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Values and Venues

Your Perfect City is a Market Analysis Away

About three and a half years ago, as we were nearing the end of our fifth decade, my wife and I were discussing our retirement plans for the distant future. Indiana had been our home off and on for three-quarters of our lives, but this conservative Midwest state had started to feel stale despite a deep familiarity, memories of childhood, and proximity to friends and family. I reminded my wife that she once wanted to live in New Mexico. “That was when we were living in Colorado,” she said. “And then we moved to Minnesota, and I remembered that I liked the color green.” Well, I suggested, how about Minnesota? Too cold. The south? Too conservative. East coast? Too brusque. California? Too expensive. We were rapidly running out of country.

When my grandparents retired from the Bronx, they moved to Florida, a grand tradition for New York Jews. Although this may have worked well for my ancestry (relocating a community 1,200 miles south to the middle of a swamp), I personally needed a more empirical analysis of the country. I need to study the good, the bad, and the ugly of our nation’s metros. Furthermore, I needed to know my own mind, tease out my own values, challenge my own preconceptions. I needed to make a spreadsheet.

In fact, I discovered that selecting a future retirement destination could be viewed as a market research project where we were the sole customers, and the cities were the products trying to entice us. I came at this project systematically, trying to maintain an objective attitude while keeping all my options open. In the process, I learned that what works well for marketing products to the masses also works well for marketing cities to oneself.

Driver Analysis

In market research, driver analysis is used to predict the variables that drive a customer toward a specific choice or product. Driver analysis is typically conducted by survey research to collect customer values, preferences, and demographics. Mathematical models are then created to determine the relative importance of key variables.

In this case, the driver analysis was qualitative rather than quantitative; the only customers were myself and my wife. We asked ourselves what were we looking for in a new habitat, what we absolutely needed to see, and what we simply wanted to see. In addition, we teased out the “kill factors” that might knock a city out of consideration.

From this, we created a list of primary and secondary drivers. Primary drivers were essential; they directly influenced where we would live. Secondary drivers were supportive; they were negotiable factors that might sway our opinion or simply provide color commentary on our choices.

Every couple, sometime before retirement, should conduct their own primary driver analysis. Do they want to live in a particular part of the country, climate, or geography? Is political climate as important as meteorological climate, and if so, what sort of political landscape do they seek? Do they want a large or small city? Do they want an expensive city with many amenities or a cheaper city with limited resources? Do they want ethnic diversity or a high percentage of a specific ethnic, racial, or religious group? Most importantly, do they both agree on everything?

Luckily, my wife and I agreed on practically everything. We both wanted a small city, preferably fewer than 200,000 people. We wanted a moderate climate: some place with seasons, but with less snow and humidity than Indiana. We wanted to be near water, be it ocean, lake, or river. We wanted a place with liberal politics: progressive reproductive rights, protective LGBTQ policies, and strong gun laws. We wanted ethnic diversity, and we wanted some level of progressive Jewish life. And we wanted lots and lots of vegetarian restaurants.

Performance Indicators

Performance indicators are used by corporations to assess the functioning of the organization or business unit in an understandable, meaningful, and measurable form. They may be quantitative facts or qualitative variables, but they must be measurable. Standard management practice states that key performance indicators should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based).

Performance indicators are created from primary drivers. In selecting a favorite city, these may include demographic and population measures, crime rates, cost of living, or local politics. Some measures may be directly measurable, such as population. Others may be more nuanced, such as political leaning. Data aggregation Websites are handy tools for creating quantifiable political measures from voting patterns, campaign contributions, consumer profiles, and laws and policies.

Most importantly, these measures are highly personal and customer-specific. In our case, our personal performance indicators included cost of living, political composition, ethnic demographics, social attitudes and policies, crime statistics, and, of course vegetarian restaurants per capita.

Data Sources

The Internet is a treasure trove of seemingly authentic information often backed up by questionable assumptions and downright lies. Finding reputable, accurate, consistent, and timely data is critical.

Whenever possible, one should seek out primary sources or industry experts for data. Sources might include US census data for demographics, The Tax Foundation for state income and sales tax rates, Governing.com for tax spending per student, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Reporting database for violent and property crime statistics.

Reputable data aggregators often prove useful. Sperling’s Best Places, founded by Bert Sperling — arguably the country’s top expert on city statistics — is an excellent go-to source for cost of living, real estate, politics, crime rate, and economic indicators. HappyCow is a community-supported database of vegan, vegetarian, and vegetarian-friendly restaurants around the globe.

Political organizations often provide effective indices based on their own ideology. For example, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence provides a scorecard for gun regulations in each state. The Human Rights Campaign Municipal Equality Index scores cities on a 100-point scale based on the laws, policies, benefits, and services that support LGBTQ people.

Some indicators had to be created through research and extrapolation. For example, we found no reliable measures of Jewish population by city, largely because definitions of “Jewish” were not applied consistently in demographic studies. Therefore, we created our own indicator of a city’s Jewish population by counting the number of progressive congregations (Reconstructionist, Reform, and Conservative) per million people, under the assumption that a core population of Jews is necessary to support a synagogue. This created a comparative, not absolute, metric that we used to measure cities against each other.

Finally, I standardized the measures for easier comparisons. For example, San Antonio, Texas, a city of 1.5 million people, has 15 vegetarian or vegan restaurants. This sounded impressive until we standardized to vegetarian restaurants per million people and realized that San Antonio has a similar “Veg Index” as South Bend, Indiana, a city of 102,000.

Spreadsheet the Heck Out of It

My wife once accused me of being genetically predisposed to putting everything in Microsoft Excel. She is not wrong. Building spreadsheets after hours of research is like finally getting dessert after a multi-course meal of wheat germ. Spreadsheets are more analytical than straight narrative description and much easier to manage than relational databases. They create a visual map of the data that can be sorted and ordered into patterns.

At least two spreadsheets were necessary for our project: one for states (Fig.1), the other for cities (Fig. 2). Both were needed for a balanced viewpoint. State data provided broader information on political representation, income and sales tax, and a variety of statewide policies, including gun regulation, reproductive rights, tax policy, LGBTQ policy, and medical coverage. City data provided more specific information on ethnic and racial demographics, cost of living, poverty rate, crime rate, and local politics.

Figure 1: Sample State Spreadsheet
Figure 2: Sample City Spreadsheet

State level data is important; ignore it at your peril. For example, imagine the poor soul who moves to Austin, Texas, the liberal, ethnically diverse “live music capital of the world,” only to discover herself surrounded by a right-wing state with lax gun laws, few reproductive rights, and gerrymandered districts. Conversely, imagine the couple wishing to retire to the small conservative town of La Grande, Oregon with its low cost of living, big game hunting, and fly fishing, only to find themselves surrounded by bleeding heart liberals who believe in higher state income tax, paid family leave, and permissive LGBTQ policies. The lesson here is to know your neighbors.

When building our spreadsheets, we cast our net wide. We added cities our family and friends once lived in, towns too expensive or too cheap for our tastes, and places that only served as counter examples to our interests. The goal was to look for hidden gems.

Next, I sorted the hell out of our columns. I sorted, then sorted again. We experimented and played with different permutations. Since spreadsheets allow sorting by multiple variables, we uncovered data hidden within data. Which cities under 200,000 people are the most liberal or conservative? Which cities with a median housing cost under $200,000 have the highest Hispanic population? The highest Asian population? Or the most Jewish congregations? Which cities with state income tax under 5% have the most vegetarian restaurants?

Finally, we checked the regional weather of our top contenders on Weather Spark. This Website, created by Cedar Lake Ventures, is a godsend when it comes to checking out temperature, cloud cover, and precipitation throughout the year. Weather may be the final arbiter of your selection. For example, Seattle has a reputation for being one of the wettest cities in the country, but from June through September it has clear skies, low rainfall, and perfect temperatures. New Orleans may sound great on paper with its ethnic diversity, incredible music venues, and amazing restaurants, but the month of July has humidity bordering 98%. No, thank you.

This is an exercise in trial, error, and compromise. To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, you can’t always get what you want, but if you adjust your expectations and re-sort your columns, you might get what you need.

Customer Profile

Of course, cities are much more than raw data and ranked columns. Cities have complex personalities. They have unique balances of size, demographics, politics, and culture. Customer profiling provides tactics to better understand your city.

In marketing, customer profiles help companies perceive and target their ideal customers. Profiling allows companies to craft marketing messages that address specific challenges and needs. Customer profiles contain demographic data (e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, income, and location) as well as psychographic data (e.g. hobbies, attitudes, and interests). Personification of this profile makes the customers real, not simply amalgams of numbers and words.

We created profiles for the top contenders based on the spreadsheet data, and looked at each city as a distinct and unique personality. Did the cities appeal to us on a gut level? Did any cities check all the boxes of our personal drivers, yet somehow feel hollow? Or did we fall in love with a city despite low rankings on performance indicators?

And finally, we visited our top contenders in person. Internet dating is all well and good at first, but eventually you have to meet your potential partner face to face in the ugly light of day.

Our Personal Journey

My wife and I searched for small and mid-sized towns that were liberal, ethnically diverse, tax friendly, well-educated, low crime, low poverty, LGBTQ-friendly, containing Jewish congregations, vegetarian-friendly, and located near water. As one might imagine, we sorted and re-sorted our columns many times over.

In the end, we discovered Eugene, Oregon, a small liberal college town in a quirky liberal state. Eugene has tons of vegetarian restaurants, a committed Reconstructionist Jewish congregation, a state university, a solid local arts scene, gorgeous scenery, great weather, nearby lakes and rivers, and an ocean only an hour and a half away. Its only detraction, and this is a big one, is its lack of ethnic diversity. To quote my wife, “Where are they hiding all the Black people?” We have reluctantly come to terms with this, remembering that it is all about the compromise.

Will we ever retire to Eugene? Quite possibly. Very likely. Most certainly. The ghosts of my ancestors can have Florida. We’ll make our own path.

Although, I have heard Miami has some great vegetarian restaurants.

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Zev Winicur, PhD

Zev Winicur, PhD

Medical Science Liaison in the pharma industry. Former technical writer, science writer, and market research analyst. General data enthusiast.

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