National Fourth Economy Community Index Lists Top Ten Large-Sized Counties


Fourth Economy Consulting announces the latest release of its national community index, listing top counties from across the nation. The Fourth Economy Index highlights those communities ideally positioned to attract modern investment and managed economic growth within the fourth economy.

PITTSBURGH, PA – The latest edition of the Fourth Economy Community Index was announced today, recognizing the top ten large-sized Fourth Economy Communities. These communities—with populations between 150,000 and 499,999—were selected because they represent regions that are poised to achieve sustainable economic growth while attracting people and investment.

The top 10 Large-Sized Communities for 2015 are:

1. Chittenden County, Vermont
2. Hampshire County, Massachusetts
3. Minnehaha County, South Dakota
4. Clackamas County, Oregon
5. Washtenaw County, Michigan
6. Cumberland County, Maine
7. Lancaster County, Nebraska
8. Forsyth County, North Carolina
9. Boone County, Missouri
10. Stearns County, Minnesota

A description of our findings on each community is included below.

The Fourth Economy Index is an independently conducted analysis intended to serve as a benchmark for community stakeholders to assess their capacity to attract and retain modern investment while also improving the resiliency of their communities in response to future economic fluctuations.

“Accurately evaluating the factors communities possess for sustained economic growth and increased investment is based on more than just a few statistics. Through our work nationwide, we’ve learned to dig deeper to discover what really drives the economic success we see in these communities” said Rich Overmoyer, CEO of Fourth Economy Consulting, who released the Index. “The Fourth Economy Community Index highlights these factors that are essential to creating stronger, more economically resilient communities.”

The index consists of five elements: Talent, Investment, Sustainability, Place, and Diversity. “The indicators used to represent the core elements of the Fourth Economy are chosen and weighted in order to identify communities that have a sustainable balance of all five elements” says Chrystal Alexander, a Fourth Economy Analyst working closely with this project. “Often, these are communities with plenty of access to higher education, with strong private industry investment in local talent, and a strong quality of place.” Incorporating each of these elements into community strategic planning is the key to success in the Fourth Economy.

The Fourth Economy Communities Index has been expanded for 2015, adding new quantitative and qualitative measures, including factors pertaining to overall economic resiliency of the communities, new data on micropreneurs, and more. Throughout 2015, additional segments of the FEC Index will be released to include mid-, small- and micro-sized communities. Fourth Economy released its mega-sized communities index in December of 2014.

About the Index


The Fourth Economy Community Index (  or  #FECIndex) categorizes counties based on their Census 2012 population. Micro counties are those less than 25,000. Small counties range from 25,000 to 49,999.  Mid-sized counties are 50,000 to 149,999. The large counties are between 150,000 and 499,999, and Mega are 500,000+. The FEC Index then considers several county-level measures within five areas: 1) Investment, 2) Talent, 3) Sustainability, 4) Place, and 5) Diversity. These five areas serve as a foundation for future economic success.  Specific indicators include wage and employment growth, education levels, drive times, home values, minority business ownership, alternative measures of employment / entrepreneurship, and population density. The measures are then weighted based on the level of influence they have on both internal and external investment decisions.



The Top 10 Large-Sized Communities for 2015

1. Chittenden County, Vermont

(Population 159,515)

Ranked first in the large county Fourth Economy Community Index, Chittenden County, Vermont is critical to the overall economic health of the state economy. Chosen three years in a row as a Smart Growth Area, the County focuses its economic development efforts on supporting a vibrant tech industry, continuing job and population growth, fostering productive entrepreneurial activities, maintaining a quality local primary and secondary educational system, and keeping the Vermont food system strong. In addition, the County is committed to a great quality of life for area residents.

According to Charlie Baker, Executive Director of Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, Chittenden is a dynamic and well-positioned County. As the location of a blossoming tech industry and numerous colleges and universities, including a university medical center, the County offers great employment opportunities for young professionals, a talented workforce to attract companies and a supportive environment for entrepreneurs. Companies such as IBM, Vermont’s largest private sector company, and tech startup locate here to take advantage of all the County has to offer-including a very good fiber network.

A pledge to give a high quality of life to all residents guides the County’s actions.  The Farm to Plate initiative, created in 2009, addresses issues and identifies opportunities within the food system. As a result, the food system, which is important to the local and state economies, continues to strengthen and grow. Mr. Baker indicated that as the agricultural landscape changes, the County is seeing more locally owned restaurants flourish, start-up breweries open and a growing market for locally grown, high value fruits and vegetables.

2. Hampshire County, Massachusetts

(Population 159,596)

Ranked second in the large county Fourth Economy Community Index, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, is an area rich in education, farming, arts and culture. Its unique qualities and abundant resources distinguish it from its Western and Southern neighbors, and bring economic prosperity and cultural diversity to the area. The County is focusing their efforts on growing new and existing businesses, sustaining a healthy environment, building on its cultural diversity, leveraging its local workforce talent, and sharing the benefits with the community. Located in the heart of the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts, Hampshire County encompasses the northern tip of the Hartford-Springfield Knowledge Corridor. Hampshire is a critical component of this region’s economy. Home to The Five Colleges-which include top-ranked liberal arts colleges, a Division I Research University, and two of the oldest womens’ colleges in the country- Hampshire County has a strong presence of the local higher education institutions with impacts that flow throughout the community.

The Five Colleges comprise a massive economic engine that generates millions of dollars in spending from more than 30,000 students, $650 million in payroll from nearly 10,000 employees, and tens of millions of dollars in research grants. According to Suzanne Beck, Executive Director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, this consortium employs one in 4 local workers, creating 25 percent of the household income in the region. The presence of the local higher education institutions also creates secondary, cultural impacts. Ms. Beck stated that not only is there “immense intellectual capital in the community, the higher-Ed’s offer a rich cultural life in the community.”  In addition, Ms. Beck mentioned that the local creative sector, which includes design, performing arts, visual arts and crafts, media and film, has experienced an 8 percent growth over the last decade compared to no growth in this sector nationally. A vibrant cultural hub exists locally for individual artists, independent cultural organizations, and famous writers.

3. Minnehaha County, South Dakota

(Population 179,640)

Ranked third in the large county Fourth Economy Community Index, Minnehaha County, South Dakota is one of the fastest-growing and most business-friendly economies in the U.S. This is in part due to the focused economic development efforts that have been taking place in Sioux Falls for many years and the pro-business philosophy shared by local municipalities, counties and the state.

The region has a history of private-sector led economic development activity, which includes a long standing program of action called Forward Sioux Falls.  Business leaders realized nearly 30 years ago that if their businesses were going to succeed and grow, they needed to actively ensure that their community grew and was successful as well. Each five-year plan includes comprehensive growth strategies and initiatives supported by private sector investment. For example, for the most recent five-year plan, the business community raised $12 million for investment in initiatives that attract new business, increase regional job growth and improve quality of life. Community leaders also actively invest in specific programs that benefit the region. For example, to address the need for skilled workers, philanthropist T. Denny Sanford donated $25 million to create the Build Dakota scholarship program. These funds were matched by the State of South Dakota and will provide scholarships to qualified individuals to attend technical schools in high-need skill areas.

The positive business climate has created an environment of growth and innovation. According to Slater Barr, President of the Sioux Falls Development Foundation, “This isn’t flash in the pan growth.” Regional growth has been steady over the past few decades. This growth is reflected in the strength of the local financial services industry (more bank assets than any other state in the nation) and by development indicators (the number of building permits issued over the past two years has set records). In addition, a 2015 study of the 100 largest job markets in the U.S., completed by ZipRecruiter, ranked Sioux Falls 4th among top job markets with 80 percent of all new jobs created in the community coming from existing businesses. Industrial Parks throughout the County have played an important part in the creation of affordable office/development space throughout the area.  Many sites offer prime access to railroad, interstate highway and air service.

4. Clackamas County, Oregon

(Population 388,263)

Ranked fourth in the large county Fourth Economy Community Index, Clackamas County, Oregon is part of the Portland Metropolitan Area and named after the Native Americans living in the area. The County’s main source of economic activity continues to be agriculture, timber, manufacturing, and commerce.  However, the County understands that continued economic growth and sustainability need to be supported by a positive business environment.  Laura Edmonds, President and CEO of the North Clackamas Chamber of Commerce, stated that, “our community work force council and schools are trying to put funding into technical trade educational programs so that we can entice new businesses to move into our region.”  She also indicated that skilled, work-ready labor will add to the future growth and success of the region.

The County has also been proactive in developing local broadband infrastructure for the modern economy. Seeing a need for affordable, high-speed communication infrastructure and service, the County initiated the Clackamas Broadband Express (CBX). The County was awarded a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant to develop CBX, a fiber ring that links rural and urban parts of the County. Since 2013, the CBX project has successfully converted to a self-sustaining utility service for the County with revenue based on affordable rates for public and private agencies utilizing the fiber infrastructure. Overall, the project is considered a great success for the County and its customers. According to the Clackamas Broadband Express website, “CBX benefitted current broadband service providers and businesses throughout the county by providing nondiscriminatory, cost effective, high speed infrastructure. CBX will allow service providers to expand and enhance services and improve service delivery to their customers, as well as assist local businesses in becoming more viable in a global marketplace.”

5. Washtenaw County, Michigan

(Population 354,240)

Washtenaw County, Michigan, ranked fifth on the large county Fourth Economy Community Index, is extremely resilient and has an enormous potential to attract future investment. According to a study completed by the University of Michigan, Washtenaw County is in the midst of a six-year economic rebound that will result in 25,000 new jobs, including high-wage jobs, replacing all the jobs lost during the recession. Over the past 25 years, the local manufacturing sector has declined to less than 8 percent. Fortunately, due to the innovative research, education and investment across the region, there are equal numbers of manufacturing and professional technical jobs to compensate for this decline.

“Washtenaw County has resilient and active education systems, economic development, and workforce development partnerships at the local and regional level. These leaders understand the three elements of a healthy and growing economy: talent, business, and place,” said Mary Jo Callan, the county’s Director of Community & Economic Development.

The primary catalyst for the County’s economic development activity is an organization called Ann Arbor SPARK, which fosters high tech and innovative businesses through every stage of development. SPARK created the Washtenaw County Incubator Collaborative (WCIC) in partnership with MC3 Business Accelerator and the Michigan Research Institute. The two-year project will work to increase collaboration between incubators and entrepreneurs, and address the challenges faced by startup businesses. WCIC’s effort will focus on the medical device and defense industries as well as other high growth industries in the County.

Washtenaw County’s improving economic outlook is also having a positive effect on the local housing market. Home sale prices in the County increased 18 percent in 2013 and all 25 municipalities in the County experienced gains in average home values for the first time since before the recession. It is forecasted that the construction industry in Washtenaw County will grow by more than 11 percent, or 365 jobs, through 2016, due in large part to the increase in residential construction brought on by increased employment.

6. Cumberland County, Maine

(Population 285,456)

Ranked 6th in the Fourth Economy Community Index for large Counties, Cumberland County is Maine’s most populous county. For years it has been credited for driving the economy of the entire state of Maine. Job growth in Cumberland County is projected to continue its current upward trend. Portland, Cumberland County’s principle city, is an enchanting mix of old and new. The city boasts a burgeoning arts and cultural scene along with a healthy mix of recreational activities, like dinner cruises, boat tours, light houses, strolls along the promenade and much more. Across the county, residents enjoy access to local farmers and fresh food, rapid employment growth, a strong base of individual and micro-entrepreneurs, and a very large percentage of educated and engaged citizens.

7. Lancaster County, Nebraska

(Population 297,036)
Lancaster County Nebraska, ranked 7th in the Fourth Economy Community Index for large counties, is home to the State Capitol city of Lincoln. Over the past few years, Lancaster County has enjoyed a growing and relatively youthful population. We suspect that great housing prices, increasing average weekly wages, and increasing job opportunities are among the many things that are attracting young professionals between the ages of 25 and 34. Lancaster County leads the state of Nebraska in total number of farms with over 1500 distinct farms. More than just farms, Lancaster County boast an entire spread of outdoor recreational activities including parks, outdoor gardens, and the State Games of America (previously the Cornhusker State Games) now in its 30th year.

8. Forsyth County, North Carolina

(Population 361,220)
Forsyth County, home to Winston-Salem, came in 8th in the Fourth Economy Community Index for large counties across the nation. The FEC Index ranking follows shortly after Forsyth County was ranked by the state of North Carolina as one of its highest performing counties economically. For three years in a row, Forsyth County earned this award showing that a combination of education, investment, and collaboration can lead to economic success. Forsyth County stood out among FEC Index large size counties because of the rapid population increases (especially among young workers aged 25 to 34), growing wealth of local citizens and a high amount of diversity- especially among business owners and young professionals. Young professionals are supported with grant programs to encourage small business development, revitalize downtown, and rehabilitate old and dilapidated homes.

9. Boone County, Missouri

(Population 170,773)
Boone County Missouri, home to Columbia and the flagship campus of the University of Missouri system, is ranked 9th in the large county Fourth Economy Community Index. A charming mix of educational opportunities, film festivals, sporting events, outdoor activities, corporate headquarters and rural farming, Boone County is an example of economic and social resiliency. Combined with a flourishing arts scene and a myriad of retail and dining options, Boone County has become quite a tourist destination over the years. Rock Bridge Memorial State Park is among the most interesting cave and rock formations with a spring and an underground stream. County leadership has preserved the sensitive environments surrounding urban areas, including two other parks and agricultural lands, while encouraging economic activity in city centers. The youthful and educated population of Boone County further increases the potential for future growth and investment in the county.

10. Stearns County, Minnesota

(Population 152,092)

Stearns County Minnesota has been on the cutting edge of public policy innovations that cut across all sectors of the economy- from food and livestock manufacturing to Broadband access and from workforce development to innovative approaches to domestic violence policy. Stearns County residents and policy makers are willing to come together to improve the community and the economy with innovative and sometimes risky new programs. However, the risks are bringing in huge rewards. Stearns County is a racially, culturally and ethnically diverse community. Serving this diversity are shops, festivals, markets, recreational activities, foods, clothing, and many other interesting novelties. With over 17 parks, and miles of walking trails, Stearns County has just the right balance of talent, place, investment, diversity and sustainability to round out the top 10 Fourth Economy Community Index Large Counties.

About Fourth Economy Consulting

Fourth Economy Consulting is a national economic development consulting firm specializing in regional economic development and community planning, market analytics,, community assessments and organization building. Our team of experienced practitioners helps businesses, communities and non-profit organizations achieve their market potential.