Recognizing economic and community success.

The Fourth Economy Index (#FECIndex) highlights counties that understand the balance of factors it takes to retain and attract talent, support business growth, and create the environment for a vibrant place.

When we started the Fourth Economy Index back in 2012, we were looking to prove with data what we already knew to be true: while job growth and investment are good indicators of a community’s progress, they are not enough. Our continued experience has shown that our analysis must also look at factors that create a foundation for sustained success and resilience. This edition of the Index embodies five years of modeling and examines factors at the county level within five areas: Investment, Talent, Sustainability, Place, and Diversity.

Today, more than ever, we believe that a community must pay attention to each of these to realize success.

Top 10 Large-Sized Communities for 2017

(population 150,000 to 499,999)

  1. Arlington County, Virginia
  2. Chesapeake County (Norfolk), Virginia
  3. Shawnee County, Kansas
  4. Chittenden County, Vermont
  5. Pulaski County, Arkansas
  6. Albany County, New York
  7. Hampden County, Massachusetts
  8. Minnehaha County, South Dakota
  9. Peoria County, Illinois
  10. Champaign County, Illinois

Top 10 Mid-Sized Communities for 2017

(population 50,000 to 149,999)

  1. Christian County, Kentucky
  2. Riley County, Kansas
  3. Rockingham County (Harrisonburg), Virginia
  4. Curry County, New Mexico
  5. Liberty County, Georgia
  6. Eagle County, Colorado
  7. Vernon Parish, Louisiana
  8. Story County, Iowa
  9. Roanoke County, Virginia
  10. Cascade County, Montana

Published July 2017

How does the Fourth Economy Community Index work?

Key data for the Fourth Economy Community Index are collected from sources like the Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, the CDC, HUD, and others. Metrics that make up the five areas of Investment, Talent, Sustainability, Place, and Diversity range from traditional economic development concepts (like labor force, wages, and entrepreneurial activity) to ideas with origins in other disciplines (like measures of diversity, toxic releases reported to the EPA, and access to arts and entertainment). The full dataset contains 19 distinct measures, which are weighted based on observations of the data using multivariate analysis, and on the level of influence they have on both internal and external investment decisions.

Because counties experience unique challenges and opportunities based on key attributes like population size, we divide counties into four classification categories based on population: Mega-, Large-, Mid-, and Small-size categories. From here, we can observe the data and dig into what works without aspiring to one definition of success that is based solely on big cities.

Competition among communities for new talent and responsible investment is fierce.

The Fourth Economy team has witnessed firsthand the ways that communities and organizations are responding to a new economic reality. After five years of modeling and countless community and economic development projects, we continue to learn new ways that a lot about how and why competitive communities are attracting sustainable investment in the “fourth economy”.

Fourth Economy Community Index 2017

Large-Sized Counties (population 150,000 to 499,999)

  1. Arlington County, Virginia

At the top of the list for large counties is Arlington County, VA. Just outside of Washington, DC, this county topped the list for its high scores in Talent, Diversity, and Place. Its proximity to our nation’s capital makes it an ideal location for residents who work there, and Arlington has a knack for combining neighborhood charm with urban amenities. In addition to experiencing dramatic population growth in recent years, Arlington County boasts a strong talent base made up of residents who are highly educated and diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and age. Despite DC’s reputation for a high cost of living and longer-than-desirable commute times, a median-income household in Arlington County spends less of its total budget on housing and transportation than most counties nationwide. A vibrant business community, lots of arts and entertainment, and low unemployment all contribute to a higher quality of life for this #1 community.

  1. Chesapeake County (Norfolk), Virginia

Chesapeake County, also in VA, took #2 for large counties. While in some ways the top two could not be more different, one thing they have in common is a healthy mix of residents of all ages. Chesapeake also scored highly in Talent and Diversity as well as experiencing a resurgence in the arts. Although not quite an extreme increase in population, Chesapeake has seen steady growth in recent years, especially among millennials, and is now seeing an increase in private investment and real estate development in its urban core to meet demand.

  1. Shawnee County, Kansas

Shawnee County, KS is home to the state capital of Topeka and placed #3 for large counties based on its strengths in Place and Talent, as well as its emerging opportunities in Diversity and Sustainability. With a low unemployment rate, reasonable commute, and respectable average wage, Shawnee County, KS offers a comfortable lifestyle. Its strong presence of minority and women-owned businesses and high rate of establishments per capita overall point not only to a strong business community, but also to one that is more inclusive than the average county. Because Shawnee includes both the state capital and rural areas, there are a variety of living and working options that make this an attractive place to visit or stay.

  1. Chittenden County, Vermont

Coming in as the fourth large county is Chittenden County, Vermont, with high scores in Sustainability, Place, and Talent. Home to the city of Burlington, Chittenden has been investing largely in transit-oriented development to help increase their housing supply. The addition of a new transit center will add another option for transportation in an area known for also keeping up with its bike infrastructure.

With a strategic location on Lake Champlain, Chittenden County has been able to leverage recreation culture as a main attraction to the area, according to Diana Colangelo, Project and Policy Specialist for the City of Burlington. A recently developed skate park and investment in a fitness trail along the lake have helped promote an active and healthy lifestyle. When asked what vision guides economic development decisions in the region, Colangelo says that both regional and local plans come into play.

  1. Pulaski County, Arkansas

Pulaski County, Arkansas boasts short commute times and a diverse local economy, with high scores in the Place and Talent categories. The Venture Center in Little Rock attracts financial technology entrepreneurs from all over to the area to compete for investment and mentorship. Jay Chesshir, President & CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, cites the presence of this center, the medical school at University of Arkansas Little Rock, and the Little Rock Air Force Base as contributors to Little Rock “becoming a melting pot.” Also, Chesshir says that a variety of housing options, all within a short drive of the urban center, allow people to find what they need no matter what they are looking for within the area

  1. Albany County, New York

Albany County, New York. The capital county has made efforts over the past decade to grow its economy beyond its existing strengths in state jobs and healthcare. According to the CEO of the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce, Mark Eagan, “We want jobs that fit the educational aspirations of our children and grandchildren. If you have a GED or a PhD and you want to live and work here, you can.” Albany County has high scores in both the Talent and the Place categories. The variety of educational accomplishments, the availability of corresponding, and higher quality of place amenities including arts and culture options all contribute to Albany’s place on the top ten list. Like Chittenden County, VT, Albany also adopts a regional economic development vision: in this case, an eight-county regional economic development strategy is supported by the State.

  1. Hampden County, Massachusetts

Hampden County is strong in Talent, Diversity, and Place measures, and is unique on this list due to its status as a county in geography only. Hampden County boasts higher average wages than many counties as well as a strong business community. The mix of families and individuals driving Hampden County’s population growth have helped support the changing economy as manufacturing has declined over the years and the county’s economy has become more diverse, and as a result, more stable.

  1. Minnehaha County, South Dakota

Minnehaha County, South Dakota has strengths in Place, Investment, and Talent, and has experienced a whopping 8% in population growth over the past five years. Along with the increase in the population of Minnehaha and the Sioux Falls area, the county also has a robust business community and has seen increasing development to meet demand, as illustrated by the blossoming bedroom communities around Sioux Falls.

  1. Peoria County, Illinois

Coming in at #9 for large counties is Peoria County, Illinois. Part of Peoria County’s success is an economy with a history of diversification, and this community also has high scores in Talent and Place measures. Peoria County is known as the North American headquarters to Caterpillar, Inc., a principal employer in the community. However, Peoria avoided becoming a company town. Christopher Setti, the Assistant City Manager for the City of Peoria, says the diversified economy stems from “Community leaders in the 80s and 90s.” Today, Peoria boasts higher quality of life amenities, a healthy mix of age and educational attainment and relatively affordable housing and transportation options. While many counties with diverse populations struggle to build inclusive economies, Peoria County is home to a higher share of minority and women-owned businesses than the average county.

  1. Champaign County, Illinois

Champaign County, with an economy strengthened by higher education and research, technology, healthcare, and agribusiness, found its place in the top ten based on high scores in Sustainability, Talent, and Place. Champaign also has an emerging strength in Investment. Champaign County, home to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, boasts retail diversity only behind Chicago in the state and is also a regional center for arts and culture for Central Illinois. Many people move to or visit Champaign because of its regional appeal, and residents tend to stick around because of its relative affordability, employment opportunities and arts and culture amenities.

Mid-Sized Counties  (population 50,000 to 149,999)

  1. Christian County, Kentucky

Christian County, Kentucky, number one for this year’s mid-sized county, received high scores in Talent and had emerging strengths in Diversity and Place. Their forward-thinking initiatives on sustainability, employment, and transportation support a healthy economy and quality of life.

Positioned in the southwestern Kentucky, this county has a largely agrarian economy and is also home to the Fort Campbell North army base. “To the agribusiness community, sustainability and sustainable practices are a part of their culture,” according to Liana Mitchell Wallace, Director of the Southwestern Kentucky Economic Development Council. “The land is important, and you protect it because it’s your livelihood.” To balance agricultural heritage with a 21st-century approach to problem-solving, some of Christian County’s innovative solutions include a tri-county partnership for better coordination and data sharing among utilities, and in 2015, the county seat of Hopkinsville launched a new bus transit system with routing decisions informed by City commuting data.

  1. Riley County, Kansas

Riley County, Kansas, ranked number 2 among mid-sized counties, is home to Kansas State University as well at the Fort Riley Military Base. Its score revealed strengths in Talent as well as Place. In the past five years, Riley County has experienced a sharp 9% increase in population. The mix of older and younger people due to a military base and college help ensure a sustainable workforce and contribute to a healthy balance of educational attainment. Riley Kansas also boasts a short commute time, a high level of employment, and lots of arts and cultural activity. The relatively recent development of the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility has helped promote more development and investment into the area.

  1. Rockingham County (Harrisonburg), Virginia

Coming in at number 3 is Rockingham County, Virginia with strengths in Talent, Place, Diversity, and Sustainability, and has also seen significant population growth in recent years. James Madison University undoubtedly contributes to the steady supply of working-age talent, and the number of establishments per capita suggests a vibrant business community. In fact, Rockingham County’s diverse population contributes significantly to the local economy: the county is home to more minority and women-owned businesses than most others nationally. Residents enjoy a higher quality of life with amenities like arts and culture as well as a reasonable commute. They also benefit from the recent investment in and renaissance of its urban center Downtown Harrisonburg, which is a result of and contributor to the area’s strengths.

  1. Curry County, New Mexico

Curry County, NM is a county at a crossroads. It received high scores in the Talent category, especially due to recent population growth, a significant share of that population is working age and a stable rate of employment. Curry County also boasts a diverse population and a lower-than-average rate of business bankruptcy.

This community is unique on our list because of its strengths, Curry County faces some unique challenges, especially concerning higher quality of life amenities, and the data does not yet reflect a steady rate of minority and women-owned businesses despite the diversity reflected in its population. In recent years, Curry County has invested in its infrastructure including both conventional and renewable energy, and the USDA recently announced a regional economic development program that Curry County is participating with alongside its neighbor counties. This community shows serious potential in the data, and with the recent investment in strengthening the region a transformation is on the horizon.

  1. Liberty County, Georgia

Liberty County, Georgia, a county about 30 minutes south of Savannah, scored highly in the Talent category and is gaining momentum in the Investment category. With the Port of Savannah as the 3rd largest container port in the United States, Liberty County attracts a large amount of foreign direct investment that brings not only jobs but a diverse population as well. Liberty County focuses not just on attracting investment and firms to the county but also on retention. Describing his business retention philosophy, Liberty County Development Authority CEO Ron Tolley states, “We’re not just about recruitment. We certainly do engage in that, but we never forget: when companies have located here, they have stayed here and expanded.”

Liberty County is also home to the Fort Stewart Army base, providing a skilled workforce with 3-400 people leaving the military every month. Tolley describes the base as an economic asset due to the skills and training received there, and he works locally to ensure that people leaving the military have good employment options and a quality of life that makes them want to stay.

  1. Eagle County, Colorado

Eagle County, Colorado received high scores in Talent, Investment, Place, and shows potential in the Diversity category. Situated in the mountains and surrounded by White River National Forest, the county is filled with small businesses frequented by tourists and locals and is also a popular skiing destination. To preserve these assets, Eagle County has become a beacon of environmental responsibility.

Much of the economic success in this county is dependent on the attractive outdoor activities and culture. According to Chris Romer, the President and CEO of Vail Valley Economic Development, “our entire reason for being is outdoor recreation…. If we don’t take care of our local environment, it impacts everything.” The strong tourism industry means there are lots of things to do, the abundance of jobs, and lots of businesses that benefit from the extra visitors. Although the community benefits from these activities, tourists aren’t the only ones venturing out to Eagle County; the community is experiencing population growth and that growth is being met with increasing investment in buildings and increasing number of new small businesses.

  1. Vernon Parish, Louisiana

At #7 on our list is Vernon Parish, Louisiana, with high scores in Talent and Diversity and an emerging strength in Place. Vernon Parish has a growing population that is diverse, young, and talented. The area scored highly in the affordability of housing and transportation to households with a median income, suggesting that the community has a good chance of retaining these key demographics. In fact, preserving affordability is a priority of the Vernon Parish Chamber of Commerce. Like some other counties, Vernon Parish is home to a diverse population but has not seen as high a rate in minority and women-owned businesses as similarly diverse counties. It also could use additional investment in small businesses in general, and with higher quality of life assets like arts and entertainment to bolster its small town charm. With this in mind, Vernon Parish received a high over all score and has a solid talent base. Vernon Parish is another community we will be keeping an eye on!

  1. Story County, Iowa

Story County, Iowa, home to Iowa State University in Ames, is #8 on our list. With strengths in Talent, Place, and Investment, Story County is prospering. Along with a high rate of educational attainment and a balance between youth and older population, Story County also boasts a healthy climate for investment. In 2009, Ames was voted by CNN as one of the best places to start a business. In more recent years, venture capital funding from Silicon Valley and other sources has been flowing into the area to support Iowa State University graduates innovations in agritech. The country scored above the average for the rate of development and the number healthy firms found in the community.

  1. Roanoke County, Virginia

Coming in at number 9 in the mid-sized ranking is Roanoke County, Virginia. Located on the I-81 corridor, this county boasts short commute times to work, strong average wages, and a healthy talent base. However, it’s the efforts in placemaking that Jill Loope, the Director of the Department of Economic Development for Roanoke is most proud; “Place is the focus of our forward momentum – it is one of the strategic directions we are moving in county-wide.” She credits the investment in outdoor recreation, like greenways and blueways, as not only promoting a healthy economy but also improving public health.

The vibrant outdoor recreation economy is complemented by a stable medical and health system. These businesses bring more a diverse group of people to the area, who in turn put down roots and start businesses. As a result, Roanoke County achieved its top 10 ranking with strengths in Talent, Diversity, and Place.

  1. Cascade County, Montana

Rounding out the top 10 mid-sized counties is Cascade County, Montana, with strengths in Place, Sustainability, and Investment. The land which Lewis and Clark explored on the expedition across America has views of picturesque waterfalls on the Missouri River. Investing in its recreation assets, Great Falls, the county seat for Cascade County, has added to River’s Edge Trail along the Missouri River almost every year with the current distance of 60 miles long.

According to Brett Doney, CEO and President of the Great Falls Development Authority, “the biggest efforts have been neighborhood connections to the trail.” Doney also states that Cascade County has one of the lowest average commute times to work in the county and that the community has been working to increase housing availability and affordability and to spur more homeownership. With such strong scores in Investment, Sustainability, and Place, along with steady population growth, Cascade County may just jump higher on the list in years to come.