What may be surprising — perhaps not to seasonal residents from the upper Midwest — is the city at the top of the list.
Cheeseheads. The frozen tundra. Shirtless fans at Lambeau Field in sub-zero temperatures.
Yes, that Green Bay. Titletown. The biggest little city in Wisconsin.
There is no arguing the National Football League’s Packers have put Green Bay on the map. It’s what the city has done with that opportunity, said Morgan Doshi of the Greater Green Bay Chamber, that gets and keeps residents there.
“We're definitely grateful for the Packers,” said Doshi, the chamber’s director of talent. “They do so much for our community as far as economic development and just fostering and building a sense of community.”
Sarasota doesn’t have an NFL team, but there is one nearby, along with a Major League Baseball team and a National Hockey League franchise, all having experienced a high level of success in their own right.
And although Green Bay does have water access to the Great Lakes via the Fox River — when it isn't frozen over — Sarasota has something Green Bay will never have: a warm year-round climate and powdery sand beaches.
“We have such diverse choices when it comes to lifestyle and housing here,” said Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Heather Kasten. “If you want that city, urban, downtown feel there is downtown Sarasota. If you want more of that suburban neighborhood, you've got Lakewood Ranch.”
It’s all a matter of lifestyle preference, of course, and the contrast between Sarasota and Green Bay could not be more clear. Green Bay has a multi-generational population while Sarasota has many newcomers and seasonal residents. Green Bay’s economy is historically rooted in manufacturing and shipping, Sarasota’s in tourism. Both are diversifying, investing in the technology industry and fostering entrepreneurship. Common to both cities is they can embrace their small city feel with big city experiences nearby.
“What I've learned having been born and raised here, I really appreciate and sometimes take for granted it's very convenient in that you can get anywhere in the greater Green Bay area in 25 minutes," Doshi said. "There's a nice pace of life and we're in close proximity to large metro areas like Milwaukee. Madison and Chicago, so if you want to get away for a weekend and fill your soul with big city energy you can do that.”
To climb to the top of the list, Sarasota must also surpass Huntsville, Alabama; Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; and Boulder, Colorado. Three of the four cities ranked ahead scored higher, some significantly, in the value index where Sarasota scored 6.1. Green Bay scored 8.0, Huntsville 8.2 and Raleigh-Durham 7.0 on the value index while Boulder ranked lower than Sarasota at 5.3.
That suggests raising the value score could push Sarasota to the top of the list. The value score lies largely in housing costs. According to the Realtor Association of Sarasota and Manatee, In April 2023, the median home price in Sarasota was $491,988 versus the national median price of $420,800 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
With the average household spending about 30% of its income on housing, that number is higher for lower income individuals, and the number of "cost-burdened" households is rising, according to Michael Snipes, Associate Professor of Economics at USF Sarasota-Manatee.
It's a double-edged sword in that as long as Sarasota keeps showing up on such lists, in-migration will keep housing costs high.
New building is starting to keep up with the increase in demand, but the increase in demand is still higher, exacerbating price increases," Snipes said. "As long as people still move to the area, housing prices will keep increasing. I have not seen much about how the local government plans on addressing this issue, as they tend to keep their hands off the market, but programs designed to help those with cost-burdened-housing would certainly help.
Value, though, is only one factor, weighted at 23% of the overall ranking. At 36% is Quality of Life Index, which measures how satisfied residents are with their daily lives. Desirability Index is at 22%, based on a March 2023 national poll of where people would most like to live, net migration into to the metro area, and the number of days between 33 and 89 degrees. Job market index made up the remaining 19% of the ranking data.
Sarasota’s desirability index was 7.8 compared to Green Bay’s 5.7 and a net migration score of 9.1 to Green Bay’s 5.6; but value was Green Bay's greatest advantage at 8.0 compared to 6.1. That number can improve as the city’s population trends younger and if efforts to provide more housing drive prices down.
“There was once a time when Sarasota was dismissed as a playground for retirees, but that reputation is slowly changing as more young professionals begin to make it their own,” writes U.S. News & World Report in its report.
“We have a diversified business community with a lot of different opportunities,” Kasten said. “We’re starting to see different sectors like the tech pick up. We're seeing a broad diversity of businesses locating here and that to me is so important. For our community to have a strong business community, a place where people can find work, can find good paying jobs, we absolutely tick that box.”
Contrast in growth
From a population standpoint, at 107,000 the city of Green Bay is about twice the size of Sarasota’s year-round population, which nearly doubles in season. The North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton metropolitan statistical area, though, is approximately 891,000 compared to the Green Bay MSA of about 331,000. And while the Green Bay MSA gained 9,000 residents since 2018, the Sarasota region gained 71,000.
"One thousand people a day are moving to Florida. The last number I heard was an income of $4.8 million an hour is migrating to Florida,” Kasten said. “We are getting calls on a regular basis from companies that want to relocate their entire company. People vote with their money and people want to live where they want to live. I think that probably was a key indicator in us moving up in the ranks.”
Staying small, though, is all well and good to Doshi. Green Bay is the kind of place where families stay from one generation to the next, and many of those who move away later return to raise their own families.
Doshi is among the natives who stay.
“I was born and raised in Green Bay and I think our community is at this really sweet spot where we have a great sense of community, it’s friendly, it's safe, it’s affordable, it’s fun,” she said. “There is a misperception is that there's nothing to do here. We have hiking trails, lakes, rivers, the Fox River flows into the Bay of Green Bay and we're connected the Chain of Lakes. You can go hiking to Lake Michigan or to the Bay of Green Bay, you can do water activities. In the winter there’s cross-country skiing and downhill skiing. There’s a lot to do if you'd like to be outdoors and active.”
Sarasota’s No. 5 position is up four from last year. U.S. News & World Report also ranks the city No. 11 in Best Places to Retire, No. 2 in Fastest Growing Places and No. 7 in Safest Places to Live.
What will it take for Sarasota to knock Green Bay off the top of the list?
“I guess it really depends on those key indicators and how they're quantifying quality of life as a best place to live,” Kasten said. “Quite frankly, I'm surprised that we're not at the top of the list already.”
Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.