When Pat Wilson arrived in Columbus, Indiana, in the early 1970s, it was because she'd left behind Hazard -- the small, Kentucky coal-mining town that inspired The Dukes of Hazzard. To her, Columbus was a way out, she says.
Situated about 50 miles south of Indianapolis, Columbus was also a way in. It offered Wilson things she couldn’t find in Hazard: access to a small but growing population, plenty to do around town, and, most importantly, a good job with benefits.
She started working as a recruiter for Cummins, Inc., the multinational engine manufacturing company headquartered in Columbus, where she’s lived ever since. She semi-retired in 2001 and then delved into public service, first working for Columbus's mayor and later for the city’s economic development board, where she remains to this day.
"Finding work has never been too difficult here," she says.
Working for one manufacturing company for 30 years and then semi-retiring might not seem too thrilling on its surface. But in an era when "rust belt decline" has become a sad cliche and national unemployment numbers are consistently near 8 percent, it’s worth thinking about the American cities where recessions have been remarkably absent, where manufacturing thrives, where populations continue to rise.
That’s exactly what Area Development magazine did this summer when it compiled its list of "Leading Locations" for 2012.
Area Development covers corporate site selection and relocation; the list is designed to show executives which cities might serve as an ideal spot for new offices or manufacturing facilities. While the annual list has been a mainstay of the publication for years, it weirdly relied on national lists compiled by other outlets, such as Forbes’ "Best Cities for Jobs" list, to figure out which cities were "leading." (Austin, Texas, was the No. 1 leading city last year.)
This year, however, the magazine mashed up its own collection of mainly economic indicators to identify cities that "have found a way to thrive in the midst of adversity [and] to prosper while so many places have struggled." That methodology includes numbers about the 18-44 workforce, percentage of workers with a bachelor's degree, average wage earnings, and "recession busting" numbers, which look at how five specific indicators have evolved since 2009. (See the complete methodology here.)
Columbus, Indiana, tops the list. And it’s no wonder:
Columbus is the headquarters of Fortune 500 diesel engine and power generator maker Cummins Inc., which employs more than 7,000 locally. Japanese driveshaft manufacturer NTN employs 1,700 in Columbus, auto emission control and exhaust systems maker Faurecia maintains production and North American R&D there, and Dorel Juvenile Group makes child safety seats and handles R&D in Columbus. The city has averaged one corporate expansion announcement a month since 2010, creating 1,840 jobs, and current employment figures there are the third- highest on record. Columbus had the nation’s 4th-highest GDP growth in 2010 (the most recent figures available), and though it’s a one-county MSA with a population of about 77,000, its GDP is greater than that of 37 countries.
Rounding out the top ten are a list of cities similar to Columbus -- places such as Odessa, Texas; Lafayette, Louisiana; Bismarck, North Dakota; and Casper, Wyoming. Only one region -- Silicon Valley's metropolitan statistical area -- is listed in the top ten.
Does that mean small cities are on the rise? "I don’t know about that," Wilson says. "But we have the jobs and we’ve made the progress. We just want more people to know that."
Here's a breakdown of the key rankings. Read the full report here.
Top photo by Greg Hume