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Best Value Cities 2011: 1. Omaha, Neb.

Omaha? Omaha natives are sick of the question mark. And given the work this vibrant prairie town has done revitalizing itself over the past ten years, its low cost of living and its remarkably low unemployment rate, we’re naming it our top Great Value City for 2011, without question.

Money has never been an issue. This city of less than a half-million people is home to five Fortune 500 companies and arguably more millionaires per capita than any other U.S. metro area, thanks in part to native son Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. What the city needed was to revamp its downtown and waterfront, and create economic room for a fresh generation of entrepreneurs, who had been fleeing Omaha like it was Egypt during the exodus. And so the city set to work, rallying the big money to reclaim moribund blocks sucked of life by migration to the suburbs. New businesses such as Paypal moved to the area to take advantage of vast, cheap broadband access and the vaunted midwestern work ethic.

"Self-serving" cliques of business interests are yielding to more cooperative networks that nurture innovation and spur business creation, says Mark Hasebroock, a venture capitalist and Omaha native. Such networks play a key role in many places renowned for their business vitality and job-creation prowess, such as Austin, Tex., and Silicon Valley, Cal. Many organizations have signed on to help develop business networks, from the Greater Omaha Economic Development Partnership to others at the grass-roots level.

Silicon Prairie News is one of the key players. It started as a blog and has evolved into an online news source for entrepreneurs, not just in Omaha but also in Des Moines, Iowa, and Kansas City, Mo., and so is helping to develop a powerful regional network.

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Omaha, of course, has its problems. Chief among them is the area known as North Omaha, which once was dependent on a thriving meat-packing industry. When the plants moved out 50 years ago the community was left with high unemployment -- and now with a high crime rate. City leaders, including mayor Jim Suttle, promise that bringing businesses to North Omaha has now, finally, become a priority for the city.

Still, Omaha as a whole has impressive economic momentum. The question “Omaha?” has yielded to another question: “Why not here?” Hasebroock says. A generation of young Omaha professionals who have chosen to stay or return to take advantage of new opportunities agree.

Why It's Affordable

Cheap tickets, free movies and concerts, and really reasonable housing.

Omahans insist on value. And when it comes to housing, they get it. A brand-new, 3,800-square-foot home with four bedrooms and three baths in a western suburb (still just 20 minutes from downtown) runs $275,000, for example. But a lot of amenities -- especially in the arts -- are cheap or just plain free. Consider free Jazz on the Green at the new Midtown Crossing condo/retail development and free movies at the Holland Performing Arts Center. Tickets at the center, by the way, are subsidized by corporate and philanthropic donors. That’s one reason you’ll pay $25 for a seat at a Broadway-quality show that would cost four times as much in a big city. Oh, and the huge annual rock concert at Memorial Park: free.

Why It's Fun

True, Omaha’s architecture is kind of boxy and glitz-free, as suits midwestern sensibilities. And that includes the Holland Performing Arts Center, arguably the centerpiece of the city’s rich arts scene. But inside, the Holland is a sleek, acoustic marvel. And it’s balanced by the ornate, circa-1920s Orpheum Theater just a few blocks away. Both are packed with everything from Broadway shows and ballet to zydeco, funk and jazz.

Omaha is also rich with entertainment away from its big venues, from community theaters to small clubs. Local label Saddle Creek Records has morphed to include live rock/indie music venue Slowdown in a development that includes shops, restaurants and apartments. The epicenter of nightlife has become the Old Market district, a complex of former warehouses sliced into restaurants, bars (try the IPA at brewpub Upstream Brewing Co.) and upscale shops. Sophisticated dining spots have sprouted in recent years, with the arrival of top restaurants such as The Grey Plume, a locavore haven owned by 25-year-old wunderkind chef and Omaha native Clayton Chapman (try the fries cooked in duck fat). Plus, Omaha’s zoo is world-class.

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