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4 Alabama metros rank in Top 100 of ‘America’s Smartest Cities’

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Four Alabama metropolitan areas ranked among the nation’s 100 “Smartest Cities” in an analysis that examines which metro areas are gaining brainpower in the 21st Century.

To compile its list, researcher NewGeography scored the nation’s 380 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) based on three criteria related to gains in educational attainment since 2000. The Auburn-Opelika MSA was Alabama’s top-ranking metro area, landing at No. 4 on the researcher’s “America’s Smartest Cities” list. Huntsville was No. 61, and the Daphne-Fairhope-Foley metro area was No. 73. Birmingham-Hoover ranked No. 100 on the NewGeography list.

UAB is a research engine for Birmingham's economy.
UAB is a research engine for Birmingham’s economy.

“To have four metro areas score in the top 100 of ‘America’s Smartest Cities’ shows that Alabama has vibrant local economies, strong colleges and universities, as well as a growing base of knowledge-based jobs,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “These factors make Alabama attractive to companies from the U.S. and around the world when they are looking for a location to expand their operations.”

UNIVERSITY CONNECTION

The Auburn-Opelika MSA has become a mecca for investment. GE Aviation this year announced plans to launch high volume production of a jet engine nozzle using addititive manufacturing (sometimes called 3-D printing) at its Auburn factory, a first for the company. Also this year, medical device maker Baxter International announced a $300 million expansion of its plant in Opelika, creating 200 jobs. Meanwhile, Auburn University is collaborating with GE Aviation and other companies in the area.

NewGeography said many of the top-ranking cities on its list are Southern and home to a major university. “At the turn of the millennium, college towns already had a decent base of educated people; now they seem able to attract and nurture tech companies as well,” the report says.

The research firm said cities like Huntsville with a high concentration of government-related jobs scored well in its analysis. Huntsville is home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which is developing the space agency’s next-generation rocket and contributing to other critical programs, and Redstone Arsenal, the center of the U.S. Army’s missile and aviation programs.

Birmingham’s growing number of brainpower jobs is linked to UAB, a major research hospital, and entities like Southern Research Institute, which is involved in drug discovery and other cutting-edge activities. The city’s reputation as a research and technology center is growing thanks to projects such as Evonik’s first U.S. global innovation center focusing on medical devices and the success of Innovation Depot, a business incubator that hosts many promising tech ventures.

The Daphne-Fairhope-Foley MSA fits into a different category in the NewGeography analysis – an “amenity” region. The Baldwin County MSA is located minutes away from the beaches of Alabama’s Gulf Coast, and its three cities get high marks for charm. Plus, the area’s economy boasts a burgeoning number of small technology-related companies.

“We’re a place that captures a very high quality of life while also providing companies with a competitive cost of doing business,” said Lee Lawson, president and CEO of the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance. “We’ve known for a while that we were growing the number of people with a college degree here.”

To produce its list, NewGeography scored the nation’s 380 metropolitan statistical areas based on three criteria. First, the analysis examined the growth rate in the number of residents with at least a bachelor’s degree living in these metro areas from 2000 and 2013, a figure accounting for 25 percent of the final score. The percentage point increase in each area’s college-educated population over that span counted for 50 percent of the score, while the share of educated people in 2013 counted for the final quarter.

St. George, Utah, ranked No. 1 on the overall “Smartest Cities” list, which first appeared in Forbes magazine. (Read it here.)

NewGeography is a joint venture of author Joel Kotkin and Praxis Strategy Group.

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