationally by Forbes as a great place to raise a family.42

4. Elkhart-Goshen, IN

Elkhart-Goshen, Indiana’s growth, similar to many top micropolitan economies, has been fueled by a rapid expansion in travel, tourism and recreation. This is not surprising as Elkhart is the recreation vehicle (RV) capital of the world and placed fourth in Most Dynamic Metropolitans and third among small metropolitan areas. For example, the motor vehicle body and trailer manufacturing industry’s concentration is 191.4 times that of the U.S. overall and the sector employs 30,200 in the metro area and represents 22 percent of total jobs in the metropolitan area.

Elkhart recorded six top-ten positions out of the nine metrics included in the evaluation. It held second in real GDP growth for 2017; third in growth in average annual pay from 2013-2017; fourth in both real GDP growth from 2013-2017 and job growth in 2018; fifth in the growth of average annual pay for 2017; and eighth in job growth from 2013-2017. Elkhart had the highest rate of job growth in the nation from 2009-2017.43 This is, in part, due to the high cyclicality of the RV industry and the dramatic decline in sales and output during the Great Recession. However, there are secular trends underway contributing to the rising popularity of RVs. First, millennials value the experiential economy and have rediscovered the attractiveness of the RV as it permits greater immersion into the terrain of North America, driving sales higher. Second, gasoline prices fell dramatically since 2008 and the fuel efficiency of RV’s rose, reducing operating expenses. RV shipments were 321,100 in 2013 and jumped to 504,600 in 2017, a percentage gain of 57.1. One remarkable statistic highlights the importance of the RV industry to Elkhart is that one in two RV’s on the road in North America were built in the metro area.44 Elkhart exports more than one-fifth of its production, predominately to Canada and Mexico.45

Another way to articulate the importance of the RV industry to Elkhart is to examine the local cluster’s supply chain. Household and institutional furniture and kitchen cabinet manufacturing are 16 times more important to Elkhart than the nation overall. Additionally, other wood product manufacturing is 15 times more concentrated in Elkhart than for the nation, while plastic products manufacturing is 20 times more concentrated and architectural and structural metal manufacturing has nine times the concentration.

Thor is the largest RV manufacturer and employs 13,622 in the metro area.46 Its recent $2.5 billion acquisition of Erwin Hymer Group’s North American and European operations created the largest RV manufacturer in the world.47 It displays powerful Heartland credentials by its 2010 acquisition of the Heartland RV Company. Forest River is another large firm employing 10,000 in the metro area. Further, Lippert Components employs 5,500; specialized in manufacturing galvanized home roofing.48 Tying approximately one-third of Elkhart’s gross metro product to the RV industry.

This extensive local supply chain, along with other manufacturing operations, results in manufacturing representing 49.8 percent of employment in Elkhart versus 8.5 percent for the nation—resulting in a higher dependence on manufacturing than any other metropolitan area in the nation. The downside is that it makes Elkhart’s economy among the most cyclical in the nation. The good news, at 2.8 percent, Elkhart’s unemployment rate is among the lowest in the nation. Moreover, this industry composition contributes to only 11.4 percent of its adult population having obtained a bachelor’s degree.49 Community leaders are working to upskill the area’s workforce and address labor shortages by establishing the RV Technical Institute.50

The multiplicative effects of the RV industry on the regional economy are extensive. Professional services such as accounting and design pay high wages and contribute to spillover effects to other sectors. The residential real estate market has witnessed strong demand as single-family housing permits rose by 35.5 percent from 2015 to 2017. Similar to the national economy, leisure and hospitality has witnessed job gains of 4.7 percent over the most recent 12 months through January 2019. Financial activities and trade are recording strong job gains as well.

The Elkhart and Goshen Chambers of Commerce and other partners understand the importance of small firms and advocate supporting entrepreneurs in starting and growing their businesses. Launch Elkhart is a relatively new partnership between the Chamber, City of Elkhart, the Community Foundation of Elkhart County and the Center for Business Excellence. Frontier Communications is providing high-speed internet access to many of the startups as their technical nature often requires it. The desire is to support and nurture entrepreneurship by providing the tools and services to be successful. Launch Elkhart states that the “venture is expected to become the assembly line of entrepreneurial success in Elkhart.51 This is enabled by the social capital in the area built by trust and cohesion.52

The region is focused on adding diversity to its economy and its entrepreneurial mix. The Greater Elkhart Chamber has established a Business Diversity Initiative to support minority entrepreneurship and to integrate these businesses into its commercial environment. Another recent effort includes the formation of a Women’s Council whose objective is to provide support for women in business through ongoing education and networking opportunities.53 There are projects underway to provide housing in its downtown and river districts and to infuse a sense of place and promote cultural capital.54 Another example of plans to diversify its economy includes a major medical expansion, which will cost $175 million and employ 450.

Tower Theatre, a stage theater and concert hall in downtown Bend Oregon USA on a sunny day.

5. Bend-Redmond, Oregon

Bend-Redmond, Oregon, is among the high-fliers of economic growth and “best” lists. The Bend metropolitan area is fifth in Most Dynamic Metropolitans and fourth in the small metropolitan category. Bend-Redmond records consistent high rankings included in our evaluation criteria. However, its best positions were second for job growth from 2013-2018 and third for real GDP growth from 2012-2017. The area’s economic advance had slowed somewhat from one-year ago when it led all metropolitan areas in GDP growth.55 Similar to the leaders in Most Dynamic Micropolitans, it owes much of its lofty position to recreation, travel and tourism where it has an impressive cluster of related activity. For example, leisure and hospitality services in Bend-Redmond account for 15.4 percent of total employment, while they represent only 11 percent of U.S. jobs. Bend’s total payroll employment rose by 40 percent between 2010 and 2017; tops in the nation among metros.

Through thoughtful, well-articulated strategic planning, led by the Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO), the region has evolved to include aviation/aerospace and other advanced manufacturing, automotive, biomedical, brewing, IT hardware (including data centers) and software. EDCO has created a unique balanced portfolio approach to economic development in the region that includes business retention, expansion and an impressive focus on startups and scaleups.56 Bend holds the distinction of leading the country with 12.1 percent of its workforce telecommuting each day. Many of these telecommuters spend much of their time outside of the community in Silicon Valley.57 Bend is beginning to feel some of the same housing price pressures as Silicon Valley and other West Coast tech centers. However, Bend’s housing prices are still very affordable with a median home price of $440,000, but they rose by 10 percent in 2018.

Although Bend’s concentration of high-tech industries is below the national average, it has experienced stellar growth in recent years. High-tech GDP expanded by 18.0 percent between 2012 and 2017.58 Most of Bend’s high-tech success has been through homegrown or early-stage firms relocating rather than recruiting operations of large tech firms. New tech firms find Bend attractive due to the low cost of living, the recreational amenities and the availability of early-stage risk capital. Varieties of tech accelerators exist, but FoundersPad and the Innovation Center for Entrepreneurship associated with Oregon State University-Cascades are the hubs for the community.59

Bend is one of a few smaller metros that has developed a substantive network of local angel firms. Local risk capital availability is critical to nurturing firms that are innovative and disruptive in their industries. Cascade Angels support Bend’s startup community and have deployed $3 million across 20 investments throughout Oregon and the Northwest. Cascade Angel’s portfolio companies include regionally-based Amplion, Cairn, Droplr, InvestiPro, Odysys, LeadMethod, Manzama and Zero Transform. Julie Harrelson is one on the principals in the fund and was the 2017 Bend Chamber Woman of the Year.60

Affton Coffelt was named Entrepreneur of the Year for 2018. She has grown her Broken Top Candle Company in just three years to national recognition in the clean candle industry.61 Central Oregon has a Network of Entrepreneurial Women (NEW) offering support and business development. Additionally, the Bend Venture Conference is the largest angel conference in the West. Based upon information provided by the Center for American Entrepreneurship, Bend was fourth in the nation for growth in first financing of startups from 2013-14 to 2016-2017.62 Seven Peaks Ventures finalized its second fund of $28 million.63

EDCO has been a key collaborator for support of the entrepreneurial community. The support services include the Central Oregon PubTalks and the Stable of Experts. Bend measured success by registering one new business for every 28 residents in 2017—almost double the state average. Bend was 16th in the nation for the proportion of total jobs that were at young firms. EDCO introduced entrepreneur Adam Krefting to the Bend Venture Conference that led to him obtaining financing to launch CushCore. CushCore appears to have strong prospects in the mountain biking industry with a patent pending on its “tire suspension” systems. Medline Renewal is among those firms that have received growth support from both EDCO and the Redmond Economic Development Inc. (REDI). Founded in 1997 as MediSISS, the firm was established with the novel idea of transforming single-use medical devices into reusable ones. The largest private company in manufacturing and distribution of medical supplies acquired them in 2012. In July 2017 a custom-designed, 50,000 square foot facility was completed that included room for expansion.64

Aerospace has a 30-year history in Bend that specialized in design on paper to flight. Today, the area has several innovators in composite (carbon fiber) fabrication that form a long supply-chain in Bend. Bend has an educated workforce without having a major research university, a testament to the attraction of the area. 33.7 percent of Bend residents age-25 and older hold a Bachelor’s degree, 2.9 percentage points above the U.S. average. Central Oregon Community College has the longest history in the community, but the expansion of Oregon State University-Cascades will dramatically increase the number of graduates with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.65 Professional and business services are an engine of growth too; the sector has boosted employment by 7.1 percent in December 2018 as compared to the same month in 2017.

The region’s leisure and tourism industry is thriving. Employment in leisure and hospitality services grew by 4.5 percent in 2018. The expanding brew industry seems to be both attracting tourists and benefiting from their visitation. Beginning around 2008, Bend began witnessing a substantial increase in the 65-year-old and over population, partly to the low cost of housing and recreational amenities available. One-fifth of residents are over the age of 65, substantially above the U.S. average. The number of retirees plus the Silicon Valley commuters has pushed the share of personal income from non-wage sources up to about 60 percent.

The demand for housing has soared and the Bend City Council is responding with progressive policies. The Council voted to permit the construction of duplexes and triplexes on smaller lots. This will lead to denser housing in the community and will boost new construction and the attendant level of construction employment. Bend has seen one of the highest rates of net in-migration in the nation, over 6,000 in 2017. This is critical for Bend, as its unemployment rate would plummet without it, and its overall growth, curtailed. Commercial construction is soaring as well. Pronghorn Resorts and six other hotels have announced plans to add 600 hotel rooms.66 The Redmond Municipal Airport is undergoing an expansion that will boost capacity.


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