Image: Bethesda Urban Partnership
Bethesda Urban Partnership
Depending which magazine you believe, Bethesda, Md., is either the nation's No. 5 place to ‘live and launch’ or No. 104 on a list of ‘best places for business and careers.’
By MSNBC contributor
updated 6/11/2008 8:14:19 PM ET 2008-06-12T00:14:19

Pity the puzzled people of Bethesda, Md.

These days, they’re not sure whether their city resides among America’s upper crust or wallows somewhere closer to “Loserville.” They’ve been painted both ways by national magazines — although that’s not unusual for many U.S. towns.

Within the proliferating pack of “best places” lists, discrepancies are as common as corner coffee shops. One magazine or Web site may celebrate your city as a metro marvel, while another paints your burg as a gusher of civic flop sweat. Money magazine once owned the market on magazine best-place lists. Today there are at least 10 such lists in major magazines and Web sites.

In two recent articles, Bethesda was stroked by Fortune Small Business magazine as the No. 5 place in the country to “live and launch” while it simultaneously lingered at No. 104 on Forbes magazine’s list of “best places for business and careers.”

Fortune Small Business said tax credits and healthy job growth — along with low crime and an abundance of restaurants — earned Bethesda an elite ranking. Forbes said the high costs of living and doing business caused Bethesda to tumble behind Fort Smith, Ark., Camden N.J. and 103 other U.S. cities.

So if you live in Bethesda, what’s the right reaction? Glee? Anger? Severe mood swings?

“Your head is spinning,” acknowledged Craig Matters, executive editor at Money magazine, the publication that helped start the best-list fad decades ago (Bethesda didn’t make Money’s most recent top 100). “Look, it opens us all up to a lot of criticism, some justified and some not, no question,” he said.

Split civic personality
Bethesda’s marketers, meanwhile, have adopted a split civic personality.

“If we’re real high on a list, we like it. We even use it in our promotional materials,” said Kevin Maloney, chair of the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce. “If we’re low, we don’t use it — and we think there’s something wrong with what the publication said.”

Best U.S. placesDisparities dot the best-places tallies for an array of reasons — selection methods vary, some Web sites and magazines rely on old data, and many of their judgments range beyond the numbers into the realm of opinion. But there’s something else. There’s an editorial bias, several editors acknowledged. Each publication is trying to reach a target audience and that skews the outcome, these editors said. For example, where Forbes is concerned about the tax rates on local business, Money is more apt to consider whether a town is family-friendly and affordable.

“There’s the readership that a magazine has, why they’re coming to the publication, and there’s the image the magazine wants to project to the world,” Money magazine’s Matters said.

“We all have our own lens, our own specific way of focusing [the lists],” agreed Stacy Cowley, Web editor at Fortune Small Business, which looked for both thriving commercial environments and leisure opportunities in doing its 2008 evaluation.

Beyond the leanings of different editors, some lists are simply assembled with more thought, more analysis, more on-the-ground reporting. Does that make those municipal honor rolls better? It depends.

Look at Money’s intense methodology. In 2007, the magazine filtered through income rates, school test scores, crime rates, growth rates, cost of living statistics, health care availability, racial diversity, job markets, housing prices and more. After the numbers were churned, Money writers visited the towns to get an even closer view. (Money’s pick for No. 1 small town was Middleton, Wis., and Chicago was its No. 1 big city).

Meanwhile, Relocate-America.com, which has been publishing best-places lists for 11 years, accepted “great place” suggestions from its Web visitors. Nominees were judged on education data, environmental policies, economic opportunity, parks and recreation choices and real estate options. (Charlotte, N.C., was the Web site’s No. 1).

But Bert Sperling, the man credited as the father of the best-places concept, said he had to scratch his head at Relocate-America’s populist approach. The author of “Cities Ranked & Rated” and an adviser to Money, Forbes and Fortune Small Business on their lists, Sperling argued that some publications or Web sites give too much weight to niche factors when critiquing the overall picture of a metro area.

“It is the choice of the information [that’s sometimes off]. Maybe a magazine will focus on one small thing and then they’ll say, if this thing is good, it means this place is good,” Sperling said, adding that in some cases they’re missing the big picture.

Readers of any best-places list should look for four things to ensure the material is valid, Sperling said. Does the magazine describe how it generated its rankings, and reveal the criteria it used? Do the editors explain which benchmarks were deemed most important? Do they provide a full list of the cities appraised or just a cursory top 10? Do they divulge where and when they got their data?

Of course, it’s not just a magazine’s credibility that’s at stake. To many cities, these best-place roundups are invaluable — or harmful.

No. 200 slap stings
Raleigh, N.C., grabbed the top rung on the Forbes list in 2007 and 2008. The city has nine new hotels opening this year and a new convention center that begins operations in September.

Best U.S. places“When you get those accolades, you can’t buy that kind of business,” said Dennis Edwards, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s [now] part of our presentation when we’re pitching conventions. And it’s part of our family and leisure business, too, so we’ll take those accolades and speak to them in our electronic communication, print and radio ads.”

At the bottom of Forbes magazine’s best places for business and careers lists in 2007 and 2008 is Salinas, Calif., which was listed in the 200th and last spot both years. The city scored low in job growth and the cost of doing business.

“This strikes me as a statistical anomaly,” said Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue, who pointed out that Salinas is 20 minutes from Monterey and near the heart of Silicon Valley. “We have real opportunities. In this case, I view the rating as uniformed and a more [data-driven] formula than anything.”

At the same time, Donohue acknowledged that while the No. 200 slap stings a bit, it also can serve as a rallying cry.

“My mantra is peace, prosperity and image. So I fully understand that image is critical,” Donohue said. “I’m under no illusion. We have real challenges. This allows me to say: ‘Hey, look, we’ve got to compete for business, and this is where we’ve got to come from.’”

But take heart, Salinas. With the boom of best-places lists — and the widely varying selection styles — your city could wind up at the peak of another tally before long. In fact, Salinas already is considered the No. 21 greenest city by Country Home magazine. There also are publications and programs that rank cities for innovation (Fast Company), friendliness (NBC’s TODAY Show), and for retaining Old West culture (American Cowboy Magazine).

Why is America suddenly thick with a bumper crop of alleged best places? It’s pure marketing fueled by a good dash of old-fashioned hometown pride. The lists sell magazines and lure Web site visitors. Fortune Small Business counted 9 million visitors to its online best-places list in April. That’s more traffic than the magazine’s entire Web site got the previous month, according to Web editor Cowley.

“It seems like nothing hits people so hard as talking about where they live,” Cowley said. “They do care a whole lot. Of all the lists we could run, talking about where people live is the one what makes people the most passionate and the most vocal.”

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