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Movin’ Outside the Box
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If your idea of the southern US is mosquitos, NASCAR, and fatty food, well... you’re not entirely wrong. But like all places that produce groundbreaking artists, musicians, writers, and chefs, the South is complicated. From the bayous of Louisiana to the barrier islands of the Carolinas, this part of the country has stories to tell, and progressive cities like Charleston, South Carolina; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Atlanta, Georgia are leading a regional transformation that’s attracting families and young professionals for more than just the balmy weather. Here are just a few reasons people are migrating -- and why you might want to consider relocating “down South,” too.

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Upgrade your digs south of the Mason-Dixon line

If you’re spending more than half your income on housing and that still doesn’t buy you decent closet space, you’ve likely considered a change of scenery. Simply put: your dollar goes further down South. Making a $75,000 salary in San Francisco? You’d only need to earn $40,000 to maintain the same standard of living in Atlanta. Even in a more affordable city like Philadelphia, your cost of living could be 13% less if you moved to Charlotte, North Carolina.

Consider the hometown of James Brown -- Augusta, Georgia -- which sits on the banks of the Savannah River and is known for its stately homes and a magnificent display of pink and purple azaleas in the spring. But unless you already live there, you probably wouldn’t think of it as one of the 10 most affordable metropolitan areas in the US. One state over, booming Birmingham, Alabama, also ranks in the top 10, with a median home price of $153,000. Southern cities like Memphis, Tennessee; Columbia, South Carolina; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Winston-Salem, North Carolina are also among the country’s most affordable markets in which to buy a home.

Commutes are priced right, too: South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana boast some of the cheapest gas in the nation. All of which means making a home in the South may hold more appeal than you think -- and more and more young adults are taking notice. Columbia, South Carolina; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Nashville, Tennessee all attracted more adults age 20-34 than they lost in recent years.

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“We like to be kind of a secret city,” says Sloane Rhoden, a Birmingham, Alabama, real estate agent and Realtor® -- a member of the National Association of Realtors®. “With Atlanta and Nashville getting so big so fast, you can get everything here that you can there without those other headaches.” Here’s what else to know about home-buying in Birmingham:

The food is top-notch
“It’s not just meat-and-three, but all kinds. The 2018 James Beard Award top restaurant in the country is here in Birmingham -- Highlands Bar & Grill. Their pastry chef Dolester Miles, her coconut cake, it’s a magical experience."
Health care and banking drive industry
“The University of Alabama at Birmingham has one of the top medical schools in the country and is a leading cancer research hospital. The financial industry is also pretty big here. The largest is Regents Bank, and then there are some local ones.”
Real estate is predominantly resale
“My areas are mostly Craftsman-style bungalow or ‘50s-’60s ranch. Some are original, some a little rehabbed, others are gutted and fully rehabbed. There’s a good range depending on what each person is looking for.”
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Startups abound in the (south by) southeast

Two of the fastest growing cities in the US are suburbs of major Southern cities Nashville and Charleston, an indicator that young people are building families and putting down roots. Job opportunities with higher-than-median wages accompany that growth, evidenced by cities like Raleigh, Charlotte, and Atlanta ranking among the top 20 of the nation’s best cities for young professionals, based on metrics like the unemployment rate among young adults, job diversity, and five-year change in median earnings.

Stanfield Gray, the CEO and founder of DIG South, which produces an annual tech summit highlighting the region’s digital economy, believes the Southeast’s shared culture helps it to collectively compete with Silicon Valley and New York City for startup venture capital. “Statistically, people (i.e., consumers) are flooding into the region,” Gray says. [Case in point: The Carolinas and Georgia each grew their state population by more than 100,000 people between 2017-2018.] “I can’t help but think this will lead to a rising tide of capital and other opportunities.” He cites companies like delivery service Roadie and cryptocurrency network Bakkt in Atlanta, and Aspire Health in Nashville among those that have raised major funding in recent years.

The explosive success of Fortnite began in Raleigh, where a growing software sector includes maker Epic Games and UX-darlings, Pendo. In north Alabama, NASA’s rocketry and spacecraft lab fills Huntsville with aerospace engineers and technicians. And in Charleston, where DIG South is held, digital startups like Benefitfocus and Micfo have followed in the wake of entrepreneur Tony Bakker’s decision to move his pro-social cloud software company Blackbaud from NYC to Charleston in the ’90s. Another indicator of Charleston’s growing tech elite? In 2018, Micfo’s founder purchased Bakker’s downtown residence for nearly $4 million.

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Dine on down-home vittles

Caribbean flavors, African-American soul food, and Native American staples like squash, grits, and pit-cooked barbecue all contribute to our idea of Southern cuisine. Louisiana and the South Carolina Lowcountry each have their own seafood-based styles, and the best pulled pork sandwich or fried chicken breast you’ve ever tasted might emerge from the kitchen of a small-town diner on a back road in rural Georgia.

The South’s culinary traditions even have their own Oxford, Mississippi-based advocacy group, the Southern Foodways Alliance (led by esteemed food writer, John T. Edge), whose work underlines the undeniable connection between the region’s history and its food. Southerners interweave food into their identity, whether that’s the pralines Aunt Edna serves after church or a pitmaster who devotes his life to perfecting whole hog barbecue. (This is not a place where “barbecue” has anything to do with grilling burgers in the backyard -- that’s a “cookout.”)

Pride in local ingredients and preparation is another touchstone of Southern culture. Take Sean Brock’s wildly popular Husk, which applies a Southern-ingredients-only philosophy to fine dining, an approach that revolutionized the Charleston restaurant scene when it opened in 2010 by reconsidering what “Southern cooking” could be. Nashville; Greenville, South Carolina; and Savannah, Georgia all now have their own Husk -- as well as dozens of other restaurants influenced by it.

Alex Lira, a James Beard Award-nominated chef who honed his skills at New York’s Craft as well as Diner and Marlow & Daughters in Brooklyn, was so inspired by the Lowcountry’s burgeoning culinary scene during a 2012 visit that he packed up and moved down a few months later. “I got an education in New York, but I also got tired of the rat race,” he explains. “Charleston felt like a mecca in the Southeast, where restaurants were melding different styles of cooking with modern techniques and local ingredients.” Lira launched two restaurants in the city, including the lauded Bar Normandy, and will soon helm the kitchen at tapas spot Estadio’s new Charleston location. He also bought a home and a boat -- a pipe dream in New York -- and spends his free time at the beach and on the water.

His story mimics other big-city chefs who migrate south -- Mashama Bailey left New York to cook progressive Southern fare at The Grey in Savannah, and was recently featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table. By moving to Atlanta, Damon Wise, another New York alum of Craft, Monkey Bar, and Lafayette, made a huge career jump, now working as a vice president at Ford Fry Restaurants, a group with locations in Nashville and Houston. In other words, the South is well past the point where its best culinary talent has to move away to make it big -- it’s now the destination.

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Where football and the great outdoors are a way of life

Southerners know not to plan a wedding on an autumn Saturday. If they do, half the guests will be on their phones watching college football. Nine of the past 12 NCAA Football national champions have been either the University of Alabama, Clemson University, Auburn University, or Louisiana State University. Over the last decade, NFL fans have enjoyed Super Bowl appearances by the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, and the Carolina Panthers -- each team’s success mirroring the growth of their respective cities and fanbases. Even if you’re not a fan, the camaraderie of football season provides a rallying point for weekend gatherings.

While fall’s most intense pigskin rivalries often exist inside state lines (Alabama vs. Auburn, University of South Carolina vs. Clemson), spring and summer bring Southerners together when attention turns toward Atlanta Braves baseball. As the only MLB team in the South, their 14 consecutive division titles between 1991 and 2005 helped unite the region with collective pride that still resonates with folks from Louisiana all the way up to Virginia.

If you’d rather play sports than watch them, the South’s extended shoulder seasons allow for outdoor pursuits like hiking, trail running, and biking well into “winter.” Outside of the Appalachian Mountains, where snow and freezing weather is common at high elevations, average winter temperatures in much of the South allow for t-shirt weather year-round. In coastal Mississippi, for example, an average February day is a comfortable 64 degrees. Even farther north in Atlanta, February highs are 58 degrees.

The Carolinas and coastal Georgia also offer year-round surfing and family vacation destinations like the Outer Banks (North Carolina), Folly Beach (South Carolina), and St. Simons Island (Georgia). In the Appalachian Mountains, stretching through western North Carolina down to central Alabama, it’s possible to ski and hike on the same winter day. During summer, head out on an overnight trail adventure, or just take the family to one of hundreds of hidden swimming holes and trout streams that emerge from Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the North Carolina/Tennessee border.

Spoleto Festival USA / flickr
Laissez les bon temps rouler

As Louisianans are fond of saying during Mardi Gras: “Let the good times roll.” Music lovers know that the South produced the blues, bluegrass, and much of soul and jazz music. The same sweltering front-porch afternoons that led to iconic melodies also inspire writers and artists of every type, and the region is home to unique events born from their local culture that attract a global array of performers and patrons.

At the Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette, Louisiana, in late April, international bands (most highly danceable) play alongside Cajun zydeco and Creole groups. Mobile, Alabama’s Mardi Gras celebration predates the one in New Orleans and its parades and fetes rival those in the Big Easy (which is only a two-hour drive away). And for 17 days each spring, Charleston hosts Spoleto Festival USA featuring the US and world premieres of major operas, dance productions, and theatrical works.

The hottest bands of the moment converge with stalwarts like Beck at hip Atlanta music fest Shaky Knees in early May. Asheville, North Carolina’s more than three-dozen breweries rival cities like Portland, Oregon’s in quality and creativity, and on one Saturday in June, the mountain town’s Beer City Festival gathers beer lovers to sample its local stouts, lagers, and IPAs while dancing to live music. In Mississippi, whose legendary roster of writers includes William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and John Grisham, you can attend readings and signings by the South’s preeminent authors at August’s Mississippi Book Festival in Jackson.

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Making getting around town -- and skipping town -- easy

If you spend more than 30 minutes a day in traffic and you hate every moment of it, the South offers a solution. North Carolina’s I-40 corridor is home to colleges like Wake Forest, Duke, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State, making it a hotbed of tech innovation. What it doesn’t have is horrible traffic -- Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Durham all rank among the best cities for traffic in the country.

While you will find congestion in Atlanta (drivers spent an average 102 hours behind the wheel in 2017), fortunately, getting out of the city is easy. Hartsfield-Jackson airport -- Delta’s home base -- is often ranked the country’s busiest. Charlotte Douglas airport is another major international hub, and Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport will debut a new 35-gate terminal in May. That’s a motivating factor behind entrepreneur Jason Cronen’s decision to stay put after a three-year contract role working for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Now a full-time resident of the French Quarter, he promotes the city as director of corporate partnerships at travel concierge Joieful.

“I can do business anywhere from here,” Cronen says. “Capital follows airports, so this expansion is a huge asset to the startup community in New Orleans.” Cronen, a Connecticut native, sees New Orleans as a city that represents renewal, a feeling he’s personally experienced since settling there in 2016. “There’s music around the clock, the best food anywhere, and events like the National Fried Chicken Festival and the Cigar Box Guitar Festival,” he says. “I never expected that I’d live here for any long period of time, but here I am, and I love it.”

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