We're almost as liveable as Hamilton Co., Indiana

Posted: Friday, May 28, 2004

Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire.

Los Alamos County, N.M., is the best place to live in America. An American City Business Journals report says so. There are statistics backing the claim. I can't deny it. I've never stopped in Los Alamos, but when I'm in the mood for long, lonely drives across dry grasslands, New Mexico is the prettiest state.

Los Alamos is famous for two things: nukes and raging brushfires. Hellfire and damnation. Come to the Land of Enchantment.

The same publications' statistical analysis, reaching 4 million readers nationwide, ranks Juneau No. 11.

Juneau is a nice town, sure. When I'm in the mood for a short drive through the rainforest, I can agree that Juneau is at least 11th best. But we all know that there's no accounting for taste, especially in statistics. I've worked in five towns, and each during my tenure has shown up on one of these national lists of best something or other. Some of them, like this one, were scientific and meant nothing to me. In a couple I couldn't figure what or where they were talking about. The one that made sense to me was completely subjective, and just happened to jibe with my personal town identity. It was Outside Magazine ranking Idaho Falls, Idaho, among the best outdoors towns in 1995. It pointed out that world-class fly fishing and hiking were all around you; you just had to live in the grungiest, strip-mallingest Mormon town in America if you wanted it. Author Mike Steere called it a "muddy farm town that couldn't care less what tourists and lifestylers think. In the glitzy West of the nineties, such butt-ugly honesty shines like hope." My, how we were proud.

Butt-ugly is as subjective as praise can get. But Juneau's ranking is based on statistics. So let's look at them.

American City Business Journals put 20 quality of life indicators into the computation. Separating Los Alamos and Juneau among the nation's elites are nine counties: Olmsted, Minn.; Pitkin, Colo.; Douglas, Colo.; Loudoun, Va.; Washington, Minn.; Johnson, Kan., Hamilton, Ind.; Howard, Md.; and Fairfax, Va.

Look over that list - noting, for instance, that the exclusive resort town of Aspen is in Pitkin County - and you might conclude that an extremely high cost of living is important to a community's quality of life.

This week, the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development announced that we're no longer in the nation's top eight most expensive cities, as we were in 1997. Now we're No. 16.

The quality of life study does reward cities with expensive housing, but it also has an affordability factor, as measured in median home value per median income. In neither case does Juneau stray too far from the norm among the top couple dozen contenders for best quality of life. Our $62,000 median household income doesn't even approach Los Alamos' $79,000. Our 5 percent unemployment rate, as of the 2000 census, was highest among the top 11; 4 percent poverty rate, also highest.

What does seem to rocket Juneau up the list is that 99 percent of workers work within the community and 45 percent have commutes shorter than 15 minutes. Think about that. Where are you going to drive, exactly? Build a road out of here and you can kiss your national ranking goodbye.

Few statistics can tell us why we should live in a place. You have a job here. You have a mate here. You have a kid in school. You like whales. They inspire you. Whatever is on your list, most of it won't show up on a statistical analysis. I was on the water Wednesday with a guy whose reason, on that day, was that he liked checking an empty crab pot and replacing rancid bait. I say he should find another reason, but that's subjective.

DuPage County, Ill., in Chicago's suburbs, comes in at No. 16. In DuPage County, you could live on a cul-de-sac with a big old lawn and, according to the numbers, add about $6,000 to your household income. If there's someone wringing their hands over whether to live on a boat in Auke Bay or buy an electronic pass on the Illinois Tollway, I want to hear that person's story.

I'll let you decide whether Juneau is No. 11. But I know for damn sure that Fairfax, Va., is not No. 10.

• Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire and can be reached at brandon.loomis@juneauempire.com.

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