(MONEY Magazine) – Two years ago, Robert Mixson, 37, and his wife Janet, 33, thought they had achieved the good life in Coral Gables, an upscale Miami suburb. Their careers were thriving--his as a $140,000-a-year obstetrician, hers as an $85,000-a-year pharmaceutical district manager for a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. Increasingly, however, the couple were fed up with the Miami area's crime and congestion. So they began a yearlong search for a friendly, safe, civic-minded small town where their careers could continue to blossom and they could relax.

The Mixsons found the hometown of their dreams in 209-year-old St. Marys, a small yet fast-growing Georgia seacoast town (pop. 23,702, up 51% since 1990), 40 miles north of Jacksonville. Crime is of little concern, while a dog can safely stroll the main drag during what passes for rush hour. And as the photos on this and the following pages show, St. Marys offers a beguiling mix of natural beauty, lovingly preserved historic buildings and a steadily expanding economy, owing chiefly to 18-year-old Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base. It employs 10,000 sailors and civilians to work on Trident II ballistic missiles for nuclear submarines and has generated other well-paying managerial and professional jobs at service businesses ranging from restaurants and shops to doctors' offices.

A year after the Mixsons moved to St. Marys, they earn $200,000 annually, and Robert expects his private practice, which has already attracted more than 700 patients, to keep expanding. Meanwhile, Janet, who has been promoted, works as one of her employer's 700 telecommuters. The couple rent a $1,200-a-month, three-bedroom house at swank Osprey Cove, a 1,200-acre golf course development that can accommodate 500 houses. Later this year, the Mixsons expect to move into a $350,000 custom-built, four-bedroom home on an Osprey Cove acre. Says Janet of their new hometown: "We found a place with easy access to the Atlantic Ocean, plenty of golf and a friendly, small-town atmosphere."

Thanks to faxes, computer modems and Federal Express, it's increasingly possible for Americans to realize the dream of earning big-city bucks while enjoying small-town comforts. As a result, for the first time since the so-called rural renaissance of the 1970s, more Americans are migrating from major metropolitan areas to rural counties than vice versa. From 1990 to 1994, the last year for which statistics are available, migration into rural counties rose 2.2%, vs. a 1.3% increase for urban counties. "There's been a rush to leave metro areas for smaller towns because the central cities continue to deteriorate and urban problems have spilled over into the suburbs," says G. Scott Thomas, author of the Rating Guide to Life in America's Small Cities (Prometheus Books, $20.95).

To uncover 49 other small boomtowns like St. Marys--all 50 are ranked by population growth in the table on page 127--MONEY enlisted two demographic consulting firms, TGE Demographics of Honeoye Falls, N.Y. and Claritas of Arlington, Va. First, TGE examined 1990 Census data to identify nonmetro locations with populations of 10,000 to 50,000 (typically a town and rural areas surrounding it), median household income at least 23% above the national nonmetro median of $22,483 for places with populations of 10,000 or more located outside of metro areas, and 17% or more residents employed in executive, professional, managerial or technical jobs. Impressively, 23 towns on our list boast median household incomes above the $32,086 metro-area median. To make sure we weeded out towns with large populations of rich retirees, TGE considered only places where at least 44% of all household heads are 45 or younger--the national average.

Next, Claritas used its proprietary estimates of population growth from 1990 to 1995 to rank the top boomtowns among TGE's candidates. Population growth is a commonly used proxy for economic vitality, because reliable statistics on job creation are available only for entire counties and can be misleading. Finally, to find out what makes these places so desirable, we interviewed more than 200 regional economic development experts, local politicians, chamber of commerce officials, school administrators and residents. What we learned may help if you're hankering to make a move:

Match your resume to the kinds of jobs available in the boomtowns that attract you. Some, like Atlantic Township, N.C., which stretches about 30 miles along the touristy Outer Banks, offer the best opportunities for entrepreneurs and consultants who can keep in touch with clients via computer modem. Others, like Hutchinson, Minn., 60 miles west of Minneapolis, are corporate enclaves with major employers such as Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing (3M).

Envision day-to-day life and work in a community that seems to suit you. We identified four distinct varieties of prospering small towns (described below): 1) bedroom communities in the sticks located beyond suburbs but close enough to metro areas so residents can commute to jobs; 2) resort-town neighbors that have attracted plenty of year-round residents; 3) computer-age company towns, where high- and low-tech manufacturers cluster; and 4) guns and butter towns, where the military dominates the economy.

Separate the myths of small-town life from the realities. Contrary to popular belief, for example, housing may not be cheap, particularly in pic-turesque resort areas. Century 21 brokers estimate that in Jackson Hole, Wyo., the most expensive town on our list, a typical three-bedroom house sells for a stiff $400,000. And while property taxes are usually lower in small towns than in metro areas, inevitably those taxes will rise as a community grows. For example, sewers must be extended to new subdivisions, roads constructed and maintained, and schools built and staffed.

Don't romanticize small-town schools either. They typically offer specialized programs in the arts, a variety of sports and at least a few Advanced Placement courses. But with some notable exceptions, most of the districts that cover the 50 towns on our list deserve no more than a C for academics because of their students' mediocre scores on college entrance exams. The high-achieving standouts include the Warsaw Community Schools, which serve Wayne Township, Ind., and the Anacortes, Wash. schools. Both made Money's recent list of 100 top districts in affordable towns (see the January issue). And the high schools in Hutchinson, Minn. and Jackson Hole, Wyo. are both recent winners of the U.S. Department of Education's Blue Ribbon Award for educational excellence.

That said, here's a closer look at the four main types of small towns that are thriving, with advice on the kinds of jobs and lifestyle you'll find in them:


Commuters heavily populate 19 of the towns on our list, traveling five to 65 miles to metro-area jobs. Says G. Scott Thomas: "Nowadays, most metro-area jobs are in suburbs, not the central cities. So people rightly figure they can live in a small town and commute to the suburbs in the same amount of time it used to take to commute from the suburbs to the inner city."

If you choose your booming bedroom town carefully, you might find a suitable job in your own backyard. Consider Clayton Township, N.C. in Johnston County. Fully 47% of the county's labor force works in other counties, with many driving 15 miles northwest to Raleigh/Durham's Research Triangle and government jobs. But managerial and technical jobs are also available in the Clayton area itself, most notably at Bayer Corp., which processes plasma for medical treatments and employs 710, and at one of Bayer's suppliers, Pharmacia & Upjohn Corp., which makes intravenous devices and employs 250.

Exurbs like Clayton come in two varieties. Most have sleepy or non-existent downtowns but are bursting with new subdivisions that have generous housing lots of an acre or more, adjacent golf courses, playgrounds and manmade lakes. Gertrude Stein's caustic characterization of her childhood hometown Oakland--"There's no there there"--perfectly describes these places, but that hardly bothers many residents. "The cost of living in these places may be lower, and you may think you're more in touch with nature because your house is on a big lot. But you're not going to have a genuine small-town experience," says Wanda Urbanska, co-author of Moving to a Small Town: A Guidebook for Moving from Urban to Rural America (available in June from Fireside Books, $12). "On the other hand, such places may feel right to people who are trying to escape from urban ills but don't want to immerse themselves in civic clubs and other aspects of traditional small-town life."

In other exurbs, such as St. Helens, Ore. and Anacortes and Mount Vernon, Wash., your great-grandma might feel at home. Mount Vernon, for example, from which many people commute 20 miles south to Everett for jobs at Boeing, boasts a lively downtown with a seasonal farmers' market and excellent seafood and Mexican restaurants.

One downside: Because these towns are relatively close to urban centers, sooner or later they may fall victim to suburban sprawl. Complains Doris Cole, a 28-year resident of Cranberry Township, a bedroom town 30 miles north of Pittsburgh that began growing in the 1970s: "It used to take me 10 minutes to drive to the grocery store. Now traffic is so bad it takes me 45."


Vacationlands are ideal for people who can create their own job or bring one with them. Fourteen such places made our list, but you'll see the names of only two on travel-agent brochures--Jackson Hole and Florida's Lower Keys, which stretch from Big Pine Key to Key West. That's because most are year-round communities that have grown up near resorts. Permanent residents tend to settle in these satellite towns because housing costs less (although it's never a bargain) and visitors don't clog the streets.

A classic example is Minturn/Red Cliff, Colo. (pop. 14,719), five miles southwest of Vail. (Though the Census Bureau counts Minturn and Red Cliff as one place, time stands still in the latter burg, a dusty old gold-mining and railroad town with only 285 residents.) Minturn residents generally work and shop in Vail or nearby Avon, site of the Beaver Creek ski area.

Typical residents Fred Haslee, 43, an administrator for the sanitation district, and wife Lorraine, 42, manager of the Avon Public Library, together earn $70,000 a year. Although they and their daughters, Laura, 13, and Maggie, 10, have lived in Minturn since 1978, they're still overwhelmed by the beauty of their Rocky Mountain home, where elk roam in the backyard. Says Fred: "The other day Laura told me, 'I was sitting on top of the mountain at Beaver Creek, and I realized how lucky I am.' We are lucky. We're living a fairy tale."

The best-paying jobs in a vacationland tend to be managerial positions at top resorts, running your own retail shop or restaurant, buying and managing rental real estate, or operating a successful home-based business. However, Mark Donaldson, community development director of Glenwood Springs, Colo., 40 miles northwest of Aspen, notes: "A growing contingent of lone eagles connected to the workplace by fax and modem are moving here from California and other parts of Colorado."

Indeed, some vacationlands are trying to diversify their economies by luring the fax-and-modem crowd. For example, the Hawaiian island of Maui--home to four places on our list: Kahului, Kihei, Makawao/Paia and Wailuku--boasts the five-year-old, 450-acre Maui Research & Technology Park in Kihei. One tenant, the Maui High Performance Computing Center, operated by a consortium headed by the University of New Mexico, is used by the U.S. Department of Defense, corporations and other universities for a wide variety of scientific, research and commercial purposes.


Thirteen of our towns offer New Age manufacturing jobs in high-tech businesses ranging from electronic scales to computer components. Consequently, these places aren't polluted by belching smokestacks nor dominated by a single employer. And they're usually located near major highways. Such towns typically offer opportunities for sales-people, marketing and financial specialists, general managers with manufacturing expertise, systems analysts and other computer experts, as well as engineers and industrial designers.

For example, Fort Atkinson, Wis., 51 miles southwest of Milwaukee and 27 miles southeast of Madison, has attracted a diverse array of manufacturers. Two of the biggest, which each employ about 300, are Nasco International, which produces lifelike plastic body parts for medical schools, and Spacesaver, which makes storage and shelving systems. Although Fort Atkinson's population grew 14% from 1990 to 1995, unemployment is hovering around 3%--less than half the national rate--and employers bemoan a shortage of managers and clerical workers alike.

Besides jobs, Fort Atkinson's attractions are family-oriented: a new aquatic center with a 175-foot water slide; the Fireside Dinner Theater, which draws 350,000 visitors a year; and a topnotch public school system that sends 80% of graduates to college or technical school.


Four military strongholds made our list. All have dodged the bullet of Defense Department downsizing, with St. Marys emerging as by far the fastest growing. The others are Fallon, Nev., where the Navy will move its Top Gun flight training school from San Diego in June; and North and South Whidbey, which occupy an island north of Seattle along with a naval air station that provides a $300 million annual payroll. But there are also managerial jobs at hotels, restaurants and shops in the island's healthy tourist trade, as well as opportunities at high-tech start-ups, including a company that makes Bible software.

In other military towns, defense contractors have set up shop, offering well-paying jobs that usually require computer and other technical skills. One new Fallon resident, Loral Corp. electrical engineer Chester Camp, 43, transferred from Lubbock, Texas in '95. Camp, who earns $36,000 a year and lives with his wife Sandy, 42, and their four school-age children in a four- bedroom, $128,000 house on an acre, says: "Fallon is a nice place to raise a family. It's not overdeveloped, and you can leave your children in the front yard without worrying about their safety." Like all growing areas, military towns also generate managerial and professional jobs in service businesses from grocery stores to hospitals.


Now that you've perused our exclusive list of thriving small towns with big jobs, you can do more research on places that interest you. To find out about a town's major employers, amenities and climate, call the local, county or regional chamber of commerce that serves it. Since chambers have a reputation for boosterism, however, also call the state department of economic development, employment or labor and ask for the latest regional unemployment and job-growth data. In addition, visit the town for at least two days in different seasons and check out the quality of its schools by asking administrators for standardized test scores. Be sure to evaluate the effect of growth on the town's ambience.

Moreover, since nearly all of the towns on our list are much more racially and ethnically homogeneous than metro areas, ask yourself if that's really what you want. Don't automatically assume, however, that the white majority and minorities never mix. In fact, they may have more to do with each other than they would in a big city. That's because small towns usually have one school system, a handful of civic clubs and perhaps one church for each denomination. Says Wanda Urbanska, 40, who lived in Los Angeles for seven years before moving to 99%-white Carroll County, Va. in 1986: "Even though I'm now living in a very white, WASPy area, I actually have more interaction with people of color and of different socioeconomic backgrounds than I did in L.A., where virtually everyone I knew was also a white, well-educated writer."

And finally, says Norman Crampton, author of the 100 Best Small Towns in America (Macmillan, $13.95), remember that "what separates people who move to a small town and hate it from those who move and love it is a desire and ability to plunge into community affairs." Crampton, who six years ago moved with his family from Flossmoor, a Chicago suburb, to Greencastle, Ind. (pop. 8,984), speaks from experience. Says he: "That's what will give you a genuine sense of belonging and what makes small-town life so rewarding."