Small-town charm meets big-city buzz

She could have moved anywhere - Miami, Phoenix, maybe Dallas. But Donnetta Alig, a sprightly grandmother with puffy blond hair, chose a tiny city in the midst of Indiana's rolling cornfields, a city called Columbus.

And in moving here last month from Iowa, this retiring educator tripped into a quietly growing national trend.

Demographers have a term for Columbus and about 200 increasingly popular cities like it across the nation. They call them "micropolitans."

These mini metro areas have a critical mass of cultural and economic spunk - and lack much of the crime, congestion, and strip malls that plague many big cities and suburbs. They're the home base of choice for a growing number of Americans.

In fact, the Census Bureau recently reported that cities with populations of 10,000 to 50,000 grew at the fastest rate - 8.6 percent - of any city-size category from 1990 to 1998.

"As metro areas spread outward, there are smaller cities that happen to find themselves in the metropolitan orbit," explains David Rain, a Census Bureau geographer. "Often they're very stable and safe and charming" - and attractive. "It's definitely a national trend."

So far, Ms. Alig loves life in her micropolitan, a city of 37,000 people that's known nationally for its world-class architecture. She has already found a writer's group. (She's writing a historical novel based on her family's history in the Midwest.)

And she's already signed up for season tickets at the local philharmonic orchestra. (Yes, the city has one - plus a well-known children's choir and a gallery-sized branch of the Indianapolis art museum.)

"I'm getting plugged in more quickly than I ever dreamed," she says, rocking gently in an overstuffed chair in her angular blue-gray house in one of Columbus's several new subdivisions.

A perfect blend

For many who choose them, micropolitans have just the right mix of small-town friendliness and big-city buzz. Alig tells of heading to a Glenn Miller Orchestra concert three weeks ago: "I was walking across the street and all of a sudden this woman is talking to me."

Turns out they were both educators and kept up the conversation through the whole concert. She has also found connections in several of the city's many churches.

People like Alig choose micros for many reasons: to retire to, to raise a family in, to escape metropolitan-size hassles. And there are lots of these mini cities to choose from. The list includes Fairbanks, Alaska, Key West, Fla., and many places in between.

They typically have about 50,000 people. Some are bigger. Many are smaller.

They're often close to a bigger metro area. And they're frequently near some outdoorsy hot spot. Port Angeles, Wash., for instance, is bounded on one side by the glimmering Strait of Juan de Fuca and on the other by the Olympic Mountains. Others, such as Ithaca, N.Y., and Bozeman, Mont., are college towns.

Most micros are also devoid of one of the biggest daily hassles of metropolitan life: traffic jams. The average travel-to-work time in Minot, N.D., is 12.5 minutes, half the national average, according to "The New Rating Guide to Life in America's Small Cities," a 1997 book about micros.

Cheaper real estate

Home prices in micropolitans are usually lower - typically just 60 percent of the national average, according to the book. And in 1994, micro crime rates were 25 percent lower than in the nation as a whole.

For all their benefits, there are drawbacks. Diversity is sometimes lacking in these often white-bread enclaves.

Some are far away from essentials such as a big airport. And smaller ones have that small-town, fishbowl feel where everybody knows - and cares - about everybody else's business.

But Columbus resident Alice Curry put the benefits of micropolitan life this way: "It's like being a grandparent: You're not stuck with the kids" - or in this case, the traffic jams, the smog, or the sprawl of big cities - "but you can go visit anytime you want."

She heads the city's philharmonic - and goes to New York once a year to soak up big-time arts and culture. But she just moved back to Columbus after several years away - and loves the intimacy of walking down the street and knowing every fourth or fifth person she passes.

Columbus isn't devoid of arts and culture, either. It was included in a list of the top 100 "small art towns" in America.

And then there's architecture. You know something's different about a city when its jail and telephone-switching station are designed by top architects. There's also the library by I.M. Pei, the church by Eliel Saarinen, and the hospital by Robert A.M. Stern - all architectural luminaries.

Columbus became such an architectural powerhouse mostly because in 1957 the city's biggest company, a Fortune 500 called Cummins Engine Co. began to pay the architect's fees for any civic building - as long as the designer was chosen from the firm's list of greats. Pretty soon, the world's top architects were clamoring to construct in Columbus.

An architectural showcase

Now the American Institute of Architects lists Columbus in the top architectural cities along with Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington.

And for all its middle-of-Indiana feel, there is some diversity, thanks mostly to the international companies that have located here.

There are a whopping 16 Japanese firms in town, for instance, bringing a dash of Asian flair to the culture and cuisine.

"We all used to just eat frozen fish," says former mayor Bob Stewart. "Now two places in town serve sushi."

It's all part of the town's evolving transition from quiet Midwestern hamlet to one of the nation's many desirable micropolitan places to live.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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