No. 8: Sacramento, Calif.

Once, Sacramento's cultural appeal could be described in two words: drive time.


Population: 2,067,117

Population Growth Since 2000: 13%

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Percentage of Workforce in Creative Class: 34%

Cost-of-Living Index: 121.7 (100 being national average)

Median Household Income: $56,953

Income Growth Since 2000: 19%

Once, Sacramento's cultural appeal could be described in two words: drive time. A 90-minute trip to San Francisco and Napa Valley in one direction and Lake Tahoe in the other, Sacramento offers easy access to some of the nation's finest recreational amenities, from skiing in the Sierras to wine-sipping in grape country to the myriad restaurants and galleries of San Francisco.

But lately, Sacramento has become a place to savor on its own. "More and more we're finding all we enjoy right here -- great outdoor recreation, a lively arts scene, fine dining -- right here," says longtime resident Emmy Mignano.

Sacramento owes much of its new cachet to downtown redevelopment, which has introduced about 30 new restaurants (including the chic Ella Dining Room & Bar) to the area, as well as retail, residential and office space. The Railyards project, still in its planning stage, will further reconfigure downtown, putting 12,000 residential units, along with entertainment and retail shops, on 240 acres north of the central business district.

As for outdoor recreation, the locals have always had plenty of opportunity to get outside in SacTown, one of the ten sunniest cities in the country. Residents can bike the streets, hit the golf courses, browse the farmer's markets and escape the blistering summer heat by boating, fishing or waterskiing on the American or Sacramento rivers.

Like the rest of the state and nation, Sacramento is suffering through the economic blahs, and is currently in a no-growth mode. Area job losses, mostly owing to the collapse of homebuilding, have been offset by job gains in government, education and health, and professional and business services. California's state budget deficit could affect government jobs in the next fiscal year, says Ryan Sharp of the Sacramento Regional Research Institute, but for now, "that sector is doing okay." Meanwhile, clean-energy companies are bringing new jobs to the area, says Bob Burris, of the Sacramento Area Commerce and Trade Organization. "Clean technology has really gone through the roof in the last two years."

As for housing, prices dropped about 35% in Sacramento over the last 12 months, according to the California Association of Realtors. In April, the median price of an existing single-family home was about $235,000, down from over $400,000 a few years ago. That's bad news for sellers but good news for first-time buyers, who have responded accordingly, says Alan Wagner, president of the Sacramento Association of Realtors. "They couldn't afford a home three years ago. This is a price point they can afford."

NEXT: No. 9 -- Des Moines

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