Zuma Press file
Los Alamos County, N.M., tops the list as the best place to live in terms of quality of living. Pictured is Bandelier National Park.
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updated 5/27/2004 4:39:06 PM ET 2004-05-27T20:39:06

Don Taylor wasn't satisfied with life in Rhode Island. So he decided to search for something better beyond his state's borders — maybe way out West.

His quest ended in Los Alamos, N.M.

"The pace in New England is kind of stressful. It's almost claustrophobic," says Taylor, a photographer who moved to Los Alamos 20 years ago. "But here, it's different. It's relaxed. We've got wide open spaces, and the people are laid back."

Taylor's praise is reinforced by a new American City Business Journals study, which says that Los Alamos offers the best quality of life anywhere in America.

ACBJ used 20 statistical indicators to rate living conditions in all 3,141 counties and independent cities across the nation.

Topping the list is Los Alamos County, located about 30 miles northwest of Santa Fe, N.M. Rounding out the top five are Olmsted County, Minn., which includes the city of Rochester; the Colorado counties of Pitkin and Douglas; and Loudoun County, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C.

Affluence plays a role in the rankings, which reward counties whose residents have large incomes, big homes and college degrees. But high scores are also given for qualities not directly related to earning power, such as racial diversity, short commuting times and the availability of affordable housing.

Los Alamos' No. 1 ranking is a reflection of its prosperity and stability. The county's largest employer is the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which developed the first atomic bomb during World War II. The lab's facilities cover 43 square miles, devoted primarily to nuclear, biomedical and energy research.

Its presence is the main reason that 68 percent of the workers in Los Alamos County hold managerial or professional positions — scientists, engineers, lawyers, doctors and teachers among them. That's the highest concentration of such top-level jobs in any U.S. county.

The median household income in Los Alamos, $78,993 per year, is surpassed by just four other counties in America. (Median is a midpoint, with half of the county's households earning more and half earning less.)

"I looked at those demographics before I moved here," says Taylor, owner of Memory Maker Portraits. "My business is kind of a luxury item. When families need to scale back, it's the luxury items that get cut, like portraits. But the average income here is high, and that makes a difference."

Olmsted County, Minn., which is No. 2 in the ACBJ study, also has a robust, high-profile employer, helping to generate strong levels of income and education. About 27,000 residents of the Rochester metropolitan area work at the famed Mayo Clinic.

Olmsted County is no stranger to success in studies of this type. Money magazine has rated the Rochester area No. 1 on three different quality-of-life lists since 1993.

"People expect us to say how nice life is here. After all, that's our job," says Gary Smith, executive vice president of Rochester Area Economic Development Inc. "So it's good to have these third-party endorsements, if you will, these objectively subjective ratings."

Third place in ACBJ's rankings belongs to Pitkin County, Colo., best known for its glitzy county seat, Aspen — once a booming silver-mining town and now one of the nation's most expensive ski resorts.

Then comes No. 4 Douglas County, located between Denver and Colorado Springs. It has the distinction of being the third-fastest-growing county in America, according to a recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Colorado, in fact, outperforms all other states in ACBJ's quality-of-life study, filling nine slots in the national top 50. Most of its outstanding counties can be found in the Rocky Mountains or the high desert in the western half of the state.

"A lot of the interest in this part of Colorado has to do with scenic values," says Lance Stewart, president of the Western Colorado Economic Alliance. "People moving to western Colorado are looking for opportunities to own a piece of property and work from that property — and have recreational amenities, as well."

Three other states claim at least five counties in the national top 50 — Virginia (eight), Minnesota (six) and Georgia (five).

Virginia's top representative holds fifth place overall. Loudoun County, which is northwest of Washington, lies directly in the path of metropolitan development — a point of contention between newly arrived commuters and those who remember Loudoun's placid, rural history.

And that's a key point. Even the counties at the very top of the list have imperfections — the lack of affordable housing in Pitkin County or the suburban sprawl in Douglas and Loudoun counties — even though their overall scores are strong.

ACBJ not only produced national quality-of-life rankings, but also broke down the results by population groups and individual states.

Fairfax County, Va., has the highest rating among counties with 500,000 residents or more. Other leaders are Olmsted County, Minn., in the 100,000-to-500,000 group, Juneau, Alaska, in the 25,000-to-100,000 classification, and Los Alamos among counties with populations of 25,000 or less.

ACBJ's report puts a twist on traditional quality-of-life studies, which almost always focus on metropolitan areas, thereby leaving out smaller communities. This study encompasses data for every county and independent city in the nation, generating ratings for all parts of America.

The results are naturally of interest to companies and individuals in search of new homes. But they won't outweigh critical economic factors, says Rochester's Smith. Companies still will be primarily concerned about the availability of workers and markets, he says, while individuals still will worry most about good jobs.

"Quality of life isn't the first thing they're asking about," says Smith. "It's not the biggest factor they'll base their decision on. But it can be one of those things that, in the end, can tip the balance your way."

American City Business Journals, Inc.

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