Fastest-growing cities seek to beat recession soonest

Cities in Texas, North Carolina, and California dominated the top 10 list of fastest-growing US cities in 2008.

By , Staff writer

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    New Orleans's Marigny neighborhood at sunrise. The Crescent City, which continues to rebuild almost four years after Hurricane Katrina, topped a Census Bureau list of fastest growing US cities.
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Some of America's fastest-growing cities – from Round Rock, Texas, to Raleigh, N.C. – were the last to slip into the recession. Now they are hoping to harness their momentum and slingshot their way out of it.

“We can either sit back and wait for President Obama to send us a check, or we can take control of our own future,” says Alan McGraw, mayor of Round Rock, the Austin suburb that was the second-fastest-growing US city between 2007 and 2008.

Cities in Texas, California, Arizona, Louisiana, and North Carolina dominated the ranks of fastest-growing cities, according to a Census Bureau report released Wednesday. New York City was the numerical winner, gaining 53,000 residents.

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But New Orleans topped the list in percentage terms, reflecting continued rebuilding after hurricane Katrina. Texas hosts four of the top 10 cities, including Round Rock – which was No. 2 – Killeen (9), Fort Worth (10), and McKinney (5).

The others include Raleigh (8) and Cary (3) in North Carolina; Roseville (6) and Irvine (7) in California; and Gilbert (4), in Arizona. Faltering tourism and a free-falling real-estate market seem to have taken the wind out of North Las Vegas, which dropped from No. 4 in 2007 to No. 19 last year.

To be sure, much has happened since the rankings closed at the end of 2008. Growth in Raleigh and Round Rock, which had hovered at over 5 percent, is down to 2 percent.

But nearly all the chart-toppers share specific traits. Good public schools, partnerships between businesses and universities, entrepreneurship, low crime rates, and cultural outlets such as museums and minor-league ballparks have turned places such as Raleigh from a backwater capital to a perennial rankings-topper in business and lifestyle magazines.

Some of these cities have been growing steadily for years. And their mayors say they’re using the experience of attracting people during the good times to come up with strategies to shake off the current doldrums.

The rise of Round Rock

Until recently, Round Rock was a one-trick pony. The world headquarters of Dell Computers, the city basked in sales tax largess and job-creation from one of America’s most popular computer manufacturers.

Today, the city is seeing the largest-ever expansion of the Austin Community College District and is awaiting the opening of the Texas A&M Health Science Center. It’s also working with developers to energize its sleepy downtown.

“We’re not betting that the economy is going to magically get better one day,” says Mr. McGraw, the Round Rock mayor.

Raleigh, too, is positioning itself for a rebound. The city is expanding its parks and transit system and improving public safety.

“We’re trying to position ourselves to be one of the first communities to come out of the recession,” says Mayor Charles Meeker. “We’ve been fortunate so far, but we need to keep rolling.”

A concentration of growth?

But there are also limits to what such places can teach other struggling cities.

The key factors to their growth – including what demographers call “talent-clustering” – are crucial not just to their ability to withstand recessionary forces, but could reshape American lives in the aftermath of the recession, some researchers say.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, urban theorist Richard Florida posited that the recession is likely to ultimately accelerate growth around already-large cities like Austin and Raleigh, posing new challenges for straggling areas.

“The coming decades will likely see a further clustering of output, jobs, and innovation in a smaller number of bigger cities and city-regions,” writes Mr. Florida. “Properly shaping that growth will be one of the government’s biggest challenges.”

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