Small Cities Fuel Big Growth

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Nine years ago, dairy cows grazed along the side of Goodman Road in Olive Branch, Mississippi, population 3,567. Today, Goodman Road is a five-lane highway with hotels, sit-down restaurants, warehouse clubs, and, coming soon, you guessed it: Wal-Mart. The population of Olive Branch, about six miles southeast of Memphis and part of the Memphis MSA, topped 12,000 last year - a 238 percent increase in less than a decade - making it America's sixth-fastest-growing city with a population of 10,000 or more, according to new Census estimates. Local forecasts predict a steady climb well into the next century.

Of course, there have been growing pains along the way. Katie Johnson, a Century 21 real estate associate in Olive Branch, remembers when there was only one stoplight in town back in the mid-'80s. Now she deals with constant traffic on Goodman Road where her office is located. But there are opportunities as well. The average price for a starter home ten years ago was about $55,000, Johnson says. Now prices start at $80,000.

Like Olive Branch, many of the country's fastest-growing cities are on the fringes of metropolitan areas. Top-ranked Mesquite, Nevada, which has seen its population jump 441 percent in the 1990s, is a one-hour drive from Las Vegas - but you don't have to go to the gambling mecca to find high rollers. The big five employers in Mesquite are resort casinos; entertainment and recreation account for 52 percent of the jobs in the area. Local projections estimate the city's population will hit 38,000 by 2005.

Retailers are moving in right behind the families in most of these towns. Shortly after Wal-Mart opened a 156,000-square-foot supercenter in Nixa, Missouri (no. 19 on the fastest-growing list), the company said it had underbuilt by 30 percent, says Brian Bingle, the city's planning and development manager. Before Wal-Mart came to Nixa, local residents drove to Springfield, about six miles away, or Branson, a 30-mile jaunt, to shop for clothes and other goods they can now buy right down the street.

While fast-food chains have been "busting down" his door to get into the municipality, Bingle hasn't seen much interest yet from sit-down restaurants. "Nixa still retains its small-town appeal," he adds. "Yesterday at the bank, I overheard a woman from California say that it's such a friendly environment." Does Bingle still wave to people he passes on the street? He laughs, then recovers, and says yes.

To learn more about the Census estimates, visit www/estimates/citypop.html.

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