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JOSEPH N. BELL

Tired of No. 8? Livability Guru Has Some Hot Tips

November 09, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

Eighth place probably doesn't merit it, but if Orange County decided to throw a parade to express its appreciation to David Savageau, he'd come. It hasn't always been that way. Pittsburgh--which was named the most livable city in the United States by Savageau in 1985-- did throw a parade, and Savageau turned it down cold.

"I took everything a lot more seriously then," he explained over lunch at a local restaurant the other day. "I didn't want people to think we were in anyone's pocket. I've been given the keys to a lot of cities, and I've always given them back."

Savageau--an affable, slightly self-deprecating 40ish man--was in Orange County promoting the new edition of "Places Rated Almanac," which he co-authors every four years with Richard Boyer. One of the reasons his publishers (Simon & Schuster) sent him here is because Orange County has moved up 40 places since 1985 and now ranks as the eighth most livable place in the United States.

The main reason for the jump, explains Savageau, is "the phenomenal growth of Orange County--400,000 new people in nine years from all over the country--and the corollary influx of business concerns and job opportunities." As a result, Orange County--identified in the 1989 Almanac as Anaheim-Santa Ana but actually, Savageau said, that meant the entire county--ranked No. 1 in the nation in job opportunities. It also checked in with the fifth highest --among 333 metropolitan areas ranked--cost of living.

Savageau admits that the top-ranked cities in livability also tend to be the most expensive places to live, creating a problem for non-millionaires seeking greener pastures. The city with the lowest cost of living is Pine Bluff, Ark.--which also came in dead last as a desirable place to live.

Pine Bluff did not react well to the distinction. When Savageau was being interviewed on a radio talk show recently, the host phoned the mayor of Pine Bluff. "The mayor," recalls Savageau, without rancor, "said I was a snake and that my book was worse than the National Enquirer."

Such candor is both disarming and typical of Savageau's easygoing style. The livability winner in the 1989 rankings is Seattle, a city with which Savageau admits little familiarity beyond his statistics. "I went up there recently to have a look at it," he told me, "and I wasn't as taken with it as I expected to be--which is an indication of my objectivity. It was a kind of frumpy city until about 10 years ago. Characters in novels moved there to open dry-cleaning establishments."

But the public perceptions of Seattle are much more positive than Pittsburgh, which emerged unexpectedly from his mass of data to win the 1985 rankings (and finished third this year). "Pittsburgh was a shock to my publishers, and they took a hard look at it, but we had to go with the figures. Now, Pittsburgh is being seen as a highly desirable place by all sorts of people--including Fortune magazine."

Savageau's unfamiliarity with Seattle didn't extend as far down the West Coast as Orange County. When he was growing up in Denver in the 1950s, his parents used to bring him here on vacations, and he's been back many times since. He went to college at Notre Dame--"1988 national football champs," he noted--and went to work as a book salesman for Little, Brown & Co., working his way up to national sales manager.

But in the mid-1970s, "I was tired of the traveling and I wanted to leave Boston for a better climate." So he sent away for literature on other places, and "it all sounded alike, all superlatives. Every place in the country had a healthy climate, outstanding job opportunities, superior schools. I couldn't sort it out, and that's when I got the idea for filling this need a lot of people must feel with hard information."

His soon-to-be partner was an editor at Little, Brown, and when Savageau told him about his idea at a New Year's Eve party, "he flipped out." But publishers were less enthusiastic. The idea was turned down by 15 publishers "who were leery of all the statistical data because they didn't think people would read it. They were dead wrong." Rand McNally finally bought the idea and came up with a $20,000 advance, which lasted about six months of the four years it took to research the first volume in 1981. Boyer wrote several successful mystery novels, and Savageau hired out as a corporate headhunter to keep bread on the table while they produced their first almanac.

"Even our publisher thought it would only be of interest to corporate personnel departments, but people bought it. The first edition sold 130,000 copies, and now there are about a half-million in print. We had no idea the media would pick up this idea and run with it the way they did."

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