Wednesday, October 7, 2015
Which U.P. Town Is The Best?
Aerial view of Marquette, Michigan
My dad was a big booster of the U.P. He’d traveled around the world, but his opinion was that there was no place better to live than the U.P. in general and our home town of Menominee in particular . He embraced our natural surroundings — the forests, lakes, rivers, flora, and wildlife — as well as the virtues of small town life and the quality of the people. When confronted with newspaper reports that the U.P.’s population was declining, Vic typically applauded, arguing that the fewer the people, the better things would become.
Katja and I have lived for varied amounts of time in big cities (Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco), in medium-sized cities (Ann Arbor, Madison), and in small towns (Menominee; Yellow Springs, OH; Bethel, ME). While we’ve opted for big city living for most of our adult lives, it’s clear to me that a small U.P. town like Menominee has a number of unique and desirable qualities: e.g., location on the water; wilderness surroundings; ideal summer weather and a real winter; hunting, fishing, camping, boating, bicycling; outdoor sports of all kinds; a low crime rate; a low cost of living; small town values of community and helpfulness; and ready access by car to larger metropolitan areas (e.g., Green Bay, Milwaukee, Chicago).
There are various web-sites that provide detailed statistical data on American towns and cities. Having accumulated a batch of information on Menominee in the past, I decided it would be interesting to compare major U.P. towns on “quality of life” dimensions. I relied on two of the most comprehensive sources for this purpose: www.city-data.com and www.bestplaces.net. I selected data for the ten largest towns in the U.P.: Marquette (pop. 21,383); Sault Ste. Marie (14,251), Escanaba (12,609), Menominee (8,603), Houghton (7,692), Iron Mountain (7,662), Ishpeming (6,500), Ironwood (5,366), and Kingsford (5,164). There are, of course, many different variables on which to compare communities. For my purposes, I picked seven dimensions. These were: (1) Education level (% of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher, labelled “Educ” in the table below); (2) Income (estimated median per capita income, “Incom” in the table); (3) Unemployment rate (circa 2013, “Unemp”); (4) Crime rate (average of violent and property crime on a 1-100 scale, “Crime”), (5) City Parks budget (budget per resident allocated to city parks, “$ Parks”), (6) Doctors per capita (number of M.D.’s per 10,000 residents, “MDs”), and (7) Population Change (population growth or decline since 2000, “Pop. Chng”). Cities were regarded as more favorable when they had higher education and income levels, lower unemployment, lower crime, a larger parks budget, more doctors per capita, and population increases since 2000. The table below shows the raw data for each town, as well as its rank ordering among the ten communities, from 1 (most favorable) to 10 (least favorable). I’ve also provided average scores for the U.S. as a whole on the various dimensions. The towns are ordered sequentially in the table from Marquette, which had the highest average ranking on the seven indices (1.8), to Ironwood which had the lowest average ranking of 7.2 out of 10.
Table: Comparison of ten U.P. towns on seven dimensions (with towns ordered from the most favorable average ranking [Marquette] to the least favorable [Ironwood]).
Town Educ Incom Unemp Crime Parks MDs Chng
Marquette 35% $21K 6.3% 32.7 $82 39 +9.3%
(2) (4) (1) (1) (2) (1.5) (1)
Kingsford 15% $23K 7.0% 37.8 $38 29 -7.3%
(9) (1) (2.5) (4) (6) (3.5) (4)
Gladstone 25% $22K 8.7% 32.9 $75 14 -9.1%
(3) (3) (6.5) (2) (4) (7.5) (7)
Iron Mountain 24% $23K 7.0% 40.1 $10 29 -8.6%
(4) (2) (2.5) (5) (10) (3.5) (6)
Ishpeming 19% $20K 7.4% 37.5 $29 39 -2.4%
(7) (8) (5) (3) (9) (1.5) (3)
Houghton 51% $15K 8.5% 60.0 $29 17 +4.8%
(1) (10) (8) (8) (8) (5) (2)
Menominee 14% $20K 7.1% 45.4 $80 6 -9.2%
(10) (7) (4) (6) (3) (10) (8)
Sault Ste Marie 20% $21K 11.4% 62.8 $87 12 -14.3%
(5.5) (5) (10) (10) (1) (9) (9)
Escanaba 17% $19K 8.7% 60.6 $61 14 -7.4%
(8) (9) (6.5) (9) (5) (7.5) (5)
Ironwood 20% $21K 9.6% 46.4 $30 16 -14.6%
(5.5) (6) (9) (7) (7) (6) (10)
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
U.S. Average 29% $29K 6.3% 42.5 NA 26.1 +8.5
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The U.P. has been an economically depressed region for many decades, and it shows up here in terms of income levels below the national average for all ten towns and unemployment higher in 9 of 10 towns. (I should note that cost of living is also well below the national average.) Education levels are lower than the national average in all except two college towns, Houghton and Marquette. Eight of the 10 U.P. towns showed a population decrease since 2000. Crime rates and MDs per capita are similar, on average, to national trends.
While most of the U.P. towns are clustered fairly closely on these seven dimensions, Marquette stands out as a clear favorite, ranking first or second on 6 of the 7 dimensions examined. My brother Peter attended Northern Michigan University in Marquette for a while, and my brother Steven graduated from Northern before going to law school. Both enjoyed their stays in Marquette, and that’s not surprising since the town has enjoyed many accolades. It was recently identified by CNN/Money as one of the top five places in the U.S. to retire. Gear Patrol, a travel adventure website, lists Marquette among the top 25 adventure travel destinations in the world, along with Tangier, Istanbul, and Bogota. It’s also been ranked among the 10 Best Small Cities in America (Nerwdwallet), the top 10% of Towns for Outdoorsmen (Outdoor Life), one of the 10 best Winter Wonderlands for Retirement (US New & World Report), and the third best small city in the U.S. for raising kids (Forbes).
Marquette has abundant outdoor activities — hiking on Sugarloaf Mountain or in Presque Isle Park, world-class mountain biking, and sweet water paddling on Lake Superior. There’s Nordic skiing in the winter, boat tours in the summer. In addition to the university campus, there are six museums and galleries in Marquette, including the Maritime Museum, the Iron Industry Museum, the Marquette County History Museum, and the U.P Children’s Museum. The Superior Dome, home to the NMU football team, is the world’s largest wooden dome. The downtown historic district houses boutiques, art galleries, antique stores, and good restaurants. Da Yoopers Tourist Trap features the world’s largest working chainsaw. At various times the city offers music festivals, food festivals, summer theater, ski and sled dog races, and an annual wife-carrying competition.
I’m disappointed that my home town, Menominee, didn’t come out at the top of the heap, but it’s our first choice for family visits nonetheless Now I’m itching to visit the U.P. and take a trip up to Marquette.