John McGrath and Skip Glenn Johnstown's Quality of Life continues to surprise and impress

Mar. 11—Johnstown is facing its share of challenges, including headlines that document crime, population loss and a challenging local economy.

Against this backdrop, it is helpful to take a step back and look at the facts that explain the most important measures of the quality of life (QoL) in our community, and how they compare with other similar places.

That's what we've been doing for seven years now in our Resident Quality of Life studies, with the support of the Cambria Regional Chamber of Commerce. Our most recent findings continue to surprise and impress.

In the latest update of our study, we examined data for mountain towns such as Johns-town across the Appalachian region of the eastern United States as defined by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

We looked at data for 30 places from 14 states, ranging from Georgia to Maine, located in nearby mountain areas that are subsets of the Appalachian Mountain range, ranging from the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee to the Allegheny and Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania to the Blue Mountains of Maine.

We then analyzed secondary data sources that are free and available to anyone, using seven measures typically used by researchers studying QoL.

First, we looked at cost of living using Sperling's Best Places, which compiles this measure from a range of sources, including the Consumer Price Index and the National Association of Realtors, among others.

Second, we examined public safety using Federal Bureau of Investigation information for violent and property crimes, defined as burglary, theft and arson.

Third, we examined commuting efficiency, measured by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Fourth, we considered health care resources, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) looking at the number of professionals employed in the health care sector.

Fifth, we analyzed air quality data compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Sixth, we considered the number of sunny days each year from Sperling's Best Places.

Seventh, we examined entertainment options, using BLS data measuring the number of employees in entertainment-related businesses.

Finally, we again used BLS data, this time looking at the number of employees working to provide food service away from the home.

After crunching all these numbers, we found that the highest-rated town out of our 30 candidates was Charlottesville, Virginia, with a composite QoL index of 123. That's not surprising for a historic town near the Blue Ridge Mountains that is home to a major university. But the most surprising result was the towns that were the next highest-ranked: Morgantown, West Virgina; Ludlow, Vermont; and Altoona and Johnstown, with composite indices of 118, 115, 111, and 110 respectively.

All this data is provided in the detailed chart below.

So, what explains Johnstown's high ranking, beating out places such as Burlington, Vermont, and Asheville, North Carolina?

Here's where Johnstown wins: First, Johnstown benefits from a cost-of-living score tied with Knoxville, Tennessee, for the lowest among the complete set of 30 towns. While Burlington and Asheville have soared to the top of desirable places to live, so have prices in their housing markets, making them less affordable. Johnstown also wins in an area that we often take for granted: our health care resources. In this category, Johnstown trails only two cities out of 30 — Charlottesville and Morgantown, homes to major university medical centers.

Johnstown hits above its weight class in three other areas: low crime (seventh-safest), food service options (seventh-most numerous) and short commute times (14th-shortest).

Johnstown's weaknesses come in the areas of sunny days (fifth-fewest), entertainment options (eighth- lowest), and air quality (second-worst — partly because the Johnstown monitoring station is located in the Hornerstown section, just downwind from Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center's heating and cooling plant).

So, what are we to make of these findings?

Perhaps the simplest takeaway is that the data suggest that the grass isn't always greener in more publicized mountain towns.

Sure, Johnstown has its challenges, but when compared to 29 other mountain towns in our study, our area is very competitive in five of the eight categories, and of those three, the number of sunny days is really out of anyone's control. In fact, it contributes to the frequent comment from new visitors to our area: "It's so green here."

Another takeaway is one that we suggest at every opportunity: let's get the word out. We encourage local elected officials and members of business, tourism and economic development groups to use our findings — free of charge — to help promote our region and the reasons that make Johnstown a great place to live.