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Mount Sentinel

Hey, Missoula, good news: You’ve been named the 32nd most livable mid-sized city in these United States. That’s out of more than 2,100 communities analyzed by Livability.com, which distills data on everything from schools, hospitals and airports to golf courses, farmers markets and crime.

On the down side, you’ve fallen in the rankings. Last year, you made Livability’s top 10, landing at No. 8.

Upside: You beat No. 34 Bozeman by a point, 619-618, on Livability’s scoring index this year. You were also ranked higher than tropical Honolulu, and left another popular Pacific Northwest college town, No. 94 Eugene, Oregon (583 points), in the dust.

Downside: You finished behind three – count ’em, three – cities in North Dakota, No. 7 Bismarck, No. 15 Fargo and No. 28 Grand Forks.

Livability editor Matt Carmichael cautions that mid-sized cities – defined by Livability as those with populations between 20,000 and 350,000 – shouldn’t sweat where they are in the top 100, if they are in the top 100.

Every community on the list scored in the top 5 percent of all the mid-sized cities in America.

“Not bad, eh?” Carmichael writes at Livability.com. “Or perhaps we should say ‘A’ because that’s the letter grade each of these cities would get.”

Rochester, Minnesota, took over the top spot for 2016 with a score of 674. Bellevue, Washington, was second, followed by Madison, Wisconsin (which was No. 1 on the last list), Santa Barbara, California, and Boulder, Colorado.

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Here’s what Livability says about Missoula:

“A stellar health-care system, lots of affordable housing and high-performing schools help Missoula stand out when it comes to why this city has been a Top 100 Best Place to Live for three straight years. Natural amenities that include mountain ranges, three rivers and more than 400 acres of parkland ensure residents have plenty of options when it comes to enjoying the great outdoors. Missoula’s vibrant downtown draws students from the University of Montana and residents across the region who come to enjoy coffee houses, restaurants, bookstores and breweries.”

Deeper in Livability’s website, Carmichael offers a longer description about Missoula’s inclusion in the top 100, pointing to a 2014 Paul McCartney concert in Washington-Grizzly Stadium.

“If you have ever wondered what difference having a major university can make to a city of this size, look no further than the guy at the piano singing ‘Hey, Jude,’ ” Carmichael says. “Without the tireless efforts of the staff at the University of Montana (reportedly over the course of many years), the event likely would never have happened. It’s a blockbuster, for sure, but it’s the many smaller day-to-day events that demonstrate how the university and city feed off of each other.”

Carmichael quotes Mayor John Engen as saying, “We have big-city amenities in a small-city package,” and joking that Missoula citizenship “requires you to own a Subaru Outback and at least one Labrador retriever.”

In addition to Missoula and Bozeman, Billings came in at No. 39 and Helena was 61st.

Missoula was sandwiched between No. 31 Sarasota, Florida, and No. 33 Ventura, California, for 2016.

Thirty-five states were represented in the top 100, led by California, which had 23 cities make the cut. Washington was next with nine, followed by Colorado with seven and South Dakota with five.

Montana’s four entries tied the state with Oregon, Virginia and North Dakota. Florida, Utah, Kansas and Iowa had three apiece.

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Missoula was 61st (and Bozeman 23rd) in Livability’s first top 100 rankings, released in 2013 for 2014.

How does a city shoot up from 61st to No. 8 in one year, then drop back to 32nd the next?

“The answer is part simple and part complicated,” Carmichael says, “but the overall takeaway should be that it’s not worth getting caught up in the details” because all the cities on the list scored well.

Allowing how that may not satisfy people who want to know, Carmichael explains that every year Livability – which is willing to rank everything from minor league ballparks to cities with the best pizza options – tweaks its methodology and updates its data sources for this, its premier list.

“It’s especially tricky because we need as much of the data at the city level as possible, and it has to be comparable across all 2,100-plus cities,” he says. “So each year, we work with our partners and our advisory board to see if we should keep our existing sources or if there are new providers we should vet and include.”

This year, for instance – in response to concerns that so many California communities make the top 100 – Livability added a drought indicator, Carmichael says.

The rankings are also weighted based on an exclusive national survey, and if people’s preferences and priorities shift – “even slightly,” Carmichael says – it can impact how cities stack up.

“The more complicated answer is because this is a data-driven ranking, as opposed to a ‘reputational’ ranking, which would have less fluctuation,” Carmichael explains.

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The fluctuations are great. In the first top 100, in 2014, North Dakota had just one city make the list – Fargo, at No. 99.

Only two years later, Fargo, Bismarck and Grand Forks are all in the top 30, and Dickinson is No. 60.

“Cities in the Dakotas and Montana have seen population and economic growth due to the energy industry in the last decade,” Carmichael writes. “Many of these cities have been able to invest in infrastructure and cultural improvements and have seen their rankings increase. Likewise, cities in the industrial Midwest have arguably become less livable as the manufacturing jobs that drove them for so many decades have transitioned away.”

Livability offers these words on Montana’s other three members of the 2016 top 100:

  • Bozeman. “Whether it’s casting for rainbow trout or sampling the libations at Copper Whiskey Bar & Grill, Bozeman offers an array of experiences that draw a steady stream of new residents. Residents find many things to do in Bozeman. Home to Montana State University, a college with 15,000 students, Bozeman’s economy includes a growing technology sector with research-based companies among the city’s top employers. The city’s health-care providers are among the highest quality, as are surrounding outdoor amenities.”
  • Billings. “A growing medical sector, booming oil industry, affordable housing and spectacular natural amenities draw new residents to Billings, the largest city in Montana. The downtown area features a collection of restaurants and shops in addition to breweries that helped Billings land on our Beer Cities list. This is the second time Billings has appeared on the Best Places to Live Index.”
  • Helena. “Situated between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, Helena provides an ideal location for outdoor lovers who enjoy the full volume of all four seasons. Highly engaged in social and political activities, Helena residents enjoy not only great opportunities to ski, bike and fish, but a thriving arts environment and stable economy. The city’s high-quality education system is anchored by Carroll College and Helena College University of Montana. Helena first appeared on the Best Places to Live list in 2014.”

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