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Best Value Cities 2011:8. Wichita, Kan.

Living costs are typical of a small prairie town, but you’ll enjoy big-city amenities.

Several aviation manufacturing and research companies, including Spirit AeroSystems and Cessna Aircraft, set the tone for commerce within Wichita. Some of the companies have suffered significant layoffs in recent years -- and the city’s job growth overall may be sluggish through 2011 -- but Kansas is invested in helping a key industry fly high, and engineers continue to be in demand here. The city’s small businesses benefit from a healthy support system, including a strong entrepreneurship program at Wichita State University. Projects to convert Kansas winds into usable energy are budding.

VIDEO: Take a virtual walking tour of Wichita.

Wichita has some perks often only found in towns a fraction of its size: People are friendly, commutes are short, and prices let you stretch a dollar pretty far. “We are a large city, but we have small-city values,” says mayor Carl Brewer.

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Young people take an active role in local government and business. The Mayor’s Youth Council, composed of local high school students, was a driving force behind statewide bans on smoking in public buildings and texting while driving. The Young Professionals of Wichita, with more than 2,000 members, have a voice in the community’s vision and direction.

Why It's Affordable

Most home buyers find a place for between $150,000 and $300,000. Recently, a suburban house with 3,466 square feet of space, an updated kitchen, five bedrooms and a finished basement was listed for $264,900. Entertainment won’t break the bank, either. Tickets to see the symphony orchestra, for example, top out at $45, and golfers can play 18 holes for greens fees in the low-$20 range or less.

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Staying fit won’t strain budgets. Several YMCA centers dot the city, with family membership prices of $50 a month -- and that includes access to outdoor water parks at four of the facilities. For $40, community members can have Wichita State University’s head track-and-field coach whip them into shape through the seven-week “Shocker Fitness” program.

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Why It's Fun

A well-rounded selection of restaurants, theaters and other cultural venues blend in cosmopolitan flavor, including a grand opera, symphony orchestra, dinner theater and music theater. In the Old Town district, brick warehouses have been transformed into apartments, restaurants, shops and other businesses. Take a date to the neighborhood’s Warren Old Town Theatre Grill and get dinner, drinks and a movie in one fell swoop: Servers deliver food and beverages from the bar to your seat -- a big, cushy seat. (For an extra-cheap date, go on a Wednesday, when a movie ticket costs $5.)

The banks of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers, which merge near the heart of Wichita, are an appealing area to relax or exercise. The city’s largest stretch of bicycle paths and trails are along the rivers, and ample parks draw families on warm evenings. Several museums and the Wichita Wingnuts baseball stadium are close to the rivers, too. In the spring, visitors to the Wichita River Festival enjoy concerts, a parade, hot-air-balloon rides and more -- and if you wear a button that costs $5, you’ll get admission for all nine days.

Many local artists create and display their work at shops and galleries in Old Town and on Commerce Street. On the final Friday evening of each month, the public can see new exhibitions and buy art during a free gallery crawl. On the first Friday evening of each month, venues around town feature local musicians free or for a small cover charge.

SLIDE SHOW: See the Top 10 Best Value Cities

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