THE TOP 300 PLACES How the top 10 compare

(MONEY Magazine) – ; No place, not even our top place, ranks No. 1 in every way. We rate the metro areas in nine broad categories, ranging from health (medical care and a lack of pollution) to wealth (job-growth prospects, for example). The table shows how each of our top 10 winners compare, with 100 points for the best score of any of the 300 places we ranked. Red numbers note the highest performance in the top 10. You can see Rochester's appeal: It's a quadruple-crown winner, with the best score in health, crime, education and (because of its proximity to Minneapolis/St. Paul) the arts. The four of the 10 from North Carolina and Wisconsin show economic strength, though Sioux Falls, S.D.'s economy scores 100. Grand Forks, N.D. (No. 8) gets a 100 in transportation, thanks largely to its 13-minute average commute. Texas sunshine gives Houston (No. 4) and Austin (No. 10) the best top 10 weather scores, but the cities suffer from crime.

1. Rochester, Minnesota Area population 106,470 Unemployment rate 4.1% Three-bedroom house $93,500 Property tax $1,350 Top state and local income tax 8.5% Sales tax 6.5% Robberies per 100,000 people 25 Annual sunny days 200 For more information 507-288-1122

Rochester (pop. 72,500) has been pumping up its economic muscle lately. "It used to be that if you wanted to be in the Upper Midwest, you moved to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area because that's where the jobs were," says economist David Dahl, of the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis. "But in the past two or three years, Rochester has been a leader in this region in growth." The biggest employers: the Mayo Clinic, with 15,847 employees, or 27% of the city's labor force, and IBM (7,600 employees), which, despite Big Blue's woes, has not laid off any full-time staffers locally nor announced plans to do so. NPA Data Services, a Washington, D.C. research group, projects local cumulative job growth from 1992 to 1995 at a sturdy 8.45%, far higher than the 5.8% average for all the metro areas we surveyed. "Rochester is sitting pretty because of Mayo," says Nestor Terleckyj, president of NPA Data Services. "There will always be good doctors at Mayo, and there will always be people who want to go there." A telling symbol of the good times: The average household income in Rochester is $42,412, more than 10% higher than the national average. There's plenty of start-up capital available in this prosperous town, and creative tinkerers at medical-technology firms are taking advantage of it, says Rick Colvin, executive director of Mayo Medical Ventures, which handles licensing arrangements for the clinic. "We have licenses with General Electric and Hitachi," says Colvin. "But we also work with a lot of two-person companies here in Rochester. They're easier to deal with and often just as successful." The area is also a green scene, with a full-time forester on the city payroll. Visitors quickly notice the clean air and expanse of lawns unencumbered by privacy fences. Neighbors tend to let their yards run together, so kids can play unobstructed. Says Nancy Leskee, 36, a California transplant and mother of two: "In L.A., people limit their number of children because they can't afford housing or day care. Here, people can afford to have three or four kids if they want."

2. Madison, Wisconsin Area population 367,085 Unemployment rate 2.5% Three-bedroom house $111,000 Property tax $3,625 Top state and local income tax 6.93% Sales tax 5.5% Robberies per 100,000 people 168 Annual sunny days 190 For more information 608-256-8348

A popular T-shirt sold in Madison describes the state capital and home of the University of Wisconsin (41,948 students) as the alternative to reality. That's about right. Madison, which has ranked in our top 10 for the past three years, offers special attractions. The unemployment rate is low, at 2.5%, and annual house-price appreciation is high, at a boom-time 11%. Prospective buyers today sometimes find themselves in bidding wars for the same properties. "Our company built 205 homes here last year, and we'll probably top that number this year," says Nancy Kessler, co-owner of Century 21 Affiliated-Simon, a local real estate brokerage and home builder. Madison's awesome beauty and laid-back style appeal to most everyone: Walk along State Street's thriving pedestrian mall and you'll see the elderly (on bicycles) and yuppies and hippies moving among the street vendors, New Age stores, and coffee shops. Residents, who liken the city to Austin and Seattle, rave about the health care, particularly the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, which is renowned for its cancer, gynecology and cardiology departments. For a relatively small city, Madison offers a number of surprises. For example, you can find Caribbean, Ethiopian, Thai and more than 20 other reasonably priced types of ethnic restaurants. Madison also is home to the American Public Radio quiz show Whad'ya Know. The No. 1 source of dissatisfaction is property taxes--$3,625 a year for a typical $111,000 three-bedroom house. But parents apparently believe they're getting their money's worth from the public school system: Only about 10% of kids attend private school.

3. Minneapolis/St. Paul Area population 2,464,100 Unemployment rate 5.3% Three-bedroom house $109,545 Property tax $1,600 Top state and local income tax 8.5% Sales tax 7% Robberies per 100,000 people 166 Annual sunny days 200 For more information 612-370-9132 (Minneapolis); 612-223-5000 (St. Paul)

The Twin Cities, with their prosperous economies, still set the quality-of- life standard that other Midwest towns hope to beat. "We've consistently been one of the strongest cities in the Upper Midwest," says David Dahl, economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "We live by our smarts." So they do. When local computer companies like Control Data waned a decade ago, medical-technology firms like Medtronic, a pacemaker producer, stepped up to fill the gap. Medtronic now has 3,700 employees in Minneapolis/St. Paul, 9,200 worldwide. Such resurgence has helped keep the area's unemployment rate (recently just 5.3%) consistently below the national average. And the strong tax base, which depends on fairly steep income and property taxes, has helped the area maintain first-rate public schools--along with other cities in the state. Minnesota, in fact, boasts the country's highest high school graduation rate (89.5%). Though their downtowns are only a 15-minute drive apart, more than the Mississippi divides the two cities. St. Paul (pop. 272,200) is the smaller and more traditional of the two. Minneapolis (pop. 368,400), the home of Prince, who returned to create his Paisley Park Studios, is no stranger to glitz. But the Twin Cities' demographics--large ly white, Lutheran, and Catholic--are changing. The area has become a magnet for prosperous blacks, particularly in , Carver County, just southwest of Minneapolis. In addition, there are more than 65,000 Asians, including a large group of Hmong, many of who were brought into the area by local churches after the Vietnam War. A reflection of the changing times: a popular new St. Paul restaurant is Chang O'Hara's, an Asian-Irish bistro featuring that old favorite, corned beef with cabbage egg rolls.

4. Houston, Texas Area population 3,711,000 Unemployment rate 7.8% Three-bedroom house $83,820 Property tax $2,100 Top state and local income tax None Sales tax 8.25% Robberies per 100,000 people 833 Annual sunny days 205 For more information 713- 227-3100

George and Barbara Bush were onto something when they moved back to their hometown of Houston in January. (For photos of their new house, see page 20.) They returned after 12 years in Washington, D.C., says the former President, in part, "because we find it an exciting city." Indeed, after a rocky period in the mid-'80s, when the price of a barrel of oil collapsed from an early '80s high of $36 to $11, Houston is poised for prosperity. Energy still energizes Houston's heart, but increasingly health services, aerospace and technology companies quicken the city's pulse. Compaq, the nation's third largest computer maker ($4.1 billion in sales), is based here and soon plans to add 200 people to its 5,500-person local work force. The regional employment outlook appears bright too: The North American Free Trade Agreement could create 15,000 new jobs by the year 2000, according to the Greater Houston Partnership, a local economic and business development group. Texas' lack of state income taxes on wages is especially appealing to newcomers (It's one of only nine states that can make that claim). Prices also are low for a city of Houston's size. For example, a typical three-bedroom house costs a mere $83,820, a full 21% below the U.S. average of $106,100. "We reviewed more than six cities, but when we compared their cost of living, Houston was clearly the best choice,'' says Jeff Nagel, director of marketing for Energy BioSystems, a four-year-old biotech firm. People here also know how to enjoy themselves. MONEY recently ranked Houston as the 10th best restaurant town in America. And there are too many festivals to count, including many reflecting the city's diverse, 46% minority community. Add professional sports' Astros, Oilers and Rockets, outdoor recreation and a vibrant arts community, and Houstonians never want for things to do.

5. Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina Area population 735,480 Unemployment rate 3.8% Three-bedroom house $121,400 Property tax $1,550 Top state and local income tax 8% Sales tax 6% Robberies per 100,000 people 231 Annual sunny days 220 For more information 919-840-7372

Colleges shape this 30-mile section of the Carolina Piedmont, tucked between coastal beaches and the Blue Ridge Mountains. North Carolina State in Raleigh, Duke University in Durham, and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill provide the brainpower that draws world-class corporations such as Ciba-Geigy, Sumitomo and Du Pont and then, in turn, helps keep the area unemployment rate consistently below 5%. College medical facilities and cultural activities also lure retirees. Mainly because of Duke, this metro area ranks third in the nation for physicians per capita. The area's 87,865 college students and 65,685 over-65 residents tend to keep a lid on house prices. A typical three- bedroom home costs only about half as much as in San Diego--a bit more in Chapel Hill (pop. 38,700), less in both Raleigh (pop. 222,500), the seat of state government, and Durham (pop. 136,600), an acclaimed health center. The area's business-friendly climate benefits entrepreneurs too. Soon after former landscape designer Peter Villano, 46, moved his family here from Long Island last summer, he began hawking Peter's Unfamous Marinade at the farmers' market. His tangy sauce is now in 132 stores statewide. Says his wife Donna: "In New York, government agencies only cared about the taxes they could wring out of us. Here, the small-business center helped us every time we stumbled." Singles may face a tougher adjustment. Sandy Berman, 36, who was transferred by IBM from Palo Alto in 1986, hated the area initially. "I thought there was nothing to do," she recalls. "I was wrong." Berman now catches touring Broadway shows. "There's a real sense of place here. I don't want to leave."

BOX: "Rochester has more to offer us all."

When Dan and Leanne Stroh, both 40, rolled into Rochester, Minn. in the spring of 1987, their three boys found instant gratification (Scott, now 6, was born five months later). "More pizza places, more parks and bike trails," says Michael, 16. "And 21 movie screens. We were living in a town with only one theater." That was Rugby (pop. 2,909), the last of four North Dakota burgs the Strohs lived in as Dan pursued his banking career. Mom and Dad found Rochester rewarding too. Says Dan: "I looked at opportunities in towns of a similar size to Rochester. But I thought this place had more to offer us all." He now heads the Rochester loan-support team for Norwest Banks (total assets: $45 billion), traveling the southeastern part of Minnesota to help medium-size companies work out their financial problems. Leanne just began working for Family Service Rochester, a private agency that provides services so elderly and disabled people can continue living at home. "When I got my first paycheck, I thought 'Wow! They pay me for doing work I love,' " Leanne says. All the Strohs are boosters of the Rochester public school system. "The schools have bigger budgets than some we attended before, so there are extras -- like more computers and bigger marching bands," says trombonist Michael. His brother Jeremy, 13, opted for the baritone tuba. Dan has also pitched in by volunteer teaching -- showing, for example, the innards of a computer to fourth-graders in the school's Young Astronauts program. "It's easy to take an hour off and then go back to work, since it's only a 10-minute drive," Dan says. During the five-month-long winter, the Strohs explore the area's 30-odd cross-country ski trails. In warmer weather they fish, often in 2,800-acre Whitewater State Park, about a 20-minute drive east. "Some of the best trout streams in the state are around here," says Dan. Though many of their friends take the 90-minute drive to the Twin Cities for pro sports or entertainment or to shop at the 360-store Mall of America, the outdoors-loving Strohs rarely do. "We find plenty of activity right around here," says Leanne. And when there is a bump or a sprain -- as there often is with four boys -- the Mayo Clinic is there to patch things up. Like virtually all Rochester residents, the Strohs use Mayo's family practice unit. "It's wonderful," says Leanne, "to know that any kind of specialist is immediately available to you."

BOX: How to get help from a chamber

For years, MONEY has recommended calling or writing the local chamber of commerce for information about an area before you seriously consider moving there. To see how useful these agencies really are, three MONEY reporters called the chambers of what Ryder Truck Rental Market Research calls the 20 most popular relocation destinations in 1992 with populations over 100,000. The reporters asked for relocation packets but didn't acknowledge our MONEY affiliation, to guard against receiving special treatment. To our delight, we got comprehensive data within a week or less from most of the chambers. Typically, the packets included vital statistics on schools, taxes, health care, employers, recreation facilities, day care, house prices and weather. A few packets, however, were skimpy. Des Moines and Springfield, Mo. mailed only four-page brochures, for example. (And, yes, we called Des Moines before the floods.) Orlando, the slowpoke of the bunch, took nearly three weeks to deliver its information. You'll get the best results by being specific about what you want. If you're job hunting, for example, ask for a list of the largest employers. And if you're interested in renting rather than buying a home, say so.


CHART: NOT AVAILABLE CREDIT: Source: Beta Research CAPTION:You want quick commutes and nice homes more than suntans this year One reason cities move up or down in our rankings is that our readers' priorities shift from year to year. Polling showed that our readers' top concerns (when rating 43 factors on a scale of 1 to 10) remained the same as last year: clean water, low crime and clean air. But low-priced homes and short commutes mattered more, sunny weather less.