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County Is 8th-Best U.S. Area, Money Says

July 24, 1988|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

Orange County residents might despair over unbridled growth and traffic congestion, but they still live in the eighth-best place in America, according to a Money magazine list released Saturday.

This year's Money ranking of 300 U.S. areas shows that Orange County has moved up from 10th to eighth among best places to live. Magazine staffers looked at such things as crime rate, schools, proximity to cultural activities and hospitals, and economic health.

In order, the top 10 regions, listed in the magazine's August issue, are Danbury, Conn.; central New Jersey; Norwalk, Conn.; New York's Long Island; San Francisco; Nashua, N.H.; Los Angeles-Long Beach; Orange County; Boston, and Bergen and Passaic counties in New Jersey.

"How can we only be the eighth-best place?" asked Ron Birtcher, general partner in Birtcher, a Laguna Niguel-based national real estate development firm. "I'm sitting in a marvelous place, playing dominoes under a bright blue sky under palm trees and you tell me we're only the eighth best? I find it hard to imagine."

"I'm favorably impressed," Irvine Mayor Larry Agran said. "I think it's a fine place to live. The real question is whether we have the skills and perseverance to maintain an attractive quality of life."

In the 1987 Orange County Annual Survey conducted by the UC Irvine Public Policy Research Organization, 54% of residents polled said the quality of life is declining, mostly due to traffic congestion and rapid growth. But 44% said they were happy in their personal lives.

Danbury moved from fifth place to the top of the list because of a lower crime rate, slightly better schools and its proximity to New York City's museums, theaters and top-flight hospitals, Money says.

Danbury, with 60,470 residents, is about 55 miles northeast of New York.

"I think it's great. It makes us feel good," said Robert D. Kennedy, chairman of Union Carbide Corp., which is headquartered in Danbury.

But a shopper on Danbury's Main Street questioned the ranking.

"I don't know why," said the woman, who identified herself only as Barbara. "It's boring. When we want to do something, we go into" New York City.

The rating was also questioned in Atlantic City, N.J., which came in last.

"It's almost a laughing matter to me," Mayor James Usry said. "I think some of the data or statistics or research they used is faulty. I have made my home here and I'm proud of the progress being made here."

New York City was rated 19th, up from 82nd last year.

"Naturally, we would still think it's too low--because we think it's No. 1," said Rose Marie Conors, spokeswoman for Mayor Edward I. Koch.

"Being top dog is always preferable to sixth place, but we don't feel too bad nestled between San Francisco and L.A.," said Michael Valuk, executive director of the New Hampshire Assn. of Commerce & Industry, which includes the Nashua Chamber of Commerce.

The "streaking stars" included Midwestern cities with growing economies--such as Cleveland, up from 83 last year to 22, and Cincinnati, up from 104 to 31.

Flint, Mich., inched up from the bottom of the list to 293. Flint residents were "pretty steamed up" about last year's survey; some even burned copies of the magazine, said Money managing editor Landon Y. Jones.

Areas that plummeted this year tended to be relatively crime-free and inexpensive, but plagued by weak economies, such as the Houma-Thibodaux, La., area, down from 11 last year to 128; the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre, Pa., area, down from 9 to 114; and Wheeling, W.Va., down from 3 to 45.

"I don't think (the economy is) any weaker than when we were named No. 3," Wheeling Mayor Tom Baller said. "I don't know how they come up with these figures."

Money staffers sifted through government and private data on the nation's largest metropolitan statistical areas, ranking their crime, housing, health, economy, arts, education, transit, weather and leisure activities. They visited the top and bottom 10 regions.

Even top-rated Danbury had its drawbacks. A three-bedroom house there typically costs $175,000 or more--not unusual, considering each of the top 10 areas scored poorly in the housing price category.

By contrast, the Atlantic City area--No. 300 this year--"has a marvelous, 5-mile stretch of boardwalk beachfront, stately houses in surrounding towns and an outstanding public library," the magazine says.

The bottom 10 among the 300 are Des Moines, Iowa; Rockford, Ill.; Flint; New Bedford, Mass.; Janesville-Beloit, Wis.; Battle Creek, Mich.; Yuba City, Calif.; Benton Harbor, Mich.; Jackson, Mich., and Atlantic City.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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