The Lure of Small Southern Towns




by Gerald W. Sweitzer and Kathy M. Fields

Over the past half-century, the South has become a destination for many Americans seeking a good climate, a more relaxed lifestyle, and new vocational and recreational opportunities. The region’s relatively low cost of living, diverse geography, and reputation for the finest of Southern traditions—warm hospitality, old-fashioned manners, a friendly style, and a slower pace—have attracted people of all ages and income groups. The influx of newcomers is changing the look of the South, spurring not only industrial growth and economic expansion, but also opening up new cultural horizons.

This major trend is continuing into the twenty-first century. Not only are large metropolitan areas in the South still expanding at record rates, but population in small cities and towns is also increasing. The early reports of the 2000 census count shows that population growth in the South and West far outpaced that in the North and Midwest. More people live in the South (100 million) than in any other region—Northeast, Midwest, West—according to a report on the 2000 Census published by the Bureau of the Census. The Southeast makes up 66.6 million of the 100 million. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, “Americans are Moving South,” reported that large numbers of people ages thirty to sixty-five are migrating to the South, and the median income levels of people moving to the South exceed those of people moving away. The South is not only attracting more people, it is attracting a wide range of better educated, more affluent residents who add to the potential for continued economic expansion. The southward migration of sixty-something retirees and fiftyish baby boomers with their bulging 401Ks and flexible work schedules does not seem to be slowing. Today the South accounts for the highest percentage of senior (over age sixty-five) population growth in the United States. Moreover, according to America’s Demography in the New Century, published by the Milken Institute in California, the fastest-growing senior population can be found in smaller and medium-size metropolitan areas in the West and South.

In the 1990s, a new trend emerged: a significant number of city dwellers moved from large cities to small cities and towns. In a press release dated June 30, 1999, the U.S. Census Bureau reported, “Smaller cities with populations between 10,000 and 50,000 grew at a faster rate than their larger counterparts....Cities with populations between 10,000 and 50,000 grew faster (8.6 percent) than any other category.” In 1997 Time magazine featured a major article entitled “Why More Americans Are Fleeing to Small Towns.” A 1997 study entitled “Futurescapes: Redefining Strategies for the 21st Century,” by ActivMedia Research LLC, predicted that during the twenty-first century global networking will send Americans out of cities and into the hinterlands, a direct reversal of the last century’s flow from farm to city.

According to Harry Dent Jr. in his book called The Roaring 2000’s, technology in the fields of communication, energy, and transportation will prompt major migration from suburbs to small towns and “exurbs” (communities located farther out from suburbs). “We are going to see at least 20 percent of the population of North America, or approximately 70 million people, migrate to exurban areas, small towns and new-growth cities in the next three decades,” Dent predicts. As the exurbs and towns grow and as demands for services and businesses increase, job opportunities expand.

The payoffs in small-town living can be extensive: less traffic and congestion, a less complex lifestyle, and cleaner air, to name a few. Also, fewer commuting hours can mean more time for family, children and friends, and the potential to develop new avocational interests and new business opportunities. Finally, many are attracted to small town living because they are looking for a closer feeling of community along with a stronger sense of personal identity.

The southward migration seems to be driven by several factors. Little data has been collected on why people are moving to small towns in the South, but numerous articles have been written by and about those who have made this move and are happy with their decision. Several common elements appear to have influenced their decisions. The first, and probably foremost, is climate. The region provides more daylight hours and longer seasons of mild weather for sports, exercise, and the sheer enjoyment of the beauty and serenity of nature’s wonders. The lower cost of living, including housing costs, is another major attraction. Housing is typically a family’s greatest expense; lowering this cost can free up dollars for other areas. It can also make a difference in the number of work hours needed to support a comfortable lifestyle. If costs are lower, you may be able to work fewer hours. Another draw is the South’s strong economy, due largely to a significant increase in industry and businesses. Land and office space are generally cheaper and the labor pool is plentiful. The slower pace in Southern small towns can be a welcome contrast to the hurried style of many larger cities. A growing number of people are returning to their hometowns, a reverse of earlier movements from small hometowns to larger urban areas.


Favorable Climate

The moderate climate may be the most appealing aspect of the South. You can find a wide range of climates—from the crisp, cool autumns and the snowy winters of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smokies to the warm summers and mild winters of the Golden Isles along Georgia’s coast. Although snow accumulation is rare in the southernmost states, in some parts of North Carolina and Tennessee annual snowfalls are sufficient for good skiing and other winter sports. Outside of the mountainous regions, high humidity and temperatures in the nineties are common during the summer months, but air conditioning in most homes, cars, and businesses eases the effect of the heat.

Between these two extremes lie many moderate, four-season locations. Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and northern Georgia and Alabama offer mild temperatures, distinct seasons, occasional light snow, and lower humidity. Winter lasts only two to three months in much of the South, a marked contrast to other parts of the country where winter begins in October and ends in April. Indian summers often extend the mild weather well into the fall months. Further south, the trade winds along the southeastern coast provide pleasant summer evenings, and tropical breezes bring relief from the high humidity.


Lower Costs

The National Association of Realtors reports the national median price for an existing home was $139,100 for 2000. The same source gives the median home price for the South as $128,200 for metropolitan areas in the South. In an article entitled “America’s 50 Hottest Little Boomtowns,” Money magazine compared housing costs for a typical three-bedroom house in each town. Two-thirds of the towns with the lowest housing costs were in Southern states.

ACCRA’s third-quarter 2000 report, which compared housing costs in cities throughout the United States, found that the overall cost of housing for cities in the South is lower than in the other sections. Some examples are listed below.

While housing prices (whether purchase or rental) are good indicators of the relative cost of living for a community, other factors also come into play. As a rule, small towns in the South not only have lower land prices and property taxes, but they also have more modest fees for personal or medical services, and less expensive entertainment and recreation. Groceries, fuel, and household goods, however, can often cost more because of the expense of transporting goods and a lack of intense competition. Utilities will likely cost the same in the small town as the larger city. Resort areas and small towns located near large cities generally have a higher cost of living than non-resort towns and towns more than seventy miles from a city. Overall, the best value in housing costs and overall living expenses are found in small towns near small cities.


A Gentler Pace

The Hollywood stereotype of life in the South—unhurried and laid back—has a basis in reality. People who move to smaller towns in the South can’t help noticing the slower pace—and many like it. Southern residents are perceived as more friendly, more courteous, and less likely to be in a hurry. It’s no wonder that so many stressed-out city dwellers from all over the country head south.

Americans’ longer working hours and greater responsibilities have led to higher levels of stress, increased health problems, less time for family and friends, and less enjoyment of life. A national shift in priorities, rooted in the movements toward “simple living” and “downsizing,” is now building demand for a slower-paced and a more balanced lifestyle.

We usually assume that the natural time to look for simpler, more relaxed living is when you are approaching retirement age. Recent surveys have shown, however, that many people in their twenties feel strongly that the opportunities in small companies and in small towns are preferable to working long hours for large corporations in crowded metropolitan areas. Young families recognize the value of spending more time with each other. People of all ages are choosing a calmer, more rewarding way of life.


Strong Economy

“By every conceivable economic yardstick, it has become arguably the best region in which to build a business or find a job. The South is the place to be,” states the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, “The Two Souths.” In the 1990s, the South led the nation in housing starts, population growth, and employment gains. New home construction was up in 1999 in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Florida, and Georgia. Population growth has increased in all the southeastern states. The same survey reports that “the Southeast continues to lead the nation in job growth,” and further notes that in 1999, of the 2.7 million jobs created in the United States, 28.8 percent were in the Southeast.

Large and midsize companies are attracted to the Southeast because of the lower capital and operation costs. Land is cheaper; buildings cost less to lease, buy, or construct; and overall labor costs are lower. Reduced overhead means greater opportunities for a wider profit margin. More companies moving into the Southern region means more jobs for those who live there. While the major cities in the South get a large share of the credit for the strong growth and economic showing, small Southern towns have also grown. A ripple of prosperity from the large Southern cities has spread to small towns, especially those within a one- or two-hour’s drive of large cities.


Outdoor Recreational Opportunities

With its diverse geography and mild climate, the South offers a year-round range of outdoor recreation and activities such as gardening, biking, and walking. The extensive coastline and many inland lakes and rivers provide opportunities for boating, swimming, fishing, and related activities. Golf and tennis are popular throughout the South and can be played in most of the Southern states for at least nine months of the year. The Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains draw a wide range of outdoor enthusiasts for hiking, camping, white-water rafting, canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. With less time spent commuting to and from work and easier access to recreational facilities, individuals find they have more time to participate in recreational opportunities.


Telecommuting and E-Commerce

As city commuting time captures a larger share of our workday, the dream of telecommuting from a small town, or operating a small business in a small town, sparks many to explore small town living. Working outside a traditional office setting is appealing to employers as well as employees. The development of technology that supports telecommuting enables people to live farther from their employer. Entrepreneurs interested in small-town living can build businesses that are not dependent on a specific location.

The exploding growth in electronic commerce has reached small towns and created new opportunities for consumers and small businesses. Internet service providers are well established in most small towns, giving computer users the same access as the residents of a major city. Moreover, it is estimated that 65 percent of rural phone lines in the United States will be capable of carrying DSL (digital subscriber line) service by 2002.


There are many reasons for individuals and families to seek out a new town. In the best of small towns, you can be an individual in a welcoming community, pursue challenging creative and recreational opportunities, realize increased value in the dollars you have to spend, and find greater peace of mind to enjoy life.


From The Best Small Southern Towns by Gerald W. Sweitzer and Kathy M. Fields. Copyright © 2001 by Gerald W. Sweitzer and Kathy M. Fields. Excerpted by arrangement with Peachtree Publishers, Ltd. $16.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-241-0113 or click here.