MONEY’s Best Places to Live in America

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[Excerpt from MONEY’s Best Places to Live in America]

MONEY set out to find the nation’s top small cities with populations between 50,000 and 300,000. Starting with a pool of 781 cities, Money researchers used data from Onboard Informatics and other sources to comb through everything from the local economy and housing market to schools and healthcare—more than 50 factors in all. Then, reporters visited the 35 top scoring places, looking for a sense of community and other intangibles.

1. McKinney, Texas

Population: 140,864
Census Region: South
Median Family Income: $96,143
Median Home Price: $217,879
Average Property Taxes: $5,142
Projected Job Growth: 13.1%

When Alex and Kristen Lanio, 52 and 43, decided to relocate their chocolate-making company from Newport, R.I., to the Dallas–Fort Worth area in 2011, they had plenty of business-friendly, affordable towns to choose from. Once they walked through downtown ­McKinney, with its brick buildings and cobblestone streets, they knew they’d found the place. “Around here, everyone says hello and stops to chat,” says Alex. “It’s a truly hometown feeling.”

Underlying McKinney’s homey Southern charm is a thoroughly modern city. The area is a hotbed for growth-industry jobs. Ray­theon recently brought a 3,600-employee division to town, and companies in green energy, aviation, and medical services have also moved to the region. Next up: a Sheraton hotel and conference center opening in February. Other Fortune 500 companies are a 15- to 45-minute commute away.

Career and college prep are big in McKinney’s schools. AP courses start in middle school, and high schoolers can get internships in a range of industries. Technology is central; grade schoolers get lessons on wired smartboards, and starting in January, every high school freshman will be issued a MacBook Air laptop.

The historic downtown houses a mix of art galleries, boutiques, and farm-to-table restaurants, as well as basics like a butcher, shoe repair, and farm-supplies stores. Mark Strange, 41, who relocated from California two years ago for his job at Fossil, an accessories manufacturer, says that living downtown was a no-brainer for him, his wife, Patrizia Montanari, and their two young children. “It’s a mix of European, East Coast, and West Coast here,” adds Mon­tan­ari, 36, a photographer. “You get culture and more country charm for less money than what you’d find in Dallas.”

Housing options range from restored Victorians to Texas-style mansions. With three-bedrooms averaging in the low $200,000s, the price is still right, though the market is heating up. For Americo and Silvana Galdos, 37 and 34, who moved back to McKinney last year after a stint in Mississippi, that meant getting outbid a few times before they clinched the deal. They ultimately landed a great house, right across from a park, where they and their three kids walk the dog or go for bike rides. “There’s so much nature around us,” says Americo, a manager for a car manufacturer, “it’s easy to forget you’re in a city.”

20. Pflugerville, Texas

Population: 54,039
Census Region: South
Median Family Income: $86,889
Median Home Price: $170,000
Average Property Taxes: $4,262
Projected Job Growth: 11%

Pflugerville got its claim to fame when its high school’s football stadium was used in the TV show Friday Night Lights as home to the Dillon Panthers. Now it’s drawing interest from another big crowd – people with jobs in Austin, 16 miles away. The town is one of the fastest-growing in Texas, and families are drawn to the affordable homes, strong school system, and water sports at Lake Plfugerville, the town’s reservoir.

Pfancy a Pfest? Pflugerville’s got ‘em: there’s the summertime Pfirecracker Pfestival, the Pfall Chili Pfest, monthly Pfirst Pfridays and weekly Pfarmers Market, all held around its small downtown.

Excerpt, MONEY Online/Builder Online, 9/14/14
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