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No. 3: Omaha, Neb.

Don't pigeonhole Omaha as insurance, Warren Buffett and mail-order steaks.

PARADISE ON THE PLAINS

Population: 821,356Population Growth Since 2000: 6.6%Percentage of Workforce in Creative Class: 30%Cost-of-Living Index: 89.4 (100 being national average)Median Household Income: $51,627Income Growth Since 2000: 15.1%

Take Our Walking Tour Through Omaha

Funky, yes, but the city's success is defined by its midwestern values. People preach and practice a strong work ethic and modest lifestyle. They also believe in giving back to the community, and that includes the chief executives of the five Fortune 500 companies headquartered here.

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Consider the 175,000-square-foot Holland Performing Arts Center. Built with private funding from corporate executives, philanthropists and civic leaders, this $100-million facility is a symbol of 21st-century urban modernism. A 2,000-seat, state-of-the-art concert hall -- with chiseled acoustic panels -- is the place to experience the classics, performed by the Omaha Symphony Orchestra.

And encouraging news: Businesses here are hiring and recruiting young professionals, especially in finance, health care, information technology and insurance. Entrepreneurs can also find fertile ground to make their mark. Rachel Jacobson, 29, who owns Film Streams, says that she wouldn't have opened her theater anywhere else. "Omaha is very open to new ideas."

Omaha continues to expand westward. Venture 10 miles southwest and you'll come to Millard, a suburb known for its top-rated, nationally recognized public-school system. It's a peaceful community with well-manicured lawns, sprawling subdivisions and shopping malls. Home prices are affordable, too. For example, a 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom home sells for about $350,000, while a 2,000-square-foot, three-bedroom home goes for about $200,000.

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Sales and property taxes are high -- upwards of 10%. But, says Tammy Lane, a mother of two whose kids are enrolled in Millard's public schools, "I love living here. It's the growth and quality of the schools that make the taxes worth paying."

NEXT: No. 4 -- Boise

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