Area Development
"Quality of life" is a common phrase that you will encounter in the marketing materials and web pages of almost any economic development organization in the country. Actually, quality of life isn't a single factor but instead is a combination of many, some measurable and some not. Its ambiguity makes any universal definition or measurement extremely difficult. It is possible, however, to define and calculate quality-of-life factors for your specific company when comparing locations. Which are important and how each is weighted in the final comparative analysis will be unique to your needs. As any site selection consultant will tell you, no two searches are alike.

Professional Recruitment
For mobile entrepreneurs and small business owners looking to move, quality of life plays a role in the decision because these individuals usually choose locations based on their own personal preferences. Larger companies, on the other hand, tend to consider quality-of-life factors in relation to the ability to recruit professionals and attract transferees. This is particularly important for corporate headquarters, regional sales and marketing offices, and high-tech research and development or manufacturing facilities that require large numbers of engineers.

A general rule of thumb is that the greater the number of professionals who will be transferred or recruited from elsewhere, the more important quality-of-life factors will be. How each factor is ranked depends on the type of professional the company needs to attract to the new location. Recent college graduates, for example, might lean more toward cities with an active downtown nightlife; young married professionals with children would be more attracted to cities that offer high-quality public education systems and family-oriented attractions; and older professionals might prefer prestigious country clubs or performing arts centers.

While some location searches do not include quality of life until the process has been narrowed to a short list of locations, quality-of-life factors often go to the top of the criteria list quite early in the process when searching for corporate headquarters, according to Mark Sweeney of McCallum Sweeney Consulting, who cites as an example the recent decision by Nissan North America, Inc., to relocate its headquarters from Gardena, Calif., to the Nashville, Tenn., area. The company, which moved its corporate operations to temporary offices in downtown Nashville over the summer, reports that more than 45 percent of professional, managerial, and executive employees have chosen to relocate. The site for its new headquarters, under construction and scheduled for completion in 2008, is just south of Nashville in Williamson County - which happens to be the most upscale of all the surrounding counties.

For relocations, particularly headquarters, "part of the whole strategy is to convince the largest number of people to transfer," says C.R. "Buzz" Canup, president of site selection for Angelou Economics. When evaluating locations for quality of life criteria, he uses a list of 10 to 15 subfactors that basically remain the same from one study to another, but change in value according to the company's specifications or corporate culture. In the recreation subfactor, for instance, one company might want mountain bike trails while another considers golf courses to be the highest priority. Or in higher education, one company might want a major research university in the area while another might want access to a community college that can offer courses tailored to company needs.

For Intel Corporation, which recently selected Fort Collins, Colorado, for a new computer chip design center, quality of life is a "huge" factor whenever the company is looking for a new site, according to Judy Cara, the company's community and government relations manager. Intel had already been operating in Fort Collins for several years under a co-location arrangement with Hewlett Packard when the HP designers there joined Intel. "Overnight, our head count increased by 300," says Cara, who is based in Colorado Springs and, because she is familiar with the area, was given responsibility to play a major role in the search for a new design facility site.

Although the final deciding factor for Intel was not related to quality of life but instead was the sudden availability of a suitable existing building, Cara emphasizes that quality-of-life factors still played a big role in the decision. Quality of education, reasonable cost of living - including healthcare costs - and other more subjective benefits such as the area's "outdoorsy lifestyle factor" and its "300 days of sunshine a year" were important parts of the equation, she says. Fort Collins, which ranked first in Money magazine's August 2006 list of "America's Best Places to Live," has clearly found success in attracting high-tech R&D operations. In September, Advanced Micro Devices, Inc., opened its new "Mile High Design Center" for advanced microprocessor development. Security camera manufacturer Pelco also selected Fort Collins for its new product development center, which now employs about 25 engineers.

Data Sources
There is a vast amount of demographic data and other information that decision-makers can use to analyze quality-of-life factors. Some of the more widely available sources include online programs and published lists that rank locations based on a wide range of criteria. Interestingly, no two lists of "best" locations are the same, not only because different data are used but also because the information is weighed and analyzed differently.

For example, Money magazine lists Fort Collins, Colorado; Naperville, Illinois; and Sugar Land, Tex., as the top three "America's Best Places to Live," while Kiplinger's "Smart Cities" ranking cites Nashville, Tennessee; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota; and Albuquerque, New Mexico, as its top three. Meanwhile, Bert Sperling's "Best Places" list has Charlottesville, Virginia; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and San Luis Obispo-Atascadero-Paso Robles, California, at the top.

A wealth of data is available from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, although searching for the information can be time-consuming. There are many government agencies and industry associations that can provide statistics on a wide range of specific quality-of-life factors. For example, you can get crime rate comparisons from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, commuting pattern information from the Federal Highway Administration, and healthcare-related data from the American Medical Association or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The key is to first define exactly which factors are most important to each individual search.

What's Ahead
Peter Sander, co-author with Sperling of Cities Ranked and Rated, says that the next edition of the book, due out in April 2007, will focus more on long-term economic projections and also place more value on cost of living. Considering the increasing disparity of housing costs, he explains, cost of living "is a good starting point for quality of life," he says. Places with a generally strong business climate are also attractive places to live, Sander adds, noting that "when businesses are healthy, they contribute to the arts and infrastructure." This in turn improves overall quality of life in the area.

Both Sander and Sperling are leery of areas with too-rapid growth, however. "You don't want an out-of-control economy," says Sperling, "because afterward you have a huge hangover." The dot-com boom and bust, for example, left a lot of half-finished projects and, according to Sperling, the same thing can happen in communities that grow too quickly. As the economy appears to be experiencing slow growth, stable places with solid economies, perhaps state capitals or Midwestern university towns, might be better bets than trendy, high-growth areas "because they never experienced the crazy growth and are better prepared for economic downturn," he says. On the other hand, depending on the type of professionals your business hopes to recruit to the new location, a trendy, high-growth area might be exactly what your company needs.