10 Cities Poised for Greatness in 2012

NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- Sometimes, there's a city and, well, it's the city for its time and place. It fits right in there.

With all respect to the Coen brothers, Sam Elliot, The Big Lebowski and The Dude himself, there are just some cities that are stepping into the spotlight at the right time in 2012.

As years go, this one isn't exactly insignificant. Anyone who clutched at the nearest string of pearls when Mitt Romney insinuated in New Hampshire that he liked firing people -- unthinkable of the founder of Bain Capital, who basically did just that for a living -- is already well embroiled in the upcoming presidential race. Meanwhile, those inspired to take a few laps at the Y after watching Michael Phelps dominate the field in China almost four years ago are already familiarizing themselves with the Telemundo, MSNBC and former Versus network channel numbers for this year's Summer Olympic Games.

But where are the best seats for the action? Which towns aren't content to trot out the same parades, pro sports and dog-and-pony shows and are pulling out all the stops to separate themselves from the pack in 2012? Even if they're not being that flashy, which cities are making sure their dwellers have enough cash lying around to enjoy those big-ticket events from the comfort of their own homes?

We flipped through our shiny new calendars, pored through this year's financial forecasts and found 10 metro areas that are taking their shot at the big time in 2012. If your town isn't here, better luck next year:

 

Indianapolis

Indy doesn't have much time before it and the Indianapolis Colts' Lucas Oil Field take the big stage for Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5, but it's tough to draw a bigger audience than the 111 million Americans who watched the big game last year.

The actual audience size may vary depending on the matchup, but there's no question this is a big deal for Indy. The Colts were Super Bowl-caliber when the city was picked to host back in 2008, but had a miserable 2-12 season this year without injured star quarterback Peyton Manning and probably won't be seen again until they draft Stanford stud QB Andrew Luck with the first pick of this year's NFL Draft. This year's Super Bowl is about the most meaningful football Lucas Oil Stadium may see for a while, but the economic impact of the game, hotel stays, parties and other associated events should have a far more lasting effect.

The 2012 Indianapolis Super Bowl host committee estimates that the Super Bowl will bring in anywhere from $125 million to $400 million for the city and local businesses immediately. The NFL, meanwhile, estimates that 60% of that Super Bowl crowd will be corporate honchos who may bring their companies back for conventions or their families back for vacations if they like what they see.

Even if that doesn't pan out, Indy is feeling pretty fortunate that this event is even going off. When the NFL locked out its players last year, the Bureau of Business Research at Ball State University estimated that the city would be out $200 million if the Super Bowl was canceled and bigwigs from NFL partners such as FedEx (Stock Quote: FDX), Procter & Gamble (Stock Quote: PG) and General Motors (Stock Quote: GM) made other winter plans.

 

New Orleans

College kids and alumni don't need a whole lot of excuses to head to Bourbon Street and drink hurricanes and Abita like it's spring break, but championship games sure provide a convenient excuse.

New Orleans already welcomed Michigan and Virginia Tech fans for the Allstate (Stock Quote: ALL) Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3 and hosted the BCS Championship Game between home-state LSU and SEC rival Alabama this week. The two events combined brought in more than 250,000 visitors and $500 million in economic impact.

That's just the pregame. Once it's swept away the championship confetti, New Orleans has to get itself a big, beignet-heavy breakfast and shake off the hangover in time for next month's Mardi Gras festivities. Hosting that party is no small task in any given year, but it's far tougher when the event's functioning as filler between the BCS Championship and college sports' other big-daddy event: the men's basketball Final Four.

The four best college hoops teams in the country and their rowdy fan bases crowd into town on March 31 and don't leave until April 2. Sure, the city has to play resident adviser to the most raucous remote campus in the country for a weekend, but it gets more than $100 million in business for its trouble.

That's a lot of revelry for a city that was nearly wiped out by Hurricane Katrina back in 2005, but even April doesn't bring it to an end. The party doesn't really end until the city goes pro and brings the NFL's Super Bowl back to the Superdome in 2013. Even seasoned seniors would have a tough time partying at this pace, but Mayor Mitch Landrieu is hoping the city's sports showcase events will bring in more than $1 billion in revenue by the time they're all over.

 

Chicago

It's not the Super Bowl, but the Group of Eight meeting between the leaders of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, Italy and Canada and their emerging buddies from Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa combined with a NATO summit happening at the same time is the big game for political protesters.

After a year of occupying cities and engaging in general strikes, protesters finally get to voice their disgust with current economic conditions on a grand scale May 19-20 when the G8 rolls into town. It's hard not to flash back to images of the 1968 Democratic National Convention when imagining how the G8 may go down, and it has to be tempting for protesters to make a big and potentially embarrassing statement to President Barack Obama in his hometown and in front of his good buddy, Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

A lot has changed in 40 years, though, and G8 organizers and local security have shown little patience for the well-organized riots that have accompanied other events. The last G8 summit held in the U.S. -- at Sea Island, Ga., in 2004 -- was basically an expo for the Department of Homeland Security featuring a whole lot of police and military presence and very little noise from the black bloc protesters. The stakes are somewhat higher this year in a more heavily populated area with no less than NATO sharing space in town May 15-22, but Emanuel's not exactly known for his light touch. He's already jacked up the fines for "resisting a police officer or aiding escape" to a range of $200 to $1,000 from as low as $25 to $500; placed a two-hour time limit on demonstrations; restricted bullhorn use to certain hours; pushed opening time for city parks to 6 a.m. from 4 a.m.; and required multiple new permits for marching demonstrations.

The Department of Homeland Security gave the city $55 million to cover security costs and says it will cover overruns, but these protests tend to get a lot more costly that that. Seattle, for example, paid more than $1 million in settlements to 1999 World Trade Organization protesters and another $800,000 in police misconduct settlements. New York City, meanwhile, paid out $2.7 million to settle a lawsuit brought by 52 people trapped in mass arrests during Iraq War protests in 2003.

If you're watching at home, expect to see lots of uniforms and lots of suppression. If you happen to be caught in the city that weekend and don't feel like donning black or taking a baton to the pelvis, batten down in the local bar with a Three Floyd's or some Old Style or take the opportunity to clear out the DVR a bit.

 

Tampa, Fla.

The past couple of years haven't been so kind to Tampa. Double-digit-percentage unemployment, plummeting home prices and underwater mortgages have sucked the party sprit clear out of town. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't sell out a single home game in 2010 and had ticket trouble in 2011. The Tampa Bay Rays have been playing playoff-caliber ball but needed star third baseman Evan Longoria to beg people to show up to games before a postseason run two years ago.

You know what puts some pep into a down-on-its-luck town every time? An unsettled field of presidential hopefuls and a few thousand of their favorite protesters. After dropping Florida's notorious swing state vote to now-President Barack Obama in 2008, the Republican Party decided to hold its national convention in Tampa the week of Aug. 27. While the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning are away, the GOP will jam the Tampa Bay Times Forum with party faithful for the end of a nomination process that's been about as civil as a scrum between two NHL enforcers during a Lightning blowout.

Considering no potential candidate has been the GOP's front-runner long enough to present a clear choice this early in the game, there's a chance the smoke-filled backroom deals of conventions past could reappear for this year's tilt in Tampa. That's just the least of the uncertainty.

Just holding the convention in Tampa is no guarantee that the GOP can count on Florida's vote in November. The Republicans went to Minneapolis-St. Paul in 2008 in an attempt to harness Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa's voting power. All three of those states threw their support to Obama.

The only sure thing about this convention is the impact on Tampa itself. Organizers are expecting up to 40,000 visitors for the convention alone and $170 million in economic impact for the city.

 

 

Charlotte, N.C.

Obama, however, totally rode the Democratic National Convention in Denver to not only a win in Colorado, but to the White House. North Carolina's vote was one of the pleasant surprises along the way, and what better way to reward the city than with a convention of its very own during the week of Sept. 3.

If the president's looking for a feel-good story here, though, he probably shouldn't tread too far beyond the doors of Time Warner Cable (Stock Quote: TWC) Arena. Charlotte area unemployment sits well above the national average at roughly 10% as joblessness in North Carolina in general sits at 9.5%. That's a tight spot for a Democratic president to be in, especially in a city so far into NASCAR country that it's the home of both NASCAR and its hall of fame. Picking the home of Bank of America (Stock Quote: BAC) for a convention will only make the city one-stop shopping for Occupy and other protesters. If you're a delegate or political junkie who knows his or her way around crowd nets and tear-gas canisters, however, it's not a bad place to pick up some barbecue, fresh-from-Asheville craft beer and a little bit of sleep between events.

Charlotte's counting on it and estimates of $150 million in revenue from more than 35,000 delegates and visitors.

 

 

 

 

 

London

Yes, yes, London is hosting the Olympics at a more than $14 billion cost that includes everything from a new Olympic stadium and other venues to high-speed rail to get the athletes to and fro. Yes, they've rounded up sponsors including General Electric (Stock Quote: GE), McDonald's (Stock Quote: MCD), Visa (Stock Quote: V), Coca-Cola (Stock Quote: KO), Dow Chemical (Stock Quote: DOW) and Procter & Gamble to help foot the bill. Yes, there will be tens of thousands of visitors and millions in local economic impact.

The Olympics are going to monopolize much of London's time July 27-Aug. 12, but there's a small matter of a big party in June to contend with first: Queen Elizabeth II is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee from June 2-5 to mark her 60th year as monarch and 86th birthday. The festivities include a parade of more than 1,000 boats, including the royal barge, down the Thames on June 3 and a full procession through the city June 5.

That would be just lovely if that's the only thing London had on the slate in 2012. Or this summer.

As last year's Royal Wedding proved, London has no problem being in the public eye. That's a lot of ogling in 2012, though, so closing the shades and summering outside the city may not be out of the question.

San Jose, Calif.

Unless the Sharks finally make the NHL's Stanley Cup final, there's no huge event planned for San Jose this year. Still, the city has a lot to celebrate in the coming year.

"That's my hometown, and knowing what's happened to Kodak and other pillars of the local economy, I was surprised when Rochester scored on the Top 5 list. I applied the same formula to all cities and did not have my thumb on the scale," Trulia's Kolko says. "Prices -- which fell little during the boom -- are stable, and the economy has weathered blow after blow and is expanding."

While California coped with near 11% unemployment (and as high as 27% in some areas) in 2011, San Jose breezed into the new year around the national average and saw consistent improvement and growth. Despite a 5% drop in existing home prices, the housing market remains remarkably stable as well.

"Even though prices plummeted and foreclosures skyrocketed in inland California, the coast is another world," said Trulia Chief Economist Jed Kolko in a statement about cities to watch in 2012. "San Jose's perennially tight housing market makes it faster to bounce back. The San Jose market -- which includes most of Silicon Valley -- has rapid job growth and the lowest vacancy rate in the country."

That picture gets even prettier if baseball commissioner Bud Selig calls up San Jose for a spot in the major leagues this year. The city's been trying to pry the Oakland A's from their oversized Coliseum home for a few years now and Selig is expected to hand down a decision sometime before the 2012 season.

 

Austin, Texas

The locals like to keep Austin weird, and there are few things weirder in this economy than 6.6% unemployment and home prices dropping to a rate less than the 4.7% national average.

All the barbecue, nacho platters, Shiner Bock and music and film festivals such as South By Southwest, Austin City Limits, Fun Fun Fun and the Austin Music Festival aren't worth much if you don't have the scratch to enjoy them or home to enjoy them from. Austin continues to ride a pure blend of state jobs, University of Texas help and private-sector employment out of the recession and into some mighty comfortable economic recovery. If good times are weird, Austin's only getting weirder in 2012.

"The bloom's not off the yellow rose of Texas," Trulia's Kolko says. "Texas isn't hung over from the housing boom like the other big states of the South and West, so there's little to hold back growth."

 

 

Houston

Throughout the economic crisis, Houston has been the buttoned-down older brother to Austin's hippie slacker.

 

 

While college-boy Austin coasts by on education and arts, Houston shrugs off the cool kids, goes to work every day with its buddies in the energy industry and does what it can to keep unemployment below 8%. Unlike Austin, though, Houston doesn't have to drop its home prices to draw new blood.

Home prices in Houston have remained level since 2010 and are among the few in America that have risen since 2008. ConocoPhilips (Stock Quote: COP), Marathon Oil (Stock Quote: MRO) and Halliburton (Stock Quote: HAL) all help provide a solid employment base and, though the Houston Texans' run to the NFL playoffs may be Houston's major one-off event of the year, there's economic life to the city that's only improving as the year goes on.

 

 

Rochester, N.Y.

We know: How is Rochester even in the same league as London, New Orleans or even Austin?

Kodak (Stock Quote: EK) is crumbling, Xerox (Stock Quote: XRX) is struggling with relevancy. From the outside, by rights, Rochester shouldn't have much to look forward to in 2012. The problem is, it's just not true.

Employers such as Bausch & Lomb and Genesee Brewing parent North American Brewing have kept Rochester's unemployment below 7% and falling. The latter has also managed to boost its beer business nearly 7% in 2010 while overall U.S. beer sales fell 1%. The real estate market, meanwhile, is a wonder: Home prices are actually up 1.4% since 2010 and have been rising steadily since the housing boom.

Sure, there are cold winters, feet of lake-effect snow and a sky that turns gray in October and usually stays that way until April. But the city that's been shrinking since the 1960s feels downright cozy in the treat-stocked aisles of a Wegmans supermarket, over a cheeseburger-and-mac-salad garbage plate at Nick Tahou's or with a Genny Cream Ale and a rack of ribs at Dinosaur Barbecue. It's shockingly stable, and that's about the best any city can ask for in 2012.

 

 

 

 

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