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 Ken Winters

Photo by Ken Winters

Sandusky, OH

Entry submitted by Angela Byington, Nikki Lloyd, Marvin Ranaldson, McKenzie Spriggs, Greg Voltz, Ryan Whaley, Chad Whaley and Eric Wobser

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

The historic City of Sandusky has a dense and vibrant urban core more commonly found in much larger cities and has recently began operating an award-winning transit system that is modest in scale but growing and connecting people with jobs, leisure and the beautiful Sandusky Bay.  The City is currently in the process of expanding fixed route service which will be, for the first time, hubbed out of Downtown Sandusky.  In addition, the Bicentennial Vision Plan promotes making the city more walkable and bikeable.  Vogontz, a start-up bike sharing company, will launch bike-sharing this summer to cater to residents, seasonal employees and tourists. Finally, a large priority of the recently enacted Bicentennial Vision is to bring back ferry service from Downtown Sandusky to Cedar Point, thus better linking over 5,000 Cedar Point employees and over 3.5 million visitors annually to a Downtown Sandusky that is being revitalized by a growing group of urbanist entrepreneurs. Sandusky’s Bicentennial Vision prioritizes building on the city’s dense street grid to better connect our neighborhoods to economic anchors, the waterfront and necessary day to day services.

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

Sandusky recently adopted the aforementioned new master plan that has many small incremental projects placed within. This Bicentennial Vision looks to build on and embrace the urbanity of the city, rather than trying to emulate the surrounding suburbs that have grown at the city’s expense over the last several decades.  Pilot Initiatives like “Walk Wayne Street” are meant to calm traffic in residential neighborhoods, while projects like the “West Side Walkability Initiative” are designed to bring bike and pedestrian infrastructure to parts of the city that are not currently connected to the historic street grid.

Sandusky... wanted to use the bicentennial as a way to not only celebrate the city’s proud history, but also to position it for a vibrant future.

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

Sandusky was experiencing strong momentum after the passage of Issue 8 (described in detail below in next question), due to the emergence of a strong coalition of civic, private, and public partners and a shared belief that Sandusky was headed in the right direction. Sandusky was also approaching its Bicentennial in 2018, and wanted to use the bicentennial as a way to not only celebrate the city’s proud history, but also to position it for a vibrant future. The City undertook a year-long Bicentennial Visioning Process in 2015, and the end result was the passage of a new 5-Year Strategic Vision and long-term Comprehensive Plan for the city. It was imperative that the plan truly engage the community in envisioning its future. Public meetings were held on a boat, in every neighborhood of the city and in downtown Sandusky.  Focus Groups were held and a survey was conducted that asked residents for their vision for Sandusky’s future. Videos were launched to ask residents for their feedback and also to celebrate the ideas the city heard in the planning process. Over 70,000 people viewed the videos and over 2,000 people directly gave their feedback on the plan. Residents had t-shirts made to support the passage of both plans at a city commission meeting in January of 2016, with both plans passing unanimously. The ideas heard in the engagement process are directly incorporated in the plan and the relationships and buy-in built during the process will be critical as the city begins the plan and celebrates its bicentennial.

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

Sandusky, like many post-industrial Midwestern cities, was devastated by the Great Recession. Staffing levels at the City of Sandusky were cut by 1/3 over a decade and public perception of the city and its future prospects was poor. In addition to those cuts, the city was facing an additional deficit of nearly $1 million as it approached 2015.  Passing an income tax to stabilize revenue had failed in several previous attempts. This was due in large part to the fact that Cedar Point, the largest seasonal amusement park in the world, is headquartered in Sandusky and residents believed that increased admissions taxes should cover any budget shortfalls. Residents were lobbying to double the admissions tax and there was strong tension between the business and residential community, and a lack of the public-private partnership necessary to move a community forward.  However, a newly elected city commission and a recently-hired city manager worked with residents, small business owners and Cedar Point to craft a compromise proposal called Issue 8 in which a modest income tax increase would also trigger an increase in the admissions tax. New revenue would not only stabilize the budget, but would allow for targeted investments in economic development, public safety, housing, blight elimination and infrastructure. In fact, one half of the increase in the admissions tax was dedicated to economic development and job creation. The business and philanthropic community funded the campaign at locally unprecedented levels, and countless residents and small business owners gave their endorsement and volunteered on behalf of Issue 8. The result was that 60% of voters supported the increase. This coalition of the city, its businesses and residents paved the way for renewed momentum in Sandusky as it approached its bicentennial in 2018, and was continued in a 2015 Bicentennial Vison Process, in which 77% of survey respondents said they believed Sandusky was headed in the right direction.

Sandusky has a gorgeous growing downtown district that is nestled on the freshwater shores of Sandusky Bay.

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

Sandusky has a gorgeous growing downtown district that is nestled on the freshwater shores of Sandusky Bay.  The town’s recent resurgence has not only brought about the rise of a wonderful culinary scene, but has seen numerous small retail shops open as well. In addition, there are plans for two breweries, a gastropub, and a boutique hotel that will be opening in 2016.  The gorgeous tree lined streets are not only bustling with shops and eateries, but are extremely walkable, which in turn makes everything very accessible for visitors and locals alike.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

Sandusky’s best asset is without question, location.  Couple that with an extremely close knit community and an ever growing list of amazing attractions and restaurants, and it’s hard not to love this town.  Sandusky Bay, Lake Erie’s largest natural harbor, provides a perfect cove for pleasure boaters looking to spend a weekend or families of kayakers looking to paddle around exploring.  And of course there’s Cedar Point, the world’s greatest amusement park, just across the bay right in our very own backyard.  From unique retail shops and a grand theater to a hidden speakeasy and one-of-a-kind locally-owned restaurants, you get all the benefits of living in a metropolitan city with all the comforts of a small town.


Photo by Ammodramus

Photo by Ammodramus

Hays, KS

Entry submitted by Toby Dougherty and city staff and commissioners

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

Hays is an isolated community on the High Plains of Western Kansas. Therefore, it is developed in an auto-centric manner. In the past few years, more emphasis has been placed on multi-modal transportation. Last year, 23 miles of on-street bike lanes were installed. The city is served by ACCESS Transportation. It is a point-to-point system that is funded by state, federal and local dollars. ACCESS is available to all residents for a nominal fee. For many years, the City of Hays had quite onerous regulations on taxicab providers, and for many years, the City went without an active taxi service. Two years ago, the City Commission repealed the taxi industry regulations, and taxis are now prolific throughout the city. There are several thriving businesses in operation, and the residents are better served by it. The Hays Regional Airport provides two flights per day to Denver, Colorado via United Express.

City staff has taken this data, incorporated it into the GIS system, and created a priority list for capital improvements and replacements.

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

The City of Hays has 120 miles of sanitary sewer lines and 1,500 manholes in the sanitary sewer system. Until 2014, no money had been budgeted for maintenance and repair of the sanitary sewer collection system. City staff knew the first step in determining the appropriate budget number was to begin a comprehensive evaluation of the sanitary system itself. The City hired outside contractors to help with the sewer line cleaning process. One of the benefits of this is that the City was provided with a video file of the line after it had been cleaned. Included in the video file are GPS coordinates and descriptions of any problems within the sanitary sewer system. City staff has taken this data, incorporated it into the GIS system, and created a priority list for capital improvements and replacements. Recently, the City Commission adjusted the wastewater customer rates to provide the funds necessary for the Capital Improvement Program. City staff feels there are adequate capital funds to make the necessary repairs and improvements and keep the system viable for the foreseeable future.

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

There are over 30 citizen committees and boards associated with the city of Hays. While some of these boards are quite technical, and there are specific requirements for service, it is typically not difficult to find people willing to serve. The City Commission meetings are televised and broadcasted live by the two cable service providers and streamed online by both providers as well as the City of Hays website. The City of Hays has a strong civic culture, and civic groups are numerous. Groups like the Kiwanis Club, Optimist Club, Rotary Club, and Lions Club are very active not only in the community, but also in helping to raise funds for quality of life improvements. In the City of Hays parks system, it is not uncommon to find shelter houses, restrooms, playground equipment, and other amenities that have been funded in full or in part by these civic groups. in 2008 a group of residents decided the community needed a sports complex.  They began a grass roots effort that led to a formal request of the City to institute a 1/2 cent special sales tax to fund the construction of an $8M facility.  The City Commission politely declined to pursue the project, but the group was not deterred.  They became more organized, put a plan together, and gathered enough signatures to place the issue on the November election where it passed easily.  The complex was constructed in 2009 and opened in 2010.

As a result of the localized water issues, the City of Hays was forced to adapt and has become the leader in water conservation efforts in Kansas.

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

The city of Hays is the only large community in Kansas that does not have an adequate locally-available source of water. Since the 1950s, the City has struggled with the search for a reliable, sustainable source of water. In the mid-1990s, knowing that any solution to the water needs problem would be expensive, the residents of Hays voted in a half-cent sales tax devoted toward water exploration. The City has used part of the proceeds of that sales tax to invest in infrastructure that allows us to reuse our effluent water for irrigation of ball fields, the Bickle-Schmidt Sports Complex, Fort Hays Municipal Golf Course, and other amenities, but most of the money goes into the bank. The City is currently in the process of developing water rights it owns approximately 75 miles south of town and piping them to Hays. While this is a long-term sustainable solution, it is very expensive and the sales tax affords us the ability to undertake the project.

As a result of the localized water issues, the City of Hays was forced to  adapt and has become the leader in water conservation efforts in Kansas. The residents of Hays consume 95 gallons of water per capita per day. This is 35% less than the statewide average and 60% less than the regional average.  Hays is implementing water conservation tactics not seen outside of California, the desert Southwest, and mountain West. The residents of Hays are very proud of their conservation efforts.

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

Downtown Hays, “The Bricks”, is a 16-square-block area that is the heart and soul of Hays. The City has invested heavily to incentivise redevelopment in the area, and returns are high. Adjacent to Fort Hays State University, Downtown Hays contains a unique collection of locally-owned shops and restaurants including a national award-winning brewery. Many events take place in Downtown Hays such as art walks, parades, Wines and Steins, and the annual Blues and Barbeque festival. Downtown Hays continues to undergo significant reinvestment and redevelopment.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

Hays is unique and does not try to imitate other communities. It is geographically isolated on the High Plains of Western Kansas, and this has nurtured a spirit of independence. A strong sense of community pride and commitment permeate Hays. To illustrate one example of this pride and commitment, the following is how City Commissioner James Meier answered this question: “A recent snow storm closed the Interstate highway in Hays, stranding over 300 semi-trucks in town. Drivers were greeted by the Hays Police Department as they exited the Interstate with a flyer directing them to safe parking. Once learning about the stranded drivers, area restaurants sent out drivers to deliver food and supplies to those in need. ACCESS Transportation was dispatched to the area and took drivers from their trucks to local businesses and back allowing them to get supplies. This was all done by the initiative of the individual businesses and City/County public safety workers, without direction from upper management. That is the character of the people of Hays.”
 


Voting is now closed.