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Urban professionals downsize in a quest for the simple life

Beth Gissinger and Luis Rivera stand on the back porch of their house in Fairhaven, Mass. Smaller cities and towns are luring away urban professionals seeking a better life.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Beth Gissinger and Luis Rivera stand on the back porch of their house in Fairhaven, Mass. Smaller cities and towns are luring away urban professionals seeking a better life. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Michael J. Martinez Associated Press

NEW YORK — Living in Queens and riding a crammed subway into Manhattan each day for work, Luis Rivera and Beth Gissinger-Rivera personified New Yorkers’ resigned acceptance to the hassles and travails of life in one of the world’s biggest cities.

But the more Rivera, 34 and a native New Yorker, visited his then-fiancee’s family in small-town Massachusetts, the more he started questioning why he was putting up with the expense, the crowds and the overall irritation of daily life in the Big Apple.

“I gotta tell you, I just fell in love with how easy everything is out here,” Rivera said, speaking from the outdoor deck of his home in Fairhaven, Mass. “Growing up, I thought New York was how the rest of the world lived. But everything just seemed to be so much easier out here.”

For years, career mobility and security meant moving to larger and larger cities, living in the sticks was a death knell for promising professionals, and small communities were drained of young adults heading to major metropolitan areas for jobs. Now, however, smaller cities and towns, aided by advances in technology and lower housing prices, are luring away urban professionals seeking a better life.

“There are a lot of people out there, saddled with high mortgages on the coast, saying they can do sophisticated work from the boonies,” said Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes magazine and author of “Life 2.0: How People Across America Are Transforming Their Lives by Finding the Where of Their Happiness.”

While one can argue about the lifestyle benefits of the big city versus rural areas, the economics of such a move are clear. According to a housing comparison by real estate agent Coldwell Banker, a home that costs $450,000 in Queens, N.Y., costs $234,999 in Portland, Maine, $180,030 in Bozeman, Mont., and just $170,130 in Des Moines, Iowa.

For couples like Rivera and Gissinger-Rivera, that’s the difference between home ownership and lifelong renting. For those who already own property in a big city, downsizing to a smaller town can mean big bucks in the current housing market.

Kemi Chavez wasn’t necessarily looking to move out of Los Angeles, but when her husband’s job was transferred to Denver, they were able to purchase a much larger home for their growing family in Elizabeth, Colo., about an hour outside of Denver.

“I guess finding a home wasn’t entirely as cheap as we thought it would be, but it was still a better deal than in L.A.,” Chavez said. “The bigger issue for us was a job for me.”

Chavez, a public relations executive, found far fewer PR firms in Denver, and none that had openings. Instead, the mother of a 2-year-old daughter — with another child on the way — decided to go into business for herself. Within six months, Chavez successfully began representing authors and publishers on a part-time basis, “and making more than part-time money.”

Most of Chavez’ work is done via phone and e-mail, with only the occasional trip to meet new clients. Like many professionals living in rural areas, she benefited from the continued growth and acceptance of Internet technology.

That’s what happened to Jared Sharp when his girlfriend got a job working for Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. After months of managing a long-distance relationship, Sharp told his employer in New York that he was going to follow her, no matter where she went.

“It totally surprised me. They were like, ‘We’ll do everything we can to accommodate you because we want you to stay with us,” Sharp said from his home office, where he serves as a managing director for Planned Television Arts’ finance division. “And now I’m living in such a great place. You’d swear you fell into Bedford Falls. There’s even a Bijou theater on the main drag.”

And besides keeping his job, Sharp received a promotion while, at the same time, his rent was cut in half.

That’s not to say it’s easy, as Rivera can attest. In the summer of 2002, Gissinger-Rivera, 28, quickly found a job as a book publicist for a small Massachusetts publisher, but Rivera was hard pressed to find a comparable human resources position. He took a job as a grocery store manager for nearly a year before re-entering his field as a HR manager for Lowe’s Cos., the home-improvement chain.

By 2003, they had their dream home less than a mile from the beach, and both were secure in their new jobs. And while they visit New York often, they don’t miss it.

“It’s great to visit. It makes you appreciate it even more,” Gissinger-Rivera said. “But it’s great to come home, too.”

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