These 25 small towns are the most ‘vibrant’ in the United States, according to a think tank

October 12, 2022

Montana Economy

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The Los Alamos Laboratory and the City of Los Alamos on June 14, 1999. (photo by Joe Raedle)

America’s micropolitans — or small towns of 10,000 to 50,000 people — faced unique challenges early in the pandemic, but through a “combination of luck and foresight,” some found ways to thrive.

Heartland Forward, a nonpartisan think tank focused on economic growth in the middle of the United States, released its Most Dynamic Micropolitans: 2022 report in September. The researchers said that micropolitans are generally “at a disadvantage compared to metropolitan areas because a smaller workforce results in a less diverse economy.”

But cities with large food producing or processing industries and places with lots of outdoor activities fared better than others. Of the 25 small towns at the top of their list, 12 are in the West Mountain.

Communities that rely heavily on oil and gas face more challenges than those with more diverse industries, the 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 highly dependent on petroleum, but the addition of food production and processing plants, along with the presence of helium and ethanol processing, have kept its economy stronger than other pickups.

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“Overall, shifts in the fortunes of micropolitans dependent on a single industry are reminiscent of the stabilizing benefits of a diversified economy,” the report said.

The researchers used the following metrics to rank micropolitans: growth in average annual salary, number of jobs, and gross domestic product (GDP); level of personal income per capita; share of total employment in enterprises in operation for five years or less (share of employment of young enterprises); and the share of employment in start-ups with a bachelor’s degree or higher (knowledge-intensity of start-ups).

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 mic that tops this year’s list is Los Alamos, New Mexico, but the reason for that is an outlier, the researchers said. Los Alamos is reaping the benefits of a $2.5 billion government contract with Triad National Security, LLC to operate the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The lab was formed to develop nuclear weapons during World War II, but today it is a hub for a wide range of industries.

“The lab’s highly paid scientists support a vibrant town of approximately 13,000 people nestled in the Jemez Mountains,” the researchers said.

Outside of Los Alamos, Mountain West had the most pickups in the top 25. Twelve of them are in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, or Wyoming.

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“Mountain West mics provided an outdoors-focused respite from the stresses of COVID-19. When travel restrictions were eased in the second half of 2020, tourists flocked to Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Heber, Utah; Bozeman, Montana; and other small towns on the doorstep of the vast Mountain West wilderness,” researchers said.

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East of the Mississippi River, only three pickups made the top 25. In Brevard, NC, No. 12 on the list, easy access to mountain biking, fly-fishing, hiking, and white-water rafting are big draws in southern Appalachia.


Brevard, North Carolina Mountains near Asheville (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Here are the 25 fastest growing 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. Lake Moses, Washington
12. Brevard, North Carolina
13. Key West, Florida
14. Oak Harbor, WA
15. Breckenridge, Colorado
16. Steamboat Springs, Colorado
17. Sandpoint, Idaho
18. Othello, Washington
19. Gardnerville Ranchos, Nevada
20. Fernley, Nevada
21. Fredericksburg, TX
22. Dodge City, Kansas
23. Fremont, Nebraska
24. Jesup, Georgia
25. Montrose, Colorado

Read the full list here.