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A short celebration, then back to work

A photograph accompanying a story at CNNMoney.com in which Suffolk was ranked as the 91st best small city in America shows a glass-smooth Lake Drummond reflecting a sunrise over the bow of a kayak. It is a bucolic scene, full of serenity and quietude, without a hint of the relative economic boom that has occurred here since the year 2000.

Yet it has been that economic boom, which resulted in a 25-percent increase in jobs within the city during the past decade, that was likely the deciding factor in elevating Suffolk to the point that Money magazine editors considered it worthy of joining the list of the 100 best small cities to live in.

Whether those jobs are in the white-hot Harbour View development or in the more sedately growing industrial parks spread around the city, all of them have been important to Suffolk, protecting it from the worst of the recession and making it a desirable place to live for new families from the rest of Hampton Roads and beyond.

Still, the results of Money magazine’s comparison show there is vast room for improvement in other areas that were considered as part of the formula for a great small city. Crime rates here are higher, with personal crimes occurring twice as frequently in Suffolk as in the average “best city.” Pollution in Suffolk is worse, commutes are longer, there are fewer options for entertainment, incomes are lower and family purchasing power is only about two-thirds of the average for the top 100 cities.

Worst of all, Suffolk’s education statistics are abysmal compared with the average best city. Suffolk’s reading and math test scores both fall slightly below the state average; its companions on the list scored about 23 percent higher on those tests than the state average.

When compared on such un-measurable criteria as natural beauty, history and charming residents, Suffolk stands in exceptional company. Considering the city’s economic situation only improves its standing.

Unfortunately, crime and poor educational achievement are two of the least desirable qualities in a community, and Suffolk’s placement on Money’s list surely suffered from them. One can only guess how badly the double setback of high crime rates and low test scores affected the city’s standing.

After they’ve rightly celebrated the fact Suffolk made the list at all, city officials should take a long, sober look at the statistical comparison between Suffolk and the other 99 cities on Money’s list and then make a solemn commitment toward improvement.

It would be well one day to see Suffolk break not just the top 100 mark on Money’s list, but even the Top 10. That would confirm something many of us have known for a long time.