Whenever people ask why they should move a business to Howard County, Dick Story, perhaps the area's biggest booster, pulls out "the list."
It's a collection of the county's rankings on best-of lists, and it offers plenty of reasons why someone might want to work or live in the largely suburban enclave between Baltimore and Washington — great schools, great parks, great libraries, highly educated work force and so on. And the most recent coup: The Columbia- Ellicott City area landing No. 2 on Money magazine's list of the "Best Places to Live in America."
"We have a list of superlatives," said Story, who heads the county's Economic Development Authority.
But Howard County isn't basking in the glory alone in Maryland.
The Baltimore- Towson metropolitan area ranked as fifth-best for working moms by Forbes magazine in July. Baltimore also landed among "eight hip cities for urban lifestyles," featured in the spring issue of Where to Retire magazine, aimed at readers looking to relocate in their golden years. And in May, the websites Apartments.com and CareerRookie.com listed Baltimore as the ninth-best place to live for recent college grads.
Call it keeping up with the Joneses writ large. These "best-of" lists and rankings seem to have proliferated and grown in popularity. Compiled by publications, associations and nonprofits, they shine a light on traits as broad as business climates and housing prices, and as specific as Main Streets and locally brewed beer.
Opinions vary as to how much of an economic — and reputation — boost the rankings provide to the cities, states and neighborhoods that celebrate them. A single mention on one list might not mean much. But places that appear consistently in an array of surveys can benefit by selling a total image and stirring interest from potential new businesses and residents.
The nods to Howard County provide independent validation of its attributes and are often used in promotions, said Story, whose agency works to lure companies to the area.
"When everything else is equal, these are the kinds of things that improve the quality of life," Story said. "An executive who makes a decision has to go home and tell the family, 'Guess where we're moving.' It becomes a matter of personal preference."
To be sure, many places fighting crime and grime want to do all they can to accentuate the positive. Baltimore is no exception, having long battled its "Bodymore, Murderland" reputation and sometimes finding itself ranked unfavorably in surveys.
The city was ranked No. 4 (and Washington No. 3) among the "most irritation-prone" cities, according to a survey sponsored by Edge Shaving Gel that measured humidity, traffic, underemployment and comedy clubs per capita.
Local government, tourism and economic development officials and real estate agents say they watch the various rankings closely, even plotting ways to improve their scores on surveys.
"It's good to be mentioned favorably in as many of these things as you can, because it reinforces a favorable image, not that any of them will be the overwhelming factor for someone to locate here or move here," said Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.
And if cities or towns slide in the rankings from previous years? Officials say that's nothing to obsess over.
"It reminds me of the Oscar Wilde quote: 'There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,' " Landers said.
Tom Noonan's favorite accolade for Baltimore came this year from Sherman's Travel and Lonely Planet.com, both of which placed Baltimore among the Top 10 Underrated Cities.
"The city has changed so much, and our product is so much better than our reputation," said Noonan, president of Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism and convention bureau. "People still have a dated, rust-belt perception."
Noonan says he and his staff pick and choose among the rankings when it comes to promoting the city to visitors and convention groups, depending on who's coming to town. For instance, the bureau directs prospective health convention planners to the U.S. News & World Report ranking of Johns Hopkins as the best hospital in the nation — for 20 years in a row.
The varied designations all add up to branding power, Noonan said, including a nod as the 10th-best large city for art in the U.S., as selected by American Style Magazine readers in May; a ranking in the 30th spot in a Top 100 Fun Cities list by Portfolio.com; and Travel + Leisure's nod to the American Visionary Art Museum as one of the 10 places to see before you're 10.
"The more exciting the city is, the better the brand and the more people want to come here," Noonan said.