In Colorado, old mining towns have become suburban gems for young families.
When NerdWallet crunched the numbers, the common theme of the top 10 cities turned out to be their roots in the past, in the state’s mining days. Now, many of these places that have attracted a range of businesses and well-educated residents are looking toward the horizon and not underground.
In our study, we looked at three factors that drive one of the biggest decisions: where to raise your family.
1. Public school excellence. For school quality, we gathered GreatSchools data, which compares students’ test scores and other statewide data and ranks schools on a 1-10 scale, with 10 as the highest rating.
2. Home affordability. Using U.S. Census Bureau data, we weighed median home values and monthly homeownership costs, including mortgage payments, real estate taxes, insurance costs, utilities, fuel and other bills. Places with more affordable homes had higher scores.
3. Growth and prosperity.We assessed a place’s economy using census figures that detailed median household incomes from 2012, and long-term income growth since 1999.
- Eight of the top 10 cities are Denver suburbs. Two top cities not close to Denver, Fruita and Steamboat Springs, rely on attracting active residents — one is a mountain-biking mecca and the other a famous ski resort.
- Seven of 10 cities are in Douglas and Boulder counties. The location of the top places is linked to quality schools, middle-of-the-road housing costs and high 2012 median household income in those two populous counties.
- Urban renewal programs are on the rise. In anticipation of population and business growth, these cities and towns are being proactive about downtown development, road construction projects and local shopping initiatives.
NerdWallet crunched the data for 44 places in Colorado — cities, towns and census-designated places. Only places with over 10,000 residents were analyzed. To see the full data set, click here.
Best places for young families in Colorado
In its historic mining days, “superior” might’ve referred to the quality of the town’s coal, but nowadays there’s something else superior here: the schools. With a 9 out of 10 ranking on GreatSchools, this Colorado community is home to elementary schools with test scores higher than others in the Boulder Valley School District. Known as the “Gateway to Boulder Valley,” the town is just 27 days shy of seeing sunshine every day of the year and it has plans to keep developing its sun-kissed area — a 12-acre park just north of Eldorado K-8 School may soon be in the making.
Every May, hot air balloons hit the skies at the Erie Town Fair and Balloon Festival, but that’s not the only thing on the rise in town. With an income growth rate of 39%, the area’s commercial and cultural vitality is soaring, especially with the town’s $61,500 investment to maintain and improve Historic Downtown Erie from the sidewalks to storm drains. And the town’s new 4 million gallon water storage tank is on schedule to be completed by next summer.
3. Highlands Ranch
With a population of nearly 100,000, this census-designated place stands as one of the most populous unincorporated communities in the U.S. Despite its size, this Denver suburb knows how to grow. Businesses now occupy more than 1,000 acres and the upper middle-class community is looking at building 2.5-mile extensions of the Southwest Corridor Light Rail further into parts of Highlands Ranch. In a move to preserve its history, the Metro District’s historic Highlands Ranch Mansion was recently rehabilitated and reopened in 2012. The area includes quality education and recreation, with many miles of trails, too.
With a median home value of $220,000 in 2012, and monthly housing costs of $1,379, Fruita is the most affordable city in our top 10. In addition to an income growth of 85% in the past decade, the city is seeking to escape its bedroom community image with plans to update its downtown by adding more space for parks, bike parking and restaurants. Outside the metro core, though, Fruita is a popular site for outdoor activities, such as mountain biking and rafting, along its southern border, the Colorado River.
Affordable housing and quality schools — which were rated 8 of 10 on GreatSchools — are only part of the charm of Lafayette. Since its creation a few years ago, the city’s Urban Renewal Authority continues to expand parking, both for cars and bikes, as it also makes the downtown area more walkable and brings in new businesses and art displays. A restoration at Old Town Lafayette is also in the works. And to entice residents to shop locally, October’s Sweet on Lafayette event will provide free pastries at participating stores.
This city shoots for the stars as the home of Space Systems. The arm of commercial spacecraft company Sierra Nevada Corp. recently unveiled a new space-flight program for clients who want to go into low-Earth orbit. Other technology companies are in the area, too, but the community also has goals that are more down to Earth: The Express Lanes Project on U.S. Highway 36 seeks to unclog freeway traffic by 2016, and other utility and road resurfacing projects are underway. In education, the public schools, such as Louisville Elementary School and Louisville Middle School, show academic rigor as reflected in students’ test scores, which are higher than the state average.
7. Lone Tree
Although housing costs a bit more than the state median, Lone Tree features high-quality schools within the Douglas County school district and strong commercial growth. According to the city’s website, 85% of residents say the light rail that connects the city to Denver has improved their quality of life. Top employers include Sky Ridge Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente, both of which plan to expand in the next few years. The city has creative and innovative energy as well: Residents supported the construction of an environmentally friendly performing arts center that opened in 2011.
With a median home value of $286,300, and a median household income of $95,600, Parker is a good place to find affordable homes. When it comes to education, the town’s public schools, especially Ponderosa High School, excel with student test scores higher than other schools in the district. A new library is under construction, deepening the town’s partnership with the county’s library system. Parker also hosted the Solheim Cup 2013, an international women’s golf event between the U.S. and Europe. Cherry Creek, which bisects Parker, features hiking trails and room for other outdoor activities.
9. Castle Rock
Affordability and growth are part of Castle Rock’s allure. With 32% growth in income and median home values of $275,900, the area is poised for new homes and business. In 2012, the town dedicated $5 million to economic development, which helped bring companies such as Digital Globe Services to Castle Rock. Thanks to the Downtown Development Authority, the area continues to be the focus of improvements, but it’s also still home to history, too: One of the cornerstones of the city’s historic buildings is a local volcanic rock, a rhyolite.
10. Steamboat Springs
Steamboat Springs goes by another name, too: Ski Town, U.S.A. The city’s ski slopes and resorts mean tourism is a key part of its economy, but schools also thrive here. Despite its location far from major cities, Steamboat Springs built up its own school district, which rivals many in the state when it comes to excellence. From advanced classes in middle school to AP programs in high school, the district focuses on academic rigor and college readiness, while offering diverse extracurricular activities such as alpine skiing and drama.
Check out this interactive map of our top 10 places for young families in Colorado. Click on the blue markers to see each place’s overall score.
The score for each place is from the following data:
1. Public schools made up 33.3% of the score. We used data from GreatSchools, which the nonprofit calculates by averaging the overall rating for each school in the city.
2. Median home values were 16.7% of the score. The information is from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey.
3. Monthly homeowner costs were 16.7% of the score. The figures are from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 ACS.
4. Median household incomes were 16.7% of the score. We used the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 ACS.
5. Income change from 1999 to 2012 was 16.7% of the score. The information is from the U.S. Census Bureau.
In this analysis, 44 Colorado places (cities, towns and census-designated places) were included. Only places with a population over 10,000 were considered. We excluded areas that lacked GreatSchools ratings and median household income figures from 1999.
Best places for young families in Colorado
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|City||GreatSchools rating||Median home values|
|Median monthly homeownership|
costs in 2012
|Median household income|
|Median income growth|
from 1999 to 2012
Image via iStock.