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15 Most Dynamic Small Cities in the U.S.: 2022

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The pandemic shocked not only the global economy but also “micropolitans” in the U.S. — urban areas with populations between 10,000 and 50,000 residents. Some of these areas not only survived the crisis but thrived, according to a new research report from Heartland Forward, a nonprofit organization.

“Micros heavily dependent on severely COVID-impacted industries have suffered, at least in the short term,” the authors wrote. “Others have benefited from a combination of luck and foresight and have thrived.”

Heartland Forward ranked and analyzed the economic dynamism of 536 micropolitan areas across the U.S., including the core city and the surrounding region, which is one or more counties.

These smaller metropolitan areas tend to be built around a core economic sector, such as oil and gas, recreation or food production, which factored into each community’s ability to weather the pandemic.

For example, the authors noted, “when COVID-19 shuttered the urban amenities that draw many residents to large metropolitans and forced desk-based employees to work from home, the intrigue of an outdoor-centric small town with sufficient internet quality only increased.”

This led many “outdoor-centric” communities to maintain or improve their rankings on Heartland Forward’s list. Communities built around food production similarly benefited, while oil-producing micropolitans suffered.

Researchers studied changes in key economic conditions in each area from 2015 through 2020. They paid special attention to the change in employment from September 2020 through September 2021 to get a better sense of communities’ ability to rebound from the early months of the pandemic.

They also included young-firm (firms aged 5 years or less) employment share to understand an entrepreneur’s ability to start new firms and scale them in each locale, and young-firm knowledge intensity to develop insights into potential innovations driven by educational attainment within these young firms.

See the gallery for the 15 most dynamic micropolitan areas in the U.S., according to Heartland Forward.