On the second track of his hit 1985 album “Around the World in a Day,” Prince describes “Paisley Park,” a mythical place where people are accepted and rules are non-existent. A few years later, when the artist decided to make Paisley Park a reality, he built it in Chanhassen, Minnesota, a small town 20 miles southwest of Minneapolis.
For decades, Paisley Park and Chanhassen served as Prince’s studio and home. After he died in 2016, the property was converted into a museum. Each year (pandemic notwithstanding), visitors from around the world make their way to Chanhassen to pay their respects and get a glimpse of music history.
What they find is a growing suburb of 26,000 people, where residents and city officials are trying to capitalize on the notoriety while respecting the past and natural surroundings.
Some involved in local real estate will joke that there are people who buy in Chanhassen for the Prince connection. However, most of the roughly 300 new residents who move here each year have more practical reasons: good schools and jobs, relatively affordable housing and plenty of things to do.
Those are also the reasons why Chanhassen earns the top spot on Money’s 35th annual list of The Best Places to Live. Every year since 1987, we’ve combined lots of data with old fashioned reporting to find 50 or so standout spots that fit the times.
The task feels especially relevant in 2021. The coronavirus pandemic has upended conventional notions about work, commute and the importance of our homes. The wild housing market and soaring real estate prices of the last year created opportunities for some, while others were forced to watch from the sidelines. Add in the uncertainty caused by the delta variant, a choppy economic recovery and an ongoing national discourse around race and equality — declaring a best place felt daunting.
But we believe Chanhassen meets this moment.
READ MORE: Did Your Hometown Make Our List? Check Out Money's Complete Best Places to Live 2021-2022 Ranking
How Chanhassen became the best place to live in America
European settlers began to arrive in Chanhassen as the Dakota people, the native tribe in Minnesota, were pushed south of the Minnesota River. At the first town meeting in 1858, settlers chose the name, which is the Dakota word for sugar maple tree, and agreed that all animals except pigs would be allowed to run loose between April and November. (A year later, porky was granted free rein, too.)
Though Chanhassen was one of the first European settlements in Carver County, it didn’t grow much until the 1960s. During that decade a few villages merged to form the current City of Chanhassen, and several new businesses came to 78th Street, the city’s main drag. Importantly, in 1968, Herb and Carol Bloomberg opened the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres at the center of town, aiming to bring a “little bit of Broadway to the Midwest.”
(Fast forward to today: The theater has hosted over 12.5 million visitors in its history and is the largest professional dinner theater in the country. Right now, guests can feast on “famous chicken Chanhassen” before enjoying a production of "The Music Man." At full capacity the theater employs 300, making it a major local employer.)
Still, longtime residents say that as recently as the 1990s they needed to drive five-miles east to Eden Prairie to buy groceries or 10-miles west to Waconia to see a movie. Sue Busch, an agent with Edina Realty who has lived in Chanhassen since 1992, says her friends used to allude that she lived in the sticks. “People used to say to me, ‘are you coming into town today?" she recalls with a laugh.
However, as the suburbs closer to Minneapolis got more expensive, people and businesses found their way to Chanhassen. In fact, the population has grown 13% since 2010 — more than the U.S. (7.4%) and Minnesota (7.6%), although less than Carver County as a whole (17%).
With a median home price of $458,000 in the first quarter of this year, Chanhassen is now one of the pricier Twin City suburbs. At the moment, the median household income in Chanhassen — $125,000 — is high enough to support the prices. (That’s based on the idea that a household should spend at most 28% of gross monthly income on housing.)
However, quickly rising home prices (up 14% just since the end of 2020) and fierce competition are forcing some first-time buyers to venture a little further west of Minneapolis to places like Chaska (median price $325,000).
“We are still seeing the multiple offers, we're still seeing homes go well over list price,” says Busch. “We have seen a shift in the market over the last few weeks, where instead of having 13 or 14 offers, we’re seeing two or three or four offers.”
Those who can make Chanhassen work are drawn by the city’s two top-notch school districts. Minnetonka Public Schools are leaders in language immersion and coding education, and offer students tracks in business, health sciences or trade skills such as car repair. Chanhassen High School, part of the Eastern Carver County district, opened in 2009 and has already won two state championships in baseball and shines in debate competitions.
Residents also love the access to nature in Chanhassen. There’s Lake Ann, where locals swim in the summer and ice fish in the winter. There’s Lake Minnetonka, which has some of the city’s most expensive homes around it, but also smaller cabins. Or the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, which boasts 32 distinct gardens and where University of Minnesota horticulturalists breed new kinds of apples. The city has also worked hard to build 95 miles of bike paths that connect to regional trails, which some residents even use to commute all the way to downtown Minneapolis.
About half of residents work outside of Chan (as it’s known), but the number of jobs in the city is about equal with the number of residents; the unemployment rate was just 3.6% in June (at the time, Minnesota’s unemployment rate was 4%).
The city has added 5.4 million square feet of commercial and industrial space since 1995. General Mills has a facility in Chanhassen and the city plans to maintain 153 acres for more industrial development. Fitness chain Life Time, has its headquarters in Chanhassen. Some businesses are also drawn by the ease of operating in the town, which does not require business licenses. Moody’s anticipates 12% job growth in Chanhassen by 2025, higher than most of the roughly 1,300 places Money considered for the Best Places to Live list.
There are still some corn fields in the area but visit Chanhassen’s walkable downtown and you’ll find a Target, four grocery stores and lots of locally owned shops — many of them helmed by women from the community. A favorite female-led newcomer is a Board & Brush, a franchise that offers DIY wood sign workshops and wine. The Chanhassen location is owned by best friends who met through their kids and opened the shop after leaving corporate jobs.
The 10 best places to live in the U.S.
Money's ranking finds places that combine affordability, economic growth and quality of life.
Source: Population and median household income provided by Sinergios Technologies inc; unemployment rate (by country) provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics; and median home price provided by ATTOM Data Solutions.
Making Chanhassen the best place to live for everyone
Chanhassen itself is also run by women. Three of five council members, including Mayor Elise Ryan, are women, a rarity in local government. Half of the city's department heads are female, as well.
“Chanhassen has a very large population of professional women who are very engaged in our community," says Ryan. "That is reflected in elections.”
One of Ryan’s first projects when she took office in 2018 was building a 50 unit affordable housing complex for older residents that includes amenities like a dog run and pickle ball court. The city calls itself a “community for life” and says it wants to provide for the people who have lived in Chanhassen since childhood.
At the same time, the city is figuring out how to welcome new groups. Census data shows that, like the rest of the country, Chanhassen became more diverse between 2010 and 2020.
The number of non-white people in the city more than doubled and now makes up 16% of the population. But that means Chanhassen is still 84% white, a bit whiter than Minnesota as a whole (78%) and far whiter than nearby Hennepin county (67%), where Minneapolis is located.
Also like the rest of the country, Chanhassen has been grappling with issues of race and inclusion since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. Since then, the Carver County Sheriff's Office (Chanhassen shares a police force) has held forums to discuss police practices and areas for improvement. So far, changes have been relatively modest, such as making forms available in Spanish, including information on how to file a police report and job applications. However, officers will soon start to wear body cameras, a step that proponents feel make officers more accountable for their actions (though Ryan says that was planned before Floyd’s murder).
“We all recognize that this area is predominantly white,” says Ryan. “So you have to make that extra effort to make sure everybody feels safe and welcome in the community where they live.”
What’s next for Chanhassen?
Chanhassen’s population is expected to reach 32,000 in the next decade, according to city estimates.
To keep up with demand, the city issued permits for 68 housing units last year and has already issued permits for 181 in 2021. (The Park, a 138 unit development by builder Lennar, is going up on land once owned by Prince. Street names include Paisley Path, Purple Parkway and Visionary Court.) Chanhassen's Community Development Director, Kate Aanenson, figures the city can add another 4,000 homes before filling up.
“When we moved here it was a lot of the farmers. As people started moving in, it changed and grew even more,” says Busch. “It has really been fun to see how much Chanhassen has changed over the years. But the city is still trying really hard to maintain that quaint, hometown community feel.”