real estate

Best Cities for Mid-Level Professionals

The fortunes of this small coastal city in southern Maine have always depended on its ability to reinvent itself.

See a slide show of all our Best Cities for Mid-Level Professionals.

PORTLAND, MAINE

The fortunes of this small coastal city in southern Maine have always depended on its ability to reinvent itself. The 1960s and 1970s were rough as jobs migrated south to Boston. But during the following two decades, Yankee ingenuity put enough wind in the city's sails to chart a new, and cool, course.

In the Old Port district, artists bought up abandoned storefronts and former warehouses to set up their studios. Then, in 1993, the Maine College of Art consolidated its headquarters in a former department store and opened a contemporary-art gallery. MECA is now a weighty anchor for the development of the arts community.

The business community generates its own creative energy. Thousands of engineers, software developers and scientists work for companies such as Fairchild Semiconductor and UnumProvident. Portland offers mid-level professionals a scenic peninsula overlooking Casco Bay, outstanding restaurants and microbreweries, a pedestrian-friendly downtown full of independently owned boutiques, and a low crime rate. Many professionals who relocate here are surprised by what they think is a high cost of living, but it's actually on par with the national average.

Housing on the peninsula is pricey. In the West End, a sought-after neighborhood of Victorian-era houses on tree-lined streets, five-bedroom homes start at $600,000. Off the peninsula, in the Longfellow Woods neighborhood, housing is much cheaper. Small ranches, Cape Cods and colonials range from $250,000 to $350,000.

Despite a soft economy (job growth is projected to stay under 1% this year and next), the Portland area remains a draw for professionals seeking to escape the pace and congestion of big-city life. With Acadia National Park, state parks, lakes and islands to explore, the Portlander's playground is spectacular.

PORTLAND, MAINE

Stephanie O'Brien, 31, a native New Yorker, relocated to Portland in 2003. She now works as a media-relations specialist. "By moving here, I don't feel as if my career has taken four steps back," she says. O'Brien's commute is a mere five minutes, and her office, near the waterfront, lets her enjoy a relaxing lunch break on a bench while taking in spectacular water views -- at least when the thermometer is above 32 degrees. -- Magali Rheault

What you'll love about Portland, Maine

The gallery at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies features up-and-coming artists in the documentary areas of photography, writing and radio.

For a quick run or a stroll on your lunch hour, go to the Eastern Promenade, a two-mile waterfront trail built along a former railroad line with drop-dead gorgeous views of the harbor and the ocean.

Head downtown to Duckfat and try the duck confit panini with goat cheese and pear chutney ($10), or Belgian fries served in a paper cone ($4.50 for a large order) and cooked in -- what else -- duck fat.

HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA

Huntsville is a small city that's big on charm. The people are friendly, the tea is sweet, and the city is welcoming to newcomers. Downtown, boutiques and cafés line the streets, Big Spring Park hosts arts and music festivals, and Cook Avenue has a farmers' market. And in the summer, the 110-acre Huntsville Botanical Garden hosts concerts.

Home to NASAUs Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville has a growing creative economy that's technology-centered, with a focus on aerospace and defense. Boeing and Raytheon are joined by tech giants Northrop Grumman and LG Electronics. The city is home to the second-largest research-and-technology park in the U.S. and has the highest per-capita ratio of engineers in the country.

Job opportunities are plentiful. And with a cost of living 8% below the national average, setting up shop won't break the bank. Housing costs alone could draw professionals from across the country -- mortgage payments here rival rents in larger metro areas. -- Jessica L. Anderson

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