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Three Minnesota cities make realtor association's best small town list

Austin, Minnesota — aka Spam Town USA — checked in at number five.

Austin, Minnesota — aka Spam Town USA — checked in at number five.

In rural America a firm handshake means something. Molecular gastronomy does not. Rooster calls are more common than sirens and the value of a dollar is appreciated. More importantly, patriot hero John Wayne is still afforded due reverence.

Small town livin’ isn’t for everyone. But for those into the lifestyle, several Minnesota cities are primo locations to plant roots. The National Association of Realtors recently compiled a list of the country’s “top 10 affordable small towns where you’d actually want to live” and three Minnesota cities made the cut.

The realtor group vetted 500 so-called “micropolitan” areas — where populations are in the 10,000 to 50,000 range — looking for cheap homes, low crime and unemployment rates, and places where there’s actually stuff to do. The open housers then ranked the top 10 by median listing price. Only Iowa matched Minnesota with three cities on the list, including top ranked/cheapest Oskaloosa.

Albert Lea, where the typical house costs $100,000, came in at No. 3. When the whistle blows at the local pork processing plant, workers can unwind on one of the handful of lakes encircling the town. At No. 5, Austin earned praise as the home of Fortune 500 company Hormel Foods (plus the expanding Spam Museum!), a sub-3 percent unemployment rate, and the Mayo Clinic Austin, which reportedly employs 900 medical pros. Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm is expectedly stoked about the ranking, but…

“Well, my reaction is how come Albert Lea is ahead of us?” he half jokes.

Nevertheless, Stiehm points to Austin’s bike trails, multiple theaters, and the Austin Symphony Orchestra as evidence of the city’s awesomeness. Not to mention that small-town friendliness.

“When you go out in Austin, everywhere you go you’re seeing neighbors and friends,” Stiehm says. “If you want to spend two hours getting $20 worth of groceries you can very easily. It’s just a neighborly thing that you have here.”

While border town Breckenridge got a shout-out for its proximity to No. 7 Wahpeton, North Dakota, New Ulm was the third Minnesota city with a bona fide spot on the list. At No. 8, the proud German community earned points for its location along the lush Minnesota River Valley, its billing as the polka capital of the nation (birthplace of the Six Fat Dutchmen), and being home to the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame.

Of course, every good German settlement needs a brewery and New Ulm boasts August Schell Brewing Company — the nation’s second oldest family owned beer factory and most romantic bluff-side brewery in the state. From the lager aces’ Bock Fest to three-day stein and sauerkraut celebration Bavarian Blast, there’s always something going on in New Ulm, Mayor Robert Beussman says.

“This weekend we were partying with Oktoberfest,” he notes.

Since the typical house is listed at a modest $114,000, home owners should still have plenty of beer money.