Soon after the American Revolutionary War ended, the area now known as Charleston, W.Va.—officially established in 1794—saw its first settlers arrive. The Appalachian region was known for vast salt deposits until 1815, when natural gas was discovered, followed by coal two years later. Today, the state capital has diversified its economy to include education and healthcare, thanks to campuses for West Virginia University and the state’s Community and Technical College System, plus the private University of Charleston.

“People who have a preconceived notion about West Virginia are missing out,” asserts Adam Krason, principal of ZMM Architects & Engineers. “We have very affordable housing, short commutes, quality public and private schools, low crime rates, great cultural institutions like the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, and easy access to a variety of outdoor activities.”

Charlie West, as the locals call it, has been somewhat insulated from the larger real-estate roller coaster, in part because it never reached the precipitous highs of other U.S. markets. “We have been lucky in a way,” allows Thomas Worlledge, Charleston-area manager for Wheeling, W.Va.–based McKinley & Associates. “We did not see a boom period, so we did not depend only on the commercial sector for our growth. But because of this lack of private development, we have been dependent on nonprofits or state and local government to drive development.”

Most projects are led by local architects, a point of pride for the Charleston design community. “There’s an assumption that Charleston is too small to have in-town architects that are worth using for large or complicated projects,” says Mark Spencer, senior project architect for Associated Architects. “[But] there are several local architectural firms that have won numerous awards and received national recognition for their designs.”

Nearly 51,000 residents; -2.7% job growth, first quarter 2010.

7% Class A vacancy rate on asking rates of $19/s.f.–$23/s.f.

Median home sale price, first quarter 2010: $194,600.

• Housing affordability
• Riverfront location
• Abundant natural resources

• Youth out-migration
• Aging housing stock
• Coal-based state economy

“There needs to be a long-term vision for what happens here after coal,” says Edward Weber, senior associate at Silling Associates. “[We] need new manufacturing and knowledge-based companies to choose Charleston as a place to invest in. … If public and private entities do not continue to … make the area as attractive as possible … we are in for continued population decline.”