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updated 11/8/2006 11:52:48 AM ET 2006-11-08T16:52:48

The Sunbelt is an economic magnet. It’s attracting new residents and jobs, as well as political and economic power.

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But which of the region’s metropolitan areas offer the best blend of comfortable lifestyle and warm weather?

Bizjournals analyzed the quality of life across the Sunbelt — defined as the area south of the 37th parallel — and ranked Huntsville, Ala., No. 1 on its list of Hot Spots, America’s most attractive warm-weather metropolitan areas.

It takes a newcomer just one glance to discover that Huntsville is not your typical Sunbelt community. The 360-foot-tall Saturn V rocket towering above the skyline is a clue to the city's high-tech economy.

Banking, tourism and other service industries are driving economic growth in most Sunbelt metros. But Huntsville — the self-proclaimed Rocket City — is different.

The engineers who launched America's space program, led by Wernher von Braun, were installed in the northern Alabama city after World War II. They were followed by military and aerospace contractors, biotechnology firms and telecommunications companies.

This high-tech base has given Huntsville several advantages that are reflected in its No. 1 ranking:

  • Forty percent of Huntsville’s jobs are classified as professional or management positions, a large number of them in the engineering field. Only four Sunbelt metros enjoy a higher concentration of these desirable jobs.
  • Thirty-one percent of its adults hold bachelor’s degrees, putting Huntsville among the study’s top six areas in the category of higher education.
  • Per capita income in the Huntsville area has risen by more than 20 percent since 2000, far exceeding the Sunbelt average of 16 percent.
  • Aiding its economic strength is the fact that Huntsville’s property taxes are among the lowest in all of America.

Second place on the Hot Spots list belongs to Naples, an affluent metro on Florida’s southern Gulf Coast. Its per capita income of $44,458 is easily the highest in the Sunbelt.

A strong commitment to education has pushed Raleigh into third place. It’s both the state capital of North Carolina and a major university center. Thirty-eight percent of its adults hold college degrees, a figure topped by just one Sunbelt metro, neighboring Durham at 39 percent.

In fourth place is Fayetteville, Ark., which also has a strong collegiate presence. The Fayetteville region is the home of the University of Arkansas, as well as the headquarters of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the largest retailer in the world.

The second Florida entry in the top five is Sarasota-Bradenton, which is northwest of Naples along the Gulf Coast. Its employment base has expanded by 21.5 percent since 2000, adding almost 900 new jobs every month.

Rounding out the top 10 in the Hot Spots rankings are Cape Coral-Fort Myers and Palm Bay-Melbourne, both in Florida; Durham, N.C.; Phoenix; and Tallahassee, Fla.

Bizjournals compared the performances in 10 statistical categories of 77 Sunbelt metropolitan areas south of the 37th parallel, which passes about 10 miles north of Virginia Beach and about 30 miles south of San Jose. The 10 communities with the highest scores have been designated as Hot Spots, indicating that they offer an outstanding mixture of warm weather and quality of life.

The study’s aim is to identify the areas that would be most attractive to people who might be considering a move to the Sunbelt.

The highest scores go to well-rounded places with steady growth, strong economies, moderate traffic, affordable costs of living, and first-rate educational systems.

Communities from 17 states have been included in the study, which was limited to metropolitan areas with more than 250,000 residents.

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