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UTAH STUMBLES IN `BEAUTY CONTEST'

Does the Wasatch Front seem like a worse place to live this year than last? Money magazine says it is.

After being ranked the fourth best place to live in the United States last year, the Salt Lake-Ogden metro area plunged to 62nd in the magazine's annual "beauty contest" released Wednesday.Provo-Orem, which enjoyed third place in last year's Money ranking, plummeted to 29th.

Gainesville, Fla., which gained national attention from the murders of five college students in 1990, was ranked first in livability.

The magazine's annual ranking of places to live has become something of a media event across the nation as each city applauds a high ranking and pans any suggestion that it is anything but the best.

Each year the magazine examines a range of categories to compile its list and keeps the results a secret until the release date. This year the criteria included the economy, health, crime, housing, education, weather, transit, leisure and the arts, based on data gathered from a poll of its readers.

Utah residents, basking in the glow of the 2002 Winter Olympics award in June, will likely take umbrage at this year's decline. Just last week, the National Association of Realtors announced that Salt Lake City-Ogden had the most robust residential real estate market in the nation.

But it may be that strong growth that pushed the Wasatch Front down this year, said Kelly K. Matthews, chief economist for First Security Bank.

"There is very little difference between the local economy this year and last, and that would lead to the suspicion that (Money magazine's) is placing a different emphasis this time," said Matthews.

That emphasis would seem to suggest that Utah's high growth rate may actually be working against its "livability" index.

Job opportunities locally are even stronger than they were last year, particularly in construction work, noted Matthews. And entry level salaries and construction wages are up.

Also, the winning of the Olympics bid and the likelihood that Hill Air Force Base will not close are also positive for jobs and growth.

But growth is not 100 percent positive, Matthews cautioned. Inevitably, growth means increases in congestion, pollution and crime.

"If (Money) is emphasizing these negatives, that could explain (the rankings drop), but generally I don't see much difference this year over last."

Yuba City, Calif., once notorious for another series of murders, finished last in the ranking of the nation's 300 biggest metropolitan areas by the glossy personal finance monthly.

Gainesville, a college town cited for its gracious charm and a relaxed way of life, climbed from No. 7 in 1994 to the top spot this year due in part to its strong economy.

Gainesville boasted 6.2 percent job growth last year, and its unemployment rate stands at 2.8 percent. In contrast, almost one-fifth of Yuba City residents are out of work.

Boise dropped from No. 75 to No. 160.

Four other Florida municipalities ranked in Money's Top 10. They were Jacksonville (No. 3), Ocala Fort Lauderdale and Naples .

That didn't stop cities in other regions from working their way into the Top 10. Rochester, Minn., last year's No. 2, retained that ranking. Seattle climbed from No. 8 to rank fourth.

The rest of the top 10: No. 7, Salem, N.H./Haverhill, Mass.; No. 8, Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, N.C. - last year's No. 1 area; and Las Vegas at No. 9.

Last year's No. 300, Jackson, Mich., advanced to No. 222. Joining Yuba City at the bottom this year were: Glens Falls, N.Y. (No. 296); Peoria, Ill. (297); Birmingham, Ala. (298); and Modesto, Calif. (299).

The Associated Press contributed to the story.