Need more proof the high-tech slump and fallout from the 9-11 terrorist attacks are hitting Research Triangle Park, Charlotte and Atlanta hard?

Just check out the latest “Best Places” list from Forbes.

In the Forbes/Milken Institute 2002 Best Places for Business and Careers, almost all of the largest metropolitan areas in the Carolinas and Georgia have lost ground from last year. Cities in California, led by first-ranking San Diego, occupying six of the top 10 spots.

The region’s highest ranking metro area is still Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, which ranks 20 in this year’s list, published in the May 27 issue of Forbes magazine that hits newsstands this week. Last year, the Triangle ranked 13 out of the 200 cities included in the list.

That drop of only seven places pales in comparison to that of some other cities in the Southeast.

Charlotte dropped 56 spots from 30 in 2001 to 86 this year, making it the ninth biggest loser on the fourth annual list.

Atlanta didn’t do much better, going from 16 last year to 63 this year…a drop of 47 spots.

Kurt Badenhausen, a senior editor at Forbes who wrote a story accompanying the rankings, says Raleigh, Charlotte and Atlanta all suffered from the “high-tech slump,” but that that Raleigh didn’t slip as badly because it has a more diverse economic base. Badenhausen adds that while many Western cities have a more diverse base and therefore higher ranking, the Triangle is still one of the best places for business east of the Mississippi.

“Raleigh is one of the top metro areas on East Coast…the only place above it is West Palm Beach (FL),” he says. “It’s largely a regional issue, as well. The way the rankings are set up with job and wage growth, the Midwest and East really suffer. Looking at those categories, as well as looking at different high tech competition, the Southwest and West Coast perform stronger, as well as the Southeast,” to a lesser extent.

Charlotte and Atlanta fared worse than Raleigh, Badenhausen says, because of significant job loss in the first three months of 2002. Charlotte saw a 2.2 percentage drop and Atlanta a negative 4.4 percent decrease, putting the cities at 168 and 192 out of 200 in the category of “Job Momentum.” The new category was added to gauge how the metro areas were handling the effects of September 11 and the slowing economy of 2001.

“With Atlanta, it was one of worst in country for job growth in the first three months of the year,” Badenhausen says. “Atlanta and Charlotte in particular really got killed by job losses in the first quarter of this year. That certainly hurt them,” in terms of the rankings.

Some others rise, but more fall in Southeast

One local metro that actually improved was Greensboro-Winston-Salem-High Point, which moved up six spots. But the improvement only brings the Triad to 106 in 2002 from 112 in 2001 on the list, which is also based on earned income and a measure of activity in critical technologies that foster growth.

Two other cities in North Carolina also improved their rankings this year. Asheville moved up 21 places to 88 from 109 last year and Fayetteville improved 30 spots from 140 last year to 110 in 2002. The only other N.C. cities included in this year’s list both were losers: Wilmington at 73 (36 last year) and Hickory-Morganton at 167 (151). Greenville placed 14 on a ranking of 96 smaller metro areas…a drop of 10 places from last year’s ranking of fourth.

Besides Atlanta, four other Georgia cities are on the Best Places for Business and Careers list and, like Atlanta, they all lost ground. The cities are Columbus at 148 (91 last year), Savannah at 156 (133), Macon at 182 (135) and Augusta-Aiken, GA-SC, at 193 (170).

Other metros in South Carolina on the list included Myrtle Beach, which fell from 29 last year to 52 this year. Charleston also dropped, with a ranking of 87 in 2002 compared to 47 in 2001, as did Colombia, which fell from 96 to 158. Greenville-Spartanburg-Anderson improved one spot from 106 last year to 105 in this year’s list.

West is best

Overall, cities from California, Texas and in between dominated the list. The top ten, with last year’s rank in parentheses, are as follows: San Diego (8); Santa Rosa, CA (6); Las Vegas (14); Ventura, CA (18); McAllen, TX (25); Boise, ID (7); San Luis Obispo, CA (21); Oakland, CA (10); Brownsville, TX (59) and Orange County, CA (12).

“Looking at different high tech companies, the Southwest and West Coast perform stronger,” Badenhausen says. “That’s where jobs are being created. San Francisco and San Jose plummeted. The areas that did well have diverse high tech bases, not overly concentrated on one tech sector, like the Internet. San Diego has a very diverse economy. Outside of technology, there is a diverse business from entertainment to defense to tourism. San Diego also has a large biotech base, which held up very well in 2001.”

The Forbes/Milken list of Best Places for Business and Careers ranks 200 metropolitan areas, as designated by the U.S. Census Bureau, based on the latest government data for employment and wage growth over one- and five-year periods. Analysts at the Santa Monica, CA.-based Milken Institute also search for critical shifts within the vast technology sector, weighting one- and five-year changes in gross tech output, technology as a percentage of the total metro economy and the diversity within tech industries.

Badenhausen says that while economies dependent on the tech sector are hurting, especially since the mild recession following September 11, the decline of cities in the Southeast on the list is no cause for alarm.

“The area certainly dropped down on the list…Raleigh, Charlotte and Atlanta…but the three are still strong metro areas for business,” he says. “They are booming metro areas that just really got hit hard by the mild recession as well as September 11.”


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