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Ten Great Small Towns to Operate a Business and to Retire

By Rick Farmer

If you’ve spent any time in the South, we know you’ll agree. There are literally hundreds of great towns spread across the region. Of those hundreds, there are dozens that deserve recognition for creating the kinds of business climates and quality lifestyles that people crave.

Of course, the entire purpose of a Top 10 list is to highlight a small handful of communities that stand out from the crowd. The 10 towns on this list are surely worthy of praise and recognition.

All of these communities have some things in common, things that make them great towns like access to quality healthcare, pro-business leadership, significant educational systems and advanced business development resources. Those things, combined with what we write below, make these 10 communities rise to the top. 

1. Beaufort/Bluffton, S.C.
When you got it, you got it. Beaufort County, with the historic waterfront town of Beaufort, the unique resort community Hilton Head Island, the lively port town of Port Royal and tech-savvy Bluffton, is one of the hottest spots in the South for both business development and retirement. 

How did Beaufort County -- nationally recognized for Beaufort’s historic downtown, expansive Intra-Coastal Waterway views and the lush beaches of Hilton Head Island -- become a new high-tech hub? Located midway between Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., maybe it’s the infrastructure the region has to get businesses up and running.  Then again, it maybe the hassle-free turnkey support the community provides.  Considering tech-based operations can be performed from just about anywhere, it’s probably because it’s about the best “anywhere” you can live.  Whether you’re a young professional trying to escape the big-city rat race, a retiree just wanting to enjoy the relaxed Lowcountry lifestyle, or the person who doesn’t want to retire to enjoy a high quality of life, Beaufort County has it all.   Sit back and enjoy the view.

2. Harrison, Ark.
All things being equal in looking at potential sites for business (incentives, taxes, quality of life, etc.) what brings Harrison to the top is an excellent business environment in a beautiful setting.  You can leave the office and in 30 minutes be floating the Buffalo River.  In an hour you can be in a major metropolitan area and then come back to an excellent setting to conduct business and raise a family.

Harrison and Boone County have a very pro-business climate, and follows the general rule that what benefits one member of its community, benefits the entire community. This progressive mindset means nothing is regarded as impossible in Harrison.

Retirees have access to great health care, cultural activities, a natural setting for maintaining a healthy lifestyle or staying involved in volunteer activities.  Seniors are a major component of the Harrison economy, but they give as much back to the community as they take through public services. 

You really can have it all in Harrison, Ark., from great business opportunities to the kind of retirement lifestyle that is the envy of other communities.

3. Hendersonville, N.C.
If beautiful vistas and breathtaking scenery were the only criteria for a great place to retire, Hendersonville would have the title wrapped up, but there’s a lot more to this beautiful town located in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, just 22 miles southeast of Asheville.

Hendersonville has been a magnet community for retirees for decades, many lured by the beauty of the area, but many others come for plentiful business opportunities this growing community provides. For instance, nearby Western Carolina University offers a master of entrepreneurship degree, the kind of program most small universities haven’t even thought of.

Known as the “City of Four Seasons,” Hendersonville is situated in a prime location for retirees who want to experience the changing seasons, something that those living just 100 miles to the south don’t really experience. While Hendersonville has a unique culture all its own, it is also an easy jaunt to the large cities of Greenville, Charlotte and Atlanta, making Hendersonville as accessible as it is gorgeous.

4. Foley, Ala.
Located just southeast of Mobile, Ala., Foley is ideally situated close to the beautiful, powerful Gulf of Mexico and the serene, tranquil back bays of its surrounding corporate limits. 

Successfully morphing itself from a historically agrarian culture to one of regional tourism and business, Foley continues to exceed the expectations of those corporate entities wishing to relocate manufacturing and corporate offices to the area.  Approximately 20 financial institutions have branches within Foley's city limits, while commerce continues to grow through franchise organizations and small "mom-and-pop" ventures.  Three local schools are undergoing an estimated $100 million dollars in capital improvements and expansions, meaning Foley knows that a commitment to education is the foundation of all successful communities.

With all this commercial growth one might ask how Foley has remained a prime retirement location.  Here's how:  golf courses, waterfront property, fine arts galleries, performing arts venues, retirement villages, access to state-of-the-art healthcare facilities, and more.  Its people, its hospitality, and its pride in being one of the best small cities in the Southeast are things that keep Foley growing strong, and make it an attractive place to both live, work and retire.

5. Hattiesburg, Miss.
Known as “The Hub City,” Hattiesburg has long been a town of diverse people and interests, including business interests. In this modern economy, however, Hattiesburg is making a name for itself as a place where technology companies flourish.

The I-59 Technology Corridor is a 168-mile span of Interstate 59 that has grown to be a coveted location. Hattiesburg is located in the center, between Birmingham, Ala., to the northeast and New Orleans to the southwest. Along this stretch of highway, more than 400 companies employ about 11,000 workers. Industries along the I-59 Technology Corridor include Kohler Engines, GE Plastics, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and more.

Hattiesburg also prides itself in being a community that’s small enough to have that small-town charm, yet large enough to have most of the necessary amenities that people demand. Hattiesburg is the home of the University of Southern Mississippi, which adds a college flavor to the mix.

As for retirees, it doesn’t hurt to have a warm subtropical climate and to be only an hour from the sandy white beaches of the Gulf of Mexico and the casinos of Biloxi. 

6. Charlottesville, Va.
Located in the heart of Virginia, Charlottesville is best known to outsiders as the home of the University of Virginia, a top-quality institution of higher learning founded by Thomas Jefferson nearly 200 years ago.

Charlottesville is one of those unique places that offer the types of amenities that both retirees and small businesses look for in a place to call home.  At the top of the list is proximity. Charlottesville is centrally located on the Eastern Seaboard, less than 100 miles from Washington, D.C., and about 70 miles from the state capitol, Richmond
Charlottesville is easily accessible, with good north-to-south access via U.S. Highway 29, and east-west access via Interstate 64.  This translates into excellent customer access for its corporate community. It also means access to the offerings of the big city or extended family for our retirees without giving up the pastoral setting that you find in central Virginia.
The University of Virginia offers a steady pipeline of talent for new and expanding companies in the area.  It also is a source of technology transfer and commercialization that has created dozens of new companies over the past decade.  Many of these entrepreneurs are coming out of the university's highly rated health system, which for obvious reasons has become a strong magnet for relocating retirees.  There is also a strong support base for aging in place here. ost forward-thinking communities sell lifestyle, but it is truly a differentiator in the Charlottesville Region.  The presence of the university, great schools, neighborhoods, art, culture and recreation combine to make this a truly unique location, excellent for business and retirement.

7. Valdosta, Quitman, Lakeland, Ga.
Just northeast of Tallahassee, near the Florida State line, Valdosta, Ga., and its neighboring towns of Quitman and Lakeland offer the kind of near-seasonless weather that retirees crave, while simultaneously creating the kind of economic climate that businesses need.

Valdosta, known as the Azalea City, is the hub of the three towns, while Quitman, just to the west in Brooks County, is a much smaller community. Even smaller is Lakeland, just on the other side of Banks Lake, a 13,000-acre wildlife preserve known across the country for its pristine habitats.

There are numerous reasons that make locating in this area good business sense. In fact, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue named Valdosta Georgia’s first “Entrepreneur Friendly City.” Another major factor is Moody Air Force Base, located between Valdosta and Lakeland on U.S. Highway 221, which is a source of skilled, dependable labor. There’s also Valdosta State University and its 11,000 students, and Regional Technical College, where work force training makes life easier for business owners.

The beauty of the Valdosta MSA, including Lakeland and Quitman, is the natural outdoors and the quiet, laid-back country lifestyle that retirees want.

8. Murray/Calloway County, Ky.
Murray/Calloway County, Ky. is a vibrant growing community that still enjoys small-town charm. The area is home to a major regional university and a growing number of businesses and industries.

Murray State University and its 10,000-plus students add tremendously to this market, making the work force more educated and diverse than you might expect. Along with being a college town, Murray/Calloway County offers a host of other advantages such as low crime, affordable housing, low taxes, strong public school systems, and excellent telecommunications infrastructure.

For outdoor enthusiasts, Calloway County borders Kentucky Lake, the largest body of water between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. Just eight miles east of Kentucky Lake is Lake Barley, which is huge in its own right. The peninsula between the two bodies, known as the Land Between the Lakes, is a 170,000-acre Natural Recreation Area. It provides wealth of recreational opportunities to Murray/Calloway County.

With all that it has to offer, it’s no wonder that Murray/Calloway County has already attracted several “household name” companies such as Pella Windows, Briggs & Stratton and others.

9. Oxford, Miss.
AARP’s magazine called Oxford “one of the 50 Most Alive Places to Live in America.”
Nestled among the rolling hills of North Mississippi, great shopping, dining, sports and culture can be found in historic Oxford. This vibrant university town is located 70 miles south of Memphis and is home to about 12,000 residents.

The University of Mississippi, affectionately known as Ole Miss, has helped pave the way for economic growth in Oxford. The university, with about 12,000 students, offers opportunities for businesses to collaborate with its more than 20 institutes. Ole Miss also adds to Oxford’s quality of life with an array of sporting events, scholarly presentations and museums.

Although it is destined to grow in popularity with businesses (especially with Toyota building its new plant in Tupelo), Oxford seems committed to maintaining its charm and gentility. Its historic Courthouse Square, health care facilities, and four mild seasons have helped it gain many accolades as a top retirement location. What makes this community a big winner in our book though is that Oxford also offers generous economic incentives, access to university researchers, and an available, high-quality work force.

10. Stillwater, Ok.
The state of Oklahoma is well known for its business friendly climate, with one of the lowest tax burdens in the country and the kind of cost of living most communities would love to have. Oklahoma also boasts the seventh lowest business costs in the country, and was ranked the 14th best pro-business state by Pollina Corporate Real Estate.

Locally, Stillwater’s development process is as streamlined and business friendly as possible, with a fast-track permitting process, startup business assistance and a $2 million economic incentive pool called Forward Stillwater. Stillwater also sports a cost of living index about 10 percent below the national average.

The quintessential college town, Stillwater is home to Oklahoma State University, a massive influence that has significant impacts on life and culture in Stillwater. Stillwater residents enjoy easy access to the finest health care services, and recreational opportunities abound, from golf to boating to hiking. Culturally speaking, Stillwater has enough to keep retirees interested, from Countryside Studio and Gallery to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

 Southern Business & Development

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