"The City of Four Lakes" (Mendota, Monona, Waubesa, and Kegonsa) has earned a reputation as a kind of groovy "Berkeley of the Midwest," home of politically liberal voters and birthplace of the satirical newspaper the Onion. The University of Wisconsin Badgers sports teams help take the chill off the local winters. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who spent much of his childhood in Madison and briefly studied civil engineering at the university, is responsible for several local buildings. "Retiring baby boomers want to live in a vibrant and beautiful city that's both affordable and full of opportunities," says Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Alexander, who obviously believes Madison fits the bill.
Median home price: $118,920
Nicknamed "The Little Apple," Manhattan is best known as the home of Kansas State University, with its 23,000-plus students, and U.S. Army post Fort Riley, 8 miles west of the city. KSU is hands-down the largest employer in the area; Fort Riley, one of the nation's largest military installations, comes in second. The Department of Homeland Security recently selected Manhattan, which is tucked into the rolling Flint Hills region of northeastern Kansas at the junction of the Kansas and Big Blue rivers, as the site for a new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. The operation is expected to add 450 permanent jobs to the local economy. Mercy Regional Health Center, meanwhile, employs over 1,000 workers.
John Armbrust, 63, a retired Air Force colonel who served 25 years, found a second career in Manhattan's public sector as executive director of the Governor's Military Council. "Government jobs have made the area a little bit less vulnerable than many other places," he says.
Median home price: $121,500
Among U.S. metro areas with a population of at least 1 million, this state capital has the lowest business costs, in part because of tax incentives, according to KPMG's 2010 "Competitive Alternatives" analysis of 112 cities in 10 countries. It also has an unemployment rate of just 5.6 percent. "People can find jobs here, period," crows Roy Williams, president and CEO of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.
Energy companies are big employers, and Tinker Air Force Base provides a steady stream of consulting work for retirees, particularly military folks. Plus, the University of Oklahoma Medical Center is spawning growth in healthcare jobs as well as bioscience start-ups.
Among workers in the country's 52 largest cities, Oklahoma City residents deal with the third-shortest commutes, according to the Census Bureau's most recent American Community Survey. Drivers spend an average of 21.35 minutes behind the wheel on their way to work, with only drivers in Rochester, N.Y., (20.37 minutes) and Buffalo-Niagara Falls (20.78) arriving quicker.
Joel Martin, 55, a retired Air Force colonel and now a senior staff fellow at the University of Oklahoma, moved from Denver with his wife Elizabeth, a book editor, six years ago after a 26-year military career in which he served as a meteorologist, hurricane hunter, and Air Force officer recruiter. Thanks to differences in the price of housing, fuel, and utilities, he says, "our estimates at the time were that the cost of living in the Oklahoma City area would be about 10 to 15 percent less than the Denver area. That has proven to be true, if not a bit conservative."
Martin's personal motivation was to return to his home state. "What I've found in OKC is not only a lower cost of living, but an increasing sophistication in what the community offers in return. I'm an avid Apple fan and was encouraged to find a new Apple store—and plenty of Starbucks."