Worth Destinations 2016

Worth’s editors have selected the 15 most dynamic cities in the country for 2016. While the cities vary widely, they all share characteristics that render them each desirable. The 15 Worth Destinations were selected after a rigorous research and exploratory process that holistically evaluated contenders based on these categories:

Driven by down-home graciousness and authentically local flavors, Atlanta’s dining scene is turning the city into a national culinary destination.

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Long seen as a powerhouse of the South thanks to the companies with major presences there—Coca-Cola, Turner Broadcasting and Delta Airlines, among many others, Atlanta’s national and international image improved significantly following the 1996 Summer Olympics. It now plays host to 50 million visitors annually, who are increasingly drawn to the area as a dining destination.

It seems like an easy formula for a chef: Create the kind of restaurant that you would want to eat in, and watch the culinary scene grow. To hear Atlantans tell the story of their city’s rise among foodie circles, you would think that’s all it takes. But where many cities have tried that Field of Dreams approach with mixed results, Atlanta possesses other ingredients—a collaborative culture, community engagement, a drive to champion the region’s farmers and a touch of competitiveness to keep pushing boundaries—that have made its dining scene flourish. And the growing immigrant community has only helped broaden culinary horizons. “There is no fear of being different,” says Todd Richards, chef of White Oak Kitchen and Cocktails. “For a time, there was a period of sameness—everyone was serving classic shrimp and grits—but now, chefs are fearless about expanding the definition of Southern food.”

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A boom in heavy industry is transforming a grand but struggling city into one of the South’s most dynamic centers.

On a stroll through Charleston’s historic district, it can seem like little has changed in this South Carolina port city since the 17th century. Graceful old mansions still watch over the harbor, Spanish moss still drips from live oaks and horses still pull carts down cobblestone streets.

Look beyond the Old South trappings, though, and much has changed. The antebellum industries that built the city—cotton, indigo and rice cultivation, and the lamentable infrastructure of slavery that made it all possible—are long gone. But after several decades of a struggling economy, Charleston is now experiencing a manufacturing boom that many American cities can only dream of, led by the kind of industry that has largely departed from the country’s heartland.

It started in the mid-1970s when manufacturers such as appliance-maker Bosch moved in, motivated in part by the Port of Charleston, a deep harbor that serves as a conduit to more than 150 countries. Nucor steel, Mercedes-Benz vans and Boeing followed; in late 2009, Boeing began doing final assembly of its 787 Dreamliner in Charleston. The latest addition is Volvo, which last year announced it would spend $500 million to build its first American factory in Charleston.

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This northern Texas center of business and industry is fast becoming a global arts hub.

To Dallas’ detriment, some people still associate it with Texas clichés. But tourism officials admit that visitors arriving in search of Texas kitsch might be disappointed to find more designer boutiques and gleaming skyscrapers than cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats—and this sophisticated destination is determined to dispel myths once and for all by becoming a cultural powerhouse.

Trade and commerce built Dallas, first through cotton and oil, then more recently with banking, tech and healthcare. The city remains a flourishing business capital and a major concentration of jobs and wealth. But it is Dallas’ art scene that is winning international buzz today, and its cultural institutions are shaping its future. The city has transformed its skyline and downtown core with modernist architecture, expansive art complexes and green spaces, and world-class museums and private collections. “Because we lack the natural beauty of some other Texas cities, art has served as a recreational anchor and quality of life issue—and has helped businesses attract and retain an intelligent workforce,” says Catherine Cuellar, executive director of Entrepreneurs for North Texas.

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Mile-high appreciation and a millennial influx are creating exciting real estate investment opportunities in Denver.

There are many reasons Tom Clark, CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, expects 2016 to be the best year ever for Denver’s economy overall. Chief among them: low unemployment, high wages and a diverse economy. The key sectors driving the economy are aerospace, finance, telecom, software, clean energy and brewing (craft brewing is big). Most of those businesses are in the so-called innovation space–meaning new technologies are building new companies that ultimately pay higher wages to educated workers.

The result? Upwardly mobile young people have moved (and are still moving) there in droves, in part thanks to the fact that Denver was prepared to rebound from the 2008 recession better than many cities. Millennials are attracted to funky, urban spaces, and Denver’s developers are creating the kinds of housing and retail spaces that appeal to the demographic. The real estate market isn’t just hot. “The word that’s used most frequently in describing the last two years of Denver’s real estate market is unprecedented,” says Anthony Rael, chairman of the market trends committee for the Denver Metro Association of Realtors.

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This Midwestern city’s entrepreneurial roots helped it develop a thriving wealth management community.

Located in the middle of the country and straddling the border between Kansas and Missouri, Kansas City is in the heart of what’s known as “flyover country.” To those who inhabit the coasts, it may come as a surprise that Kansas City, Mo., is a Midwest metropolis whose entrepreneurial scene includes many flourishing tech companies. Although not as populous as Chicago or St. Louis, it has the marks of a larger city: an NFL team, the Kansas City Chiefs; the 2015 World Series–winning Kansas City Royals; a nationally recognized art museum; and a music culture centered around jazz, which has a rich history in the city.

It has been a center of industry since the 1800s, spawning companies with a national presence: Hallmark Cards, H&R Block, American Century Investments and Cerner, a booming healthcare IT firm, all call KC home. It is also a center of wealth management. Financial Advisor included three Kansas City–area financial firms among the top 20 RIAs in the country in 2015. Combined, they manage around $34 billion. That wealth reflects Kansas City’s business appeal, and is in turn a part of what makes K.C. such a compelling city.

Diversity is at the core of Kansas City’s success. “If you consider the makeup of the Kansas City economy, it truly is a reflection of the U.S. economy,” says Tim Cowden, president of the Kansas City Area Development Council. “In that diversity lies strength.”

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It’s famous as the home of country music, but from food to healthcare, Nashville has also become a hub of entrepreneurship that’s drawing tourists, investors and new residents—from around the globe.

Visit Nashville, and one thing you can expect to hear about is the influx of people moving to the city every day. The exact number (probably between 80 and 100) is irrelevant. What’s important to note is what everyone in town is aware of—Nashville is hot, hot, hot. To put that in context, city officials expect the population to hit about 2 million—almost triple its current size—by 2040.

So what’s driving growth in Nashville? It’s a compilation of things: It has what is probably the country’s most creative and collaborative music scene, major league sports teams and bourgeoning food and arts scene, all of which are underpinned by a business culture, centered around healthcare and entrepreneurship, that is national in scope but has a huge regional impact. The healthcare industry in Nashville alone has an estimated economic impact of $38 billion (by comparison, music generates $10 billion). The jobs, thriving economy and culture are all drawing young people to Nashville, but the consensus among local leaders is that its growth can also be attributed to a spirit of openness and cooperation between the city’s different constituencies that facilitates essential planning, problem solving and business building.

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The Crescent City is harnessing the creativity of the entertainment industry to bolster its entrepreneurial landscape.

Django Unchained, Jurassic World and The Big Short are all films that at first glance have little in common. But the surprising factor that connects all three? They were filmed in the streets and on soundstages in New Orleans. Driven by the city, Louisiana has earned the nickname “Hollywood South.” That’s largely due to a generous incentive program for the entertainment industry that was launched by the Louisiana Economic Development Agency in 2002, a time when the city needed help.

The incentive program, known as the Motion Picture Investor Tax Credit, helped turn things around. The state lures filmmakers and producers with subsidies of up to 35 percent of a film’s budget, as well as incentives for hiring local crews and engaging with local businesses. Following its early success, the state expanded the program to include other industries Then in 2005, Katrina struck, changing everything. As post-Katrina New Orleans saw an influx of innovative minds in architecture, sustainability, real estate and entrepreneurship, as well as an increase in out of state investments, the entertainment industry became a catalyst for the city’s rebirth. It has spawned new industries, drawn businesses to relocate there and bolstered the city’s already strong tourism industry.

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One of the world’s most diverse and dynamic cities is reaching new heights of cultural innovation.

Even by New York standards, these are extraordinary times in the city. There’s an explosion of growth in everything from technology and education to dining and real estate, keeping a $1.4 trillion economy in constant overdrive. People are moving into the metropolitan area in record numbers to take advantage of the jobs bonanza across all five boroughs, or just dropping by to take a gawk at the place—a record 58 million visitors came through last year, on the way to a projected 67 million annually in five years.

Throughout the centuries, New York has adapted and engineered solutions to its expanding population. It’s a city of innovation, where creativity isn’t restricted to the arts. It manifests in the way city planners have shaped its infrastructure, knocked it down and reinvented it; how the local business community responds to challenges from other markets; and how ultimately the solutions New York applies to remain on top serve as models for other metropolises in America and around the world.

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A vibrant tech scene is thriving in the shadow of the Mouse’s ears.

Twenty-five years ago, downtown Orlando, Fla.’s Church Street Station was hopping. The complex was one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state—until it wasn’t. The theme parks wanted in on Church Street Stations’s eat/shop/play success, so they built their own entertainment districts—think Downtown Disney, which opened in 2001. For Church Street Station, the impact was devastating. The once-bustling Church Street Exchange, the station’s former shopping emporium, sat empty.

That was then. Today, the Exchange is buzzing with new life. The reason? A booming tech community. Attracted by a well-educated workforce and lifestyle advantages, entrepreneurs are creating a vibrant hub that is perhaps the best evidence that Orlando is about more than just theme parks. Tech is not new to Orlando, but thanks to coworking spaces such a Canvs, which holds more than 100 tech-related businesses, or new companies such as PlanSource, a web-based human resources and benefits-administration company, downtown is now a place to work and play. Before the influx of tech startups in and around the Church Street Station, downtown dried up after the daily 5 p.m. exodus. “But now, any time of day or night, it is hopping,” says Donna Mackenzie, Canvs’ executive director.

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How California’s desert oasis drank from the Fountain of Youth.

For two weekends in April, throngs of young people descend on greater Palm Springs to attend what has become the largest music event in the world. In 2015, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival grossed $84.3 million over six days, with an average of just under 100,000 attendees per weekend. The 2016 festival crowds, about half of concertgoers under age 35, had an estimated impact of roughly $704 million on the area. It’s one of more than 200 events that takes place in the area between January and April, many of them drawing millennials. In simpler terms, Palm Springs is young again.

Wealth has been a constant in the Coachella Valley for nearly a century, but by about 2000, the desert oasis was widely seen as a place for the elderly. The glamour of its reputation as a retreat for Hollywood’s stars and a spring break destination for college students had faded, and businesses closed as a result. However, due to a proactive local government, the tide has turned and tourism is once again thriving. Upscale hotel brands including Ritz-Carlton, Ace Hotels, Kimpton and Virgin Hotels have opened properties or have them in the works. Millennial-favorite airline JetBlue introduced a seasonal nonstop flight to Palm Springs from New York in January, and last year BMW opened its second U.S. Performance Center at the area. “Palm Springs had the best infrastructure for what we wanted,” says Dan Gubitosa, director of the BMW Performance Center. “You have the hotels, restaurants, and good cultural events without that big city feel. It just made a lot of sense.”

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Attracting businesses and investments beyond real estate and tourism, Phoenix is positioning itself for the future.

In 2009, Phoenix had spiraled into an economic downturn caused by overbuilding, the housing crash and the resulting recession, which at its worst left more than 10 percent of the area’s population unemployed. Planned communities and residential high-rises sat vacant or unfurnished. The crisis in Phoenix wasn’t just a reflection of the times, but also of the region’s flawed economic approach: an overreliance on real estate.

Although the one constant bright spot has been tourism (thanks to the mild climate and nearby resort destination, Scottsdale), some community leaders were aware enough of the need to diversify to lay the groundwork for change. In the 1990s and early 2000s, forward-looking state legislators took notice of emerging businesses in the Valley, particularly technology, and worked to create a minimalist regulatory environment for corporations. The result? The creation of a burgeoning startup community and a tech community anchored by huge players: Yelp, Zenefits, Apple and Uber all have presences in Phoenix. “This is where companies come to scale. Here people can innovate without regulatory burdens,” says Chris Camacho, CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, a public-private partnership that aims to attract and support businesses.

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Community leadership, philanthropy and historic preservation have placed Pittsburgh on the fast track to a 21st-century renaissance.

During the later decades of the 20th century, the mining and manufacturing industries that had historically undergirded Pittsburgh’s economy confronted increased competition from overseas and a changing market. They crumbled: By the 1980s, 75 percent of the steel industry had vanished, taking much of the city’s population with it. Pittsburgh went from being the nation’s 10th largest city to falling far below the top 30 by the decade’s end.

Three decades later, Pittsburgh is on an entirely different trajectory. The economy has diversified, capitalizing on top-tier universities, federally funded research institutes and a population that’s far more educated than the nation as a whole. Apple, Google and Uber have opened major offices in Pittsburgh, and new companies are starting up. Population loss is stabilizing; the air is now breathable; and once-polluted rivers are open for fishing and boating and are lined with biking-hiking trails. The arts are thriving in the city, and real estate developers are arriving. “We’re an overnight success,” jokes Bill Flanagan, chief corporate relations officer for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, “after only spending decades on making Pittsburgh better.”

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Thanks in large part to a border economy that defies stereotypes and a world-class scientific community, a city famous for its surf is riding a different kind of wave.

San Diego is known for its practically perfect weather, its beaches, its booming biotech community and its strong economy. But one of the drivers behind that economy isn’t particularly well known to people outside of the region, even though it probably should be. In April 2016, the chambers of commerce of Tijuana and San Diego celebrated the opening of an on-ramp between the two cities, one of the first components of a $1.3 billion investment in border infrastructure by both San Diego and California governmental organizations.

That San Diego is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build a road connecting it to Mexico might come as a surprise to Americans who are following the presidential campaign, but the on-ramp is just one part of what business communities in San Diego and the Mexican state of Baja California call the “Cali-Baja Mega-Region.” The Mega-Region is a bilingual industrial furnace that has helped fuel the rise of San Diego as one of the most business-friendly, economically advanced cities in the country. Thanks in large part to a complex legal, social and economic symbiosis between Tijuana and San Diego, the Mega-Region’s GDP is estimated at more than $230 billion, roughly equal to that of Ireland. San Diego provides capital, scientific and technical knowledge, and management expertise, while Tijuana provides a highly skilled manufacturing workforce, ample space and lower costs. And it’s a major factor in why the city is thriving today.

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This city of enormous prosperity also faces great challenges. Can the techies solve the problems they helped create?

People who live in San Francisco—which in many ways is an incredible place to call home—are facing a paradox. In a city where the average salary for a tech worker is $176,275 and the average teacher is paid $65,240, it’s possible to see how those who aren’t part of the tech elite are finding San Francisco an increasingly unlivable place. Nevertheless, the economy is thriving, mostly fueled by the dozens of tech companies that call it home: Apple, Facebook, Google and Uber among many others. They have ushered in an era of intellectual creativity and business building that may be unparalleled in human history.

At the same time, the city these companies inhabit is dealing with the issues like homelessness (there are an estimated 6,000 homeless in the city) and a rise in crime—(San Francisco has the highest-per-capita property crime rate of the nation’s 50 largest cities). The city is becoming prohibitively expensive, but if tech is unintentionally contributing to the problem, is tech doing anything to solve it? The consensus is: not really. What will be the true test is how the city’s elites react to these growing problems. Even if this tech boom proves to be a bubble, it’s lasted long enough, and generated so much wealth beyond paper profits, that San Francisco’s economic divide isn’t going anywhere soon. The challenge is how to negotiate it; how to make San Francisco work for all of its residents.

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With a skilled workforce and a long history in aerospace, Seattle is becoming the world’s gateway to the stars.

The Seattle skyline is dominated by the Space Needle, a futurist tower constructed for the 1962 World’s Fair, themed the 21st century. It was the ’60s, and the space race dominated headlines. The exposition and the Space Needle presaged not just America’s arrival on the moon but also, half a century later, the emergence of an industry based in Seattle with perhaps greater potential to change the future of humanity than any other: commercial space exploration.

“We could, of course, set up anywhere in the world,” says Chris Lewicki, CEO of asteroid-mining startup Planetary Resources. “We very specifically chose Seattle.” The reasons? The city and its surrounding suburbs have a unique mix of resources that make it an ideal location for space startups. One of those resources—relatively cheap land and warehouse and hangar space—has been an attraction for the major legacy aerospace companies that have called Seattle home for many years. Boeing and rocket-thruster manufacturer Aerojet have major presences there, as do tech behemoths Microsoft and Amazon. And now, the city is host to a new crop of companies specializing in space exploration. “The new space companies are really starting to recognize that [Seattle] is the next place to be,” says Jeff Matthews, director of venture strategy and research at the Space Frontier Foundation. “It’s got the right infrastructure. It’s got enough skilled labor…It’s also a lot cheaper to live there and execute than it is to be in San Francisco.”

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