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Best Cities 2010: West Hartford, Conn.

There's no shortage of business opportunities and things to do in this small town, our number-nine pick for Best Cities for the Next Decade.

West Hartford is not content to be merely an idyllic place to raise a family. It's also transforming itself from a suburb into a regional destination.

The majority of West Hartford's residents work in the area's biggest sectors -- insurance and financial services -- in nearby towns. But small business is the new game in town, and everyone's playing. West Hartford's economy rests largely on professional and health services, from law and accounting firms to satellite offices for Hartford Hospital and St. Francis Hospital. The University of Hartford is the biggest employer.

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Retail makes up the rest of the local economy. Three years ago, the town doubled the size of West Hartford Center by adding a new mixed-use development of upscale retail stores and residences. Called Blue Back Square, in homage to Webster's Blue-Backed Spelling Book, the square brought a movie theater, a Crate & Barrel, a Whole Foods Market and an REI to the town's central shopping and dining district.

Parking aplenty means townies and visitors alike can ditch their cars for the day and walk to the bank, the grocery store and the library, or grab a bite to eat and go to a movie. Elmwood Center and Park Road on the south end of town add restaurants and niche businesses, including one of the region’s biggest art-supply stores, a professional-figure-skating retailer and a '50s-era diner.

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Location-wise, the town couldn't be better situated. The Center is 15 minutes from downtown Hartford, where you can find art museums, the Connecticut Science Center, sports arenas and concert halls, such as the Bushnell Center for Performing Arts. It is two hours from both Boston and New York City. As a blossoming destination in its own right, West Hartford is in talks to bring a hotel to town and grab a stop on the proposed New Haven-Springfield high-speed rail line, which would connect it to Amtrak.

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West Hartford continues to steal market share from Hartford on the entertainment front -- "Downtown Hartford is not really where people go anymore," says town mayor Scott Slifka -- but it's also focused on retaining the small-town charm that keeps it, well, charming. "Great neighborhoods, a safe community and great schools have been our tradition," says Slifka.

Community is key, and this is place where you know your neighbors. The outlying suburbs in the Hartford area feature loads of land, big homes and high price tags. But in West Hartford you can get in for under $200,000 on the south end of the city, and the median price is about $300,000. Housing near the Center is the most desirable and ranges from $350,000 to $500,000. Modest colonials dominate the scene, although the east and west ends have their fair share of small estates.

Education is West Hartford's hallmark, and schools -- both public and private -- are the biggest draw for newcomers to the town. Public schools are top-notch in the state, and Connecticut schools rate among the best in the nation. Nationally known private schools, such as Renbrook and Kingswood-Oxford, call West Hartford home, too. Three colleges in town up the quotient of highly educated residents -- 57% have a bachelor’s degree or higher, versus 36% for the state.

The chief complaint is high taxes, but most figure that great schools and amenities don't come cheap. In addition to green space at Elizabeth Park and the MDC Reservoir (both ideal spots for walking the trails or a picnic), the town has five swimming pools, an ice rink and two public golf courses, including Rockledge, noted to be one of the top ten in New England.

VIDEO: Take a Guided Tour of West Hartford

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