Welcome to our Sweet 16 Round of the Strongest Town Competition. We invite you to read the answers that representatives from these two towns provided to questions about transportation, incremental growth, adapting to challenges, and more. Please scroll down to the bottom to vote!


Photo by Walter

Photo by Walter

Safety Harbor, FL

Entry submitted by James Fogarty

Describe your town's transportation system and what transportation options are available for residents.

Safety Harbor is a city of about 17,000 situated on a peninsula on the east coast of Pinellas County, in the greater Tampa Bay metropolitan region.  The transportation system is robust, with many different modes available to residents and visitors.  Most streets in safety harbor are small, with speed limits of 25 miles per hour and are easy to walk, bike, or drive on.  There are, however, two ‘stroads’ near town, one along the western city limit and the other passing through the far northern tip of the city limit.  These corridors provide the primary means of regional connectivity to the city’s local streets.  As is typical for a stroad, these arterials have a significant retail presence near major intersections.  A freight railway runs through the city, on the same track that provided passenger rail service back when Safety Harbor was founded (that has since been discontinued).  There are several bus lines that traverse the city, including the local ‘Jolley Trolley’ connecting downtown Safety Harbor to a shopping center and another walkable town nearby, and PSTA Route 62, connecting to the county’s bus network.  The downtown district is also accessible by boat via the municipal marina on Bayshore Blvd near Main Street.  

Thanks to its safe, scenic streets and frequent programming of runs and other events, Safety Harbor was selected in 2014 by the Road Runners Club of America as one of the top ‘runner-friendly’ communities in the nation.  The city is connected to a robust trail network, including one 15 mile shared-use path connecting to Tampa over a bridge across Tampa Bay.  Running mostly along the water, this path offers some of the most scenic views in the area.  Though there are exceptions, including the two very notable exceptions mentioned above, most streets in the city would be safe for members of the public to walk along, in, or cross at any age or level of physical ability.  

Give an example of an incremental project that your town has undertaken.

In 1992 the city designated the core of its downtown as a Community Redevelopment District.  This allowed the city to develop special standards that were more consistent with the traditional style of development present in much of downtown Safety Harbor.  County building and zoning restrictions in place at the time would not have permitted such development, so the overlay district provided important legal cover for existing and future businesses downtown, revising setback and use standards to allow new development in more of a traditional building pattern.  The program also established a Tax Increment Financing district, which allowed the area to re-invest property tax revenue growth from the district on improvements back into the neighborhood (as opposed to being spent on surrounding suburban areas).  

The look and feel of the district has been gradually improved over the years.

Further, to help improve the community and attract businesses to the main street district on a limited budget, the city established and funded an annual program of small grants for downtown Safety Harbor.  These funds are capped at between $1,000 and $5,000 per property, and generally require a 25% or 50% owner match depending on the type of project proposed.  These grants are available to help reimburse the cost of improvements to private property that also benefit the public space.  Things such as public art installation, landscaping, facade improvements, front porches, ADA improvements, and signage may qualify.  Through this program, the look and feel of the district has been gradually improved over the years.  Having visually interesting features of buildings that front the sidewalk encourages walking in the district by making the pedestrian experience more interesting, and helps attract visitors and customers downtown.  

Describe how residents of your town are actively involved in local decision making.

Safety Harbor benefits from a very engaged community support structure.  The city is covered by several local newspapers and blogs that are devoted to area events, public affairs, and other areas of interest for residents.  The city is governed by a council-manager form of government, with five elected officials on the city council, including a mayor who serves as chairman.  There are seven advisory committees to the council, each consisting of between 5 and 7 appointed citizen representatives.  Residents of the city who are interested in serving on a board are encouraged to submit applications, which are used to fill the vacancies as they arise.  To encourage additional involvement and periodically inject fresh perspective into the mix, the city hosts an annual ‘citizen’s academy’.  This program is put on by dedicated city staff, who generously give of their time after normal working hours to make the program accessible to working individuals.  Each group is introduced to city staff from the various departments, and are shown public facilities including city hall, the maintenance facility, fire stations, and parks.  Several former city commissioners, mayors, and many appointed board members over the years were apparently introduced to city government in this way.  The dedication of the public is evident in the many programs that are supported by volunteer and citizen-led fundraising efforts, such as improvements and programming for the local public library.

In 1992, the city created an organization to help revitalize its downtown. It successfully lobbied to take Main Street off of the state’s highway system.

Tell us a story about how your town adapted to a challenge in some way.

Through the mid 1990’s, Safety Harbor’s main street was designated as State Road 590, a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) maintained roadway.  Unfortunately, the design standards for these roads at the time were a bad fit for the businesses of the downtown district, who depended on street parking and walkability to survive.  In 1992, the city created an organization to help revitalize its downtown.  It successfully lobbied to take Main Street off of the state’s highway system and in 1997, began efforts to tame this roadway.  Improvements were constructed that narrowed the lanes, repaired on-street parking, and ultimately added several feet to the sidewalk.  The city also persisted in adding landscaping, pedestrian bulb-outs at intersections, crosswalks, street furniture, and public art.  After the asphalt was scraped off the top of the street, some of the original brick pavers were able to be re-used as decorative elements at the intersections.  This provided not only aesthetic value and sustainable re-use of construction materials, but also traffic calming in key locations.  

Even 20 years later, these areas look great and help to make it easy to cross main street on-foot.  This accomplishment is even more notable for its location in a region known more for being one of the most dangerous places for bikes and pedestrians anywhere in the US.  Since then, the city has continued to make streets safer and protect its small-town charm.  In 2013, the city took a leadership role in the purchase of six solar powered Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons to install at key pedestrian crossing points.  Where properly installed, these relatively low cost treatments have been shown to slow traffic and improve driver yield behavior from 20 percent to 88 percent!  

Frequent local events, such as the monthly Third Friday celebration that closes main street to traffic and sets up live music, support merchants by showcasing downtown businesses to throngs of locals and visitors.

Does you town have a central "downtown" or district? If so, please describe this place.

Safety Harbor was originally developed surrounding a passenger rail line in the late 1800’s.  The development that grew around this rail line is the modern-day district of downtown Safety Harbor.  The most concentrated development occurs within a few blocks of the rail line, stretching from there eastward toward the historic Safety Harbor Resort and Spa and public waterfront.  Downtown is accessed primarily by Main Street, which runs east-west, and Bayshore Blvd, which runs north-south along the waterfront.  Bayshore Boulevard features a linear park and spectacular views of the Tampa skyline, and occasionally the wild dolphins in the bay.  Frequent local events, such as the monthly Third Friday celebration that closes main street to traffic and sets up live music, support merchants by showcasing downtown businesses to throngs of locals and visitors.  Many other events also take place downtown, such as the Safety Harbor Song Fest, a Food and Wine Festival, regular road races, and holiday parades/celebrations.  Thanks to a strong arts scene, downtown is peppered with murals and public art installations, as well as the Safety Harbor Art & Music Center, a crowd-funded facility paid for through fundraisers and lots and lots of individual donations of $10 or $20 each.  Downtown also has a place for everyone, with a multitude of housing types for all incomes, life stages, and levels of physical ability.  Within easy walking distance of Main Street, there are affordable small homes, modest apartments, townhomes, single family homes, or waterfront mansions.  These options include both new construction and re-use of historic properties.  In addition to the shops, bars, and restaurants the district also includes many offices, industrial properties, cafes, markets, hotels, an assisted living facility, schools, laundromats, parks, and many other amenities all within easy walking distance.  

What is your favorite thing about your town?

There are many things I love about Safety Harbor, most of which center around my mostly laid-back, approachable neighbors.  While there are some things that could be worked on, there are also lots of things that make Safety Harbor a good candidate for a Strong Town.  The city benefits from open, accessible leadership that frequently take the long view on public investment.  The city budget is easy to understand and is funded from multiple revenue sources, with the largest being user-fees at 34% of revenues and only 14.4% from ad-valorem property tax revenue.  Normally ad-valorem revenue is the most important source for cities in Florida.  The city spends only about 4.3 percent of annual revenue on debt service, and has strong policies that guide the issuance of debt by the city.  The city is almost fully developed, and has a strong downtown that is easily accessible despite being surrounded by mostly low-density suburban development.  Mobility is provided by two-lane, local streets that are relatively safe and easy to cross on-foot.  

The city takes a proactive role in capital maintenance, such as replacing water and sewer lines as they reach the end of their useful life instead of waiting for them to fail, thereby keeping disruptions to a minimum.  The city has a stable tax base and a diverse employment, with a many small, local businesses making up most of the jobs in the city.  The local restaurant and pub scene is hard to beat while still maintaining a friendly, small-town atmosphere.  The city is blessed with a beautiful public waterfront, and is convenient to many other urban areas, world class beaches, and other cultural amenities that are nearby.  Probably the best feature of Safety Harbor is the lifestyle I am able to enjoy as a resident.  Despite living in the suburbs about three miles from the center, I can easily walk to my job, to grocery stores, or to a bagel shop for coffee in the morning, all less than a mile away.  Even though I am a very inexperienced cyclist, thanks to abundant small streets my neighbors and I still feel comfortable biking into the downtown district, particularly for special events.  On the way, the ride takes us through tree-shaded neighborhood streets, waterfront parks, a historic pre-Columbian Indian mound, and fascinating history.  Of course, being in a sub-tropical climate tempered by proximity to the water is also a favorite local feature, with outdoor activities enjoyable here year-round.  


Photo by WPPilot

Photo by WPPilot

West Palm Beach

Entry submitted by Jesse Bailey and Aaron Wormus

Describe your town's transportation system and what transportation options are available for residents.

We have one of the most multimodal downtowns imaginable. A downtown trolley circulates between the two main districts of downtown, Clematis Street and CityPlace, and also connects to the Tri-Rail train station, which is within a ½ mile walk of the center of downtown. Tri-Rail is a regional rail system that connects the three counties of South Florida. The Tri-Rail station has an intermodal hub in downtown that also has Amtrak connections and bus connections. By 2017, Brightline (formerly known as All Aboard Florida) will connect us to Orlando, downtown Fort Lauderdale and downtown Miami. Privately funded and operated, this project will connect our regions with a passenger rail service on the railway that was the original impetus for the development of the east coast of Florida. On Clematis Street, it’s common to see bicycles, Segway tours, and bicycle jitneys. We also have SkyBike, a bikeshare system, throughout our downtown. The trolley recently expanded and connects to Northwood Village, a neighborhood just north of downtown, and the redeveloped outlet mall which was built on the site of a former dead mall. Connecting us to neighboring cities and the county is Palm Tran, our countywide bus system. Downtown West Palm Beach even offers a horse drawn carriage ride around downtown.

Give an example of an incremental project that your town has undertaken.

The Downtown Neighborhood Association has made small improvements to our downtown neighborhood through fundraising, volunteer time, and partnership with our Downtown Development Authority. We’ve made small investments in the downtown including decorating utility boxes with historic photos, installing a bike Fix-It station at our waterfront promenade, and planting landscaping at a public garage facility. These have all been low-cost projects that cost under $2,000 each to design and build.

Engage West Palm has focused on reinforcing mostly positive interactions with the city and we have already seen the impact in the local city governance.

Describe how residents of your town are actively involved in local decision making.

Involvement in local decision-making takes many forms, from neighborhood meetings with the Mayor to the standard fare of public meetings and workshops. AGuyonClematis is a local blogger who has grown a tremendous following for timely and relevant content on local issues and events. Walkable West Palm Beach is an advocacy blog dedicated to exploring how to make our city a more walkable and vibrant place. Engage West Palm Beach is a Facebook Group that was started with a focus on fostering engagement between the city and citizens of West Palm Beach. Since its inception, it has grown to over 1,600 members and acted as a virtual town hall to discuss many issues that are facing the city. Where many similar groups in other local areas have digressed into being sounding boards for more negative sentiment, Engage West Palm has focused on reinforcing mostly positive interactions with the city and we have already seen the impact in the local city governance. Engage West Palm has also acted as a starting point for other more specific groups to form, as well as an area where social and civic interactions can happen.

Tell us a story about how your town adapted to a challenge in some way.

During the early '90s the city was literally a shell of its former self as it had been hollowed out and re-engineered around the conveniences of automobiles. At one point in time, West Palm Beach was featured in a documentary called “Cracktown, USA.”  Huge changes had to be made to reverse the decline. Responding to this challenge, Mayor Nancy Graham began a revival of our downtown area and historic traditional neighborhoods, which was continued by subsequent administrations. Mayor Jeri Muoio and the Downtown Development Authority Director Raphael Clemente hired urban designer Jeff Speck to create a walkability plan for the downtown area. In the year since this plan was created the city has made steps to implement projects to enhance walkability. Additional projects are moving forward in other neighborhoods, such as the effort implement a four to three road diet on South Dixie highway and to slow the cars on Broadway. The positive returns from the early projects done in the 90s are apparent and the citizenry and public officials support projects that enhance placemaking and walkability.

Everyone comes to enjoy life in public here and we have a beautiful park, the Waterfront Commons, anchoring the end of the street.

Does you town have a central "downtown" or district? If so, please describe this place.

Clematis Street is the heart of our city. It is a traditional main street five blocks in length that contains a fine grain of buildings. It supports office space, retail, restaurants, bars, yoga studios, a neighborhood gym, a locally owned pharmacy, and apartments above shops. Our City Hall and public city library is also located on Clematis Street. Everyone comes to enjoy life in public here and we have a beautiful park, the Waterfront Commons, anchoring the end of the street. This park terminates the street and connects people to our waterfront promenade and public docks so people can enjoy the water. Children love the splashpad at the end of Clematis Street and it is perhaps the most identifiable image in downtown. Our Parks and Recreation Department sponsors dozens of community events and there is always an event to enjoy downtown at the Waterfront Commons or the nearby Meyer Amphitheatre, an outdoor amphitheatre that hosts concerts and performing arts shows.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

My favorite thing about the town is the people. Clematis Street in particular really exemplifies the idea of a third place and it has an almost village feel, although our city is significantly larger than a village. If you work downtown, you are bound to run into friends and acquaintances on the street. Living in a community like this makes it easy to be connected to friends and neighbors. Proximity to people is a key attribute of our city.


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