MSA: Auburn-Opelika, AL
Best places ranking: #16 among small metro areas
Talk about your town-gown relationships. Auburn, Ala., is home to 56,000 people, including more than 25,000 Auburn University students. Next door Opelika, with its quaint, renovated downtown, is something of a bedroom community for faculty and administrators who want a buffer between them and the campus.
Small business owners say many of the recession's ills were muted here: Job losses weren't as deep, and housing remained affordable through the boom-and-bust. The university assures a continuous, nearly recession-proof stream of consumers for local goods and services. It's also a source of affordable part-time labor for businesses close to campus. The new Auburn Research Park is anchored by Northrup Grumman, which brings service and sales opportunities for local vendors.
Local entrepreneurs cite the Chamber of Commerce for being unusually active and helpful, although they caution that the city's bureaucrats are not nearly as small-business friendly.
Recreational perks of the area include several public golf courses, topped off by a Robert Trent Jones course in Opelika. Golf tourism is a big deal in the area.
Auburn's downside: A dearth of public transportation. Auburn and Opelika alike are extremely car-oriented, locals say. -Barbara Darrow
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"There are a lot of great little businesses on this renovated street. There are gift shops and a great consignment shop. People are proud to live here and are faithful to downtown." -Pam Powers-Smith