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The Breakout Cities on the Forefront of America's -2-

Provo-area software firm Fishbowl Solutions LLC has benefited from the talent emerging from the region's large universities and a tech-forward business community. Fishbowl added 15 employees last year, when it had the biggest revenue gain in its 20-year history. Its workforce now totals 195.

But the city has seen a shortage of workers. "There's a lot of output of tech professionals from the two universities nearby, but even with that, it's been a struggle to find enough development staff," said John David King, Fishbowl's chief executive. "We've done quite a bit of hiring, and some of those have been from out of state."

The move to remote work made it possible for them to bring in staff who live elsewhere, something the company wouldn't have considered before the pandemic, Mr. King said.

The city has been able to attract newcomers with its growing businesses and outdoor amenities. The area's labor force has grown 37% in the past decade, compared with a 5% gain for the U.S.

Provo's population overall has expanded by more than 20% in the past decade. There are only 120 residents per square mile in the broader Provo metro area -- a third the density of Portland, and one-fourth of Austin's, according to Moody's Analytics -- and there is surrounding land for the city to expand. But Provo's urban center is unmistakably busier.

Utah had seen the population boom coming. The state consistently ranks first in the nation in household size, and Provo itself has an average age of 25, one of the youngest of any large U.S. city, according to census data.

In the late 1990s, nonprofit group Envision Utah was formed to develop ideas to handle growth in areas including housing, schools, air quality and traffic.

Population in Utah County, where Provo is located, is expected to double by 2050, said Ari Bruening, Envision Utah's chief executive. The group surveyed thousands of residents about their needs and concerns and unveiled its findings last fall, he said, in what could be guidance for policy makers. The report pointed out the need for smaller residential properties, better roads and public transportation, and additional economic centers accessible by foot.

Central Iowa doesn't have the draw of the Rockies, but its economy shares many of the same advantages as Provo: lighter population densities, an abundance of young college graduates and a large number of companies eager to hire them. In Des Moines, a cluster of financial firms has helped the city endure the slowdown.

Some 32% of jobs in the Des Moines area, which has a population of about 700,000, require at least a college degree, a share similar to Chicago, according to data compiled by Moody's Analytics. Some 14% of the area's jobs are in finance -- a higher percentage than New York City, said Karl Kuykendall, an economist for IHS Markit.

The area's first insurers arrived in Des Moines more than a century ago to meet demand from Midwesterners looking for regional carriers. Their presence, along with favorable state regulations and a lower cost of living than the insurance capitals of the Northeast, drew many more.

"There is an abundance of actuaries, finance and investment professionals and accounting majors within a 50-100 mile radius," said Dan Houston, chief executive of Principal Financial Group, which was founded in Des Moines in 1879.

As Principal and other regional companies shifted to remote work last spring, they noticed a number of native Iowans working elsewhere had returned home. Mr. Houston said he knew of at least a dozen friends and neighbors whose adult children had come back, at least temporarily.

"There's been a full-court press to try to recruit them" for local jobs, he said, noting the homecomings gave former Iowans the opportunity to see how Des Moines's urban core has developed in the years since they left home.

Kelly Mackay, an advertising-sales executive, is among the converted. The 30-year-old Des Moines native left her one-bedroom apartment in Chicago, about a five-hour drive away, last spring to spend the early days of the lockdown with her boyfriend, who had relocated to Des Moines earlier that year for his job at Deere Co., the farm-equipment giant.

During the stay she rediscovered Des Moines, this time as an adult. "A lot has changed," she said. "There are new bars, and a new food scene. Something's happening here." Last fall, Ms. Mackay bought a 2,200-square-foot home for what she said would have been roughly the cost of a one-bedroom condominium in Chicago. She is still working for her Chicago-based firm, but plans to stay in Des Moines.

In Greenville, the housing market is booming. The median January home sale price was 16% higher than it was a year earlier -- the national median home price rose 5.3% in that time -- and the inventory of available homes for sale had fallen 17%. The growth was driven in part by the influx of newcomers, said Jacob Mann, a real-estate agent at Coldwell Banker Caine.

Michael Arcieri and his wife left the New York area last spring to ride out the pandemic in the Greenville region. The Arcieris were living in Jersey City, N.J., in a high-rise apartment with views of Manhattan.

The couple, with a baby on the way, intended to stay with family for a few weeks in Mauldin, S.C., a town a few miles outside Greenville. Their visit stretched to months, and their daughter was born in South Carolina in May 2020.

The couple bought a four-bedroom house five minutes from Greenville's downtown last fall for $850,000, much more space than what that amount would bring in Jersey City, and with much lower property taxes.

"We were paying an arm and a leg to live in New York or New Jersey, because that's where the jobs are," Mr. Arcieri said. "But that's just not the case anymore."

Write to Justin Baer at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 09, 2021 17:17 ET (21:17 GMT)

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