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 BazookaJoe

Photo by BazookaJoe

Holland, MI

Entry submitted by: Ryan Cotton, City Manager; Brian Burch, Council Member; Nancy DeBoer, Mayor; Joel Dye, Community and Neighborhood Services Director; Dana Kollewehr, Downtown Development Authority Director; Mark Vanderploeg, Senior Planner; Brian White, Transportation Director and City Engineer; Anne Saliers, Community Energy Services Manager, Holland Board of Public Works; and Michelle Gibbs, Holland-Hope College Sustainability Institute Director. Edited for length.

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

The City of Holland infrastructure is designed to provide alternative modes of transportation. The response below is broken down into the categories of Complete Streets; Winter Friendly, Pedestrian and Bike Friendly; and Multi-modal Friendly outcomes

Complete Streets:

Although we have an historic grid pattern with 150 miles of streets and 365 lane miles, our 150 miles of sidewalk were recently supplemented by over eight (8) miles boardwalks, bike paths, and bike lanes (22%, 3%, and 100% increase respectively over the last decade).  The historic street grid pattern allows residents to be well-connected and safe, especially when supplemented with bike trails and lanes.

Winter Friendly:

Holland has the largest amount of snowmelted infrastructure in the America produced by municipal power plant waste heat.  This innovation started Downtown in 1988 with one mile (1 mile) of snow-melted sidewalks and streets.  Snowmelt is made possible from waste heat from power generation.  Holland has the largest re-use of wasted heat, municipal snowmelt system in the country. This productive re-use of a waste product has now enabled an expansion to three (3) miles of sidewalks and streets totaling 650,000 square feet in the ensuing years, a three-fold expansion.  This asset enables year-round walking and running for fitness and enhances the overall Downtown livability and shopping experience.  By 2017, new snowmelted sidewalks will be added and connect Holland’s Senior Center to Downtown’s two senior residential assisted living centers so residents could walk or motorized wheelchair back and forth.

Significant efforts to improve pedestrian crossings and add sidewalks to major intersections were made in the last two years, including across the busy four-lane US-31.

Pedestrian and Bike Friendly:

Sidewalks are in good repair and are plowed by the City in the winter.  Holland prides itself on walkable neighborhoods.  Several Council members, the Community Development Manager and City Manager live in a neighborhood with walkscores between 70 and 80, for example. All neighborhoods are well lit with LED low-wattage, downward-directed lights.  All crosswalks are painted annually. Significant efforts to improve pedestrian crossings and add sidewalks to major intersections were made in the last two years, including across the busy four-lane US-31 and Waverly and 16th Street intersections in last two years ($640,000 expended). Two bike rental locations are available Downtown, including rental of electric bikes. These pedestrian and bike-friendly standards are being maintained in new developments given a City Council approved Sustainability Framework that includes metrics to continue to increase bike lanes, sidewalks, and walkability.  

Multi-modal Friendly:

The City is a partner with a full-service mass transit transportation agency (MAX) that serves 62% of the 100 square mile region with fixed routes and on-demand services.  This translates to 80% of the urbanized population.  Each MAX bus is complete with bike racks. These services originate from a train station that serves as a multi-modal hub for Amtrak service to Chicago, Grand Rapids and Lansing as well.  Intercity bus service is provided by Indian Trails, with buses stopping at the Padnos Transportation Center as well. Public transit ridership is up nearly 100% in the last decade.  Airport service is provided by the West Michigan Regional Airport located within Holland’s boundaries.  Greater commercial traffic exists now given a longer runway made possible by creation of a tunnel under a pre-existing roadway. Holland has waterfront access with several commercial ports as well, and serves as a boating, recreation and tourism hub.  Holland is located on the US Bicycle Route-35 from Chicago to Sault Ste Marie, Canada and is also on the proposed West Michigan Water Trail.

Downtown Holland not only stressed quality and physical improvements, but also social improvements with events, festivals, and a variety of residential choices.

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

Downtown was threatened by encroaching malls locating just outside of the City limits in the mid-1980’s, had a 25% vacancy rate,  and had deteriorating infrastructure and building stock.  A new vision was created to compete with this national mall rush in 1987.  This visioning process led to principles that preserved the grid, the compactness of Downtown, the traditional building streetscapes, increased the downtown residential units, provided free downtown parking, and instituted an innovative “patient capital” building façade restoration program. With these elements now firmly in place, quality retailers were retained and Downtown gained thereafter. (Vision on Main Street, Downtown Holland’s Resurgence, 1994.) Downtown Holland not only stressed quality and physical improvements, but also social improvements with events, festivals, and a variety of residential choices.  Numerous activities were undertaken by nearby Hope College and the Community and Neighborhood Services Department to both strengthen the foundational infrastructure and to ensure strong Downtown Neighborhoods nearby as well.  Among Downtown’s future goals is to improve both the eastern and western gateways on 8th Street (our Main Street) as a welcoming place for development.  New gateway entrance signs will be installed by mid-2016.  Redevelopment of two blocks west of Downtown is planned for 2017 and 2018.

Downtown is diligently maintained by a Downtown Development Authority Board and staff, a Principal Shopping District Board and staff, a Design Review Committee, and a Parking Committee, as well as, collaborates with the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and the annual Tulip Time festival event. (The Tulip Time festival has been ranked as America's third-largest town festival and named Reader's Digest's best small town festival).  See - Holland Area Visitors Bureau http://www.holland.org/; See - Tulip Time Festival http://www.tuliptime.com/ The Downtown vacancy rate on the ground floors is usually under 1%.  Even after including second floors, the current vacancy rate is 5%.  

Community input eventually led to establishing a forty year Community Energy Plan to reduce the per capita carbon footprint by 60%

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

A good example of local decision-making is how the Holland community did an about-face from planning to rebuild a coal-burning power plant to a natural gas plant due to opposition from local environmental interest groups.  This community input eventually led to establishing a forty year Community Energy Plan to reduce the per capita carbon footprint by 60% -- from 24 tons per capita to 10 tons per capita by 2050.  This Community Energy Plan later led to creation of seven citizen-led Task Forces to accomplish everything from deep home energy retrofits, to building labelling, to district energy for commercial/institutional buildings from rejected natural gas power plant heat.

This public input also created the interest in the provision of 18 electric vehicle charging stations in 2011 (Holland has the most charging stations per municipality in Michigan), a renewable portfolio that includes 32 megawatts of wind energy in 2013, creation of Holland-Hope College Sustainability Institute in 2014, a “Holland Energy Fund” with an expected $3.2 million  in assets expected by the end of 2016,  a soon to be launched Home Energy Retrofit and On-Bill Loan Program in July 2016,  a soon-to-be-completed  natural gas power plant in 2017, and conclusion of competition in the Georgetown University Energy Prize in 2017 (currently ranked third in the nation- See www.guep.org).

This change would not have been possible without the Mayor’s creation of a Sustainability Committee, the Community Energy Plan, seven Citizen-led Task Forces and a comprehensive Sustainable-Return-On-Investment process that determined the natural gas source for new power generation and led to a Blue Ribbon panel for design of Holland Energy Park.  The overall Holland energy portfolio will thereby be shifting from a majority of coal burning generation to only 25% coal and 60% natural gas from own municipally-owned generation, as well as 15% renewables.

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

Each community has some history that is unfortunate.  In Holland’s case it is connections to the drug trade via a national gang known as the Latin Kings.  For three decades, Holland endured fire bombings, drive by shootings, stabbings and loss of its at-risk youth to gang recruiters and a life of crime.  We learned that gangs embody an economic system as well as a social system.  A multi-level governmental enforcement and social service approach was thereby instituted to eradicate gang leadership and formation from our community in the last three years.  The initial results are encouraging:

  • 31 gang leaders were arrested in 2013;
  • Three focus groups on youth solutions were organized-- We learned that jobs and mentorships are the best way to combat gang recruitment;
  • Partnership with a boots-on-the-ground nonprofit agency known as Escape enabled outreach to the poorest and most broken families in the region;  and
  • Partnership with the City of Holland, Chamber of Commerce, Police and Fire Departments and twenty-four employers led to the provision of jobs for the first group of 14 to 17 year-old at-risk youth in 2013.  
By 2015, 135 youth were productively working throughout each summer and learning new job skills with 24 different employers.

By 2015, 135 youth were productively working throughout each summer and learning new job skills with 24 different employers. This program is 87% privately supported; it is specifically not grant or government supported so as to keep it going. See this related video. A 45% drop in juvenile crime was realized (2015).  Overall crime dropped 8%. The City is now engaging the youth year-long by at-risk internships in City offices and including at-risk youth along with advantaged youth on a “Knock on Every Door” campaign associated with wining the Georgetown University Energy Prize ($5 million and Change).  The City is now ranked third in the nation for reduction in residential energy consumption. www.guep.org.

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

Downtown Holland features historic, well-cared for buildings that serve as the backdrop for diverse, unique specialty boutiques and regional and national stores, an array of eateries, and a wide array of specialty services.  It is the place where everyone wants to meet up with friends, experience first-class shopping and dining, experience creative art venues and attend community and international events. Simply put, it is considered the place to be.  Downtown Holland is tied together through attractive, high-quality well-programmed and well-maintained unifying elements including signage, sidewalk connections, greenery, restaurants and a farmers market.  These elements define and establish Downtown Holland’s high quality pedestrian character.  Programmatic elements such as special events, sidewalk cafes, music and street performers lend a vibrancy and liveliness to the downtown experience.  

What is your favorite thing about your town?

Holland is known as a diverse community that provides a strong foundation of quality of life that provides the framework for raising a healthy family and enjoying a meaningful life. It is the City of Holland's staff's mission to maximize livability.  


Fargo, ND

Entry submitted by: Anders Johnson, Mike Zimney, Joe Burgum and Mike Williams. Edited for length.

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

The area’s public bus system, Matbus, has tripled ridership since 2004 to now over 2.2 million annual rides with over half being college aged people. The city plans to double today’s ridership numbers in the next 5 years. Successful strategies have been:

  • Students ride FREE with a college ID!
  • Matbus passes for students are paid for by North Dakota State University, Minnesota State University Moorhead, Concordia College, and Minnesota State Community Technical College.
  • Increasing frequency by connecting our highest density areas. 7-10 min frequency from downtown to campus and 15 min frequency from downtown to West Acres Shopping Center.
  • 40 miles of dedicated, on street bike lanes have been added since 2010

The first raised bike lane in North Dakota was added in Fall 2015 on NP Avenue in downtown Fargo, creating a safer space for all drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. Renaissance Zone incentives have helped invigorate walkable mixed-use buildings downtown. Since 2004, we have tripled the number of residents living downtown from 1,500 to over 4,500 residents today. In 2012, two major three-lane one-way streets, NP Avenue and 1st Avenue North, were both converted to two-way streets. They have become major corridors in downtown Fargo. In 2015, Fargo-Moorhead got a new circulator bus called the “Link FM”. The Link FM is fast, fun, and free. Last year, the brand new Great Rides Bikeshare was introduced. It uses the Matbus model, in which NDSU students can use their student ID card for free access. Great Rides doubled the national record of bike share programs with over 142,000 rides in 7 months with 100 bikes. (Austin had 10 at SXSW 2014) of use per bike in one day with 20 rides per bike in a single day. Three times every summer, downtown Fargo closes off its streets to car traffic for StreetsAlive! People are encouraged to get active by walking, running or biking this three-mile loop. Attendance grown from 4,500 to over 8,000 people.

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

The downtown Renaissance Zone area was valued at $190 million in 2002. Today, it’s valued at over $600 million due to incremental projects like:

  • Corridor improvements - one way to two way street conversions
  • Utilizing mixed-use buildings to their full potential, helping triple the number of residents.

The City Planning commission just approved a proposal for a the development of a mixed-use parking ramp infill project on what is now six parcels of low-value surface parking in the core downtown district. The mixed-use ramp will provide 458 parking spots, activate an alleyway into a vibrant retail corridor, add a range of housing from affordable studios to penthouse units, and widen sidewalks for safe public realm. The $10 million in public investment in the project activates $30-40 million in private investment ($420,000 annual tax revenue on surface parking area that now generates less than $30,000 annually for the tax roles.)

Over 8,700 residents registered and engaged in this virtual town hall.

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

The City of Fargo’s “GO2030” Comprehensive Plan was developed to determine what goals the city should meet by the year 2030. We used $400,000 of our $1,000,000 Energy Efficiency Community Development Block Grants from the ARRA funding to hire BNIM to help us obtain community input. Fargo was the only city to used a large portion of the efficiency grant to gather community input for planning. Over 8,700 residents registered and engaged in this virtual town hall. Key Initiatives determined from Fargo GO2030 followed with implementation progress:

  • Permanent flood protection (Underway with in town protection (60% complete) and diversion (Engineering studies complete,underway with permits and land acquisition)
  • Promote infill (Renaissance zone, neighborhood revitalization incentives in core neighborhoods)
  • Public art (Bike rack art contest, Beethoven month and Shakespeare month, creation of the Arts Commission to develop and recommend strategies and funding models for public art to Fargo Commission)
  • Bike and Pedestrian facilities (ND’s first protected bike lane, increased connectivity of 40 miles of on street bike lanes/sharrows and 200 miles of off street shared bike paths, Great Rides Bike Share established 2015)
  • Design standards (Being discussed in our Land Development Plan task force along with context based zoning improvements)
Fargo passed a two half-cent sales tax measures for in-city flood protection.

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

The Red River Valley is highly prone to flooding. Fargo-Moorhead had a 100-year record breaking flood in 2009 that was mitigated with over 100,000 volunteers from the region. Six million sandbags were filled and laid for temporary dikes. Fargo has made dramatic changes since this flood: Fargo passed a two half-cent sales tax measures (2009 and 2012) for in-city flood protection and a diversion similar to the City of Winnipeg's. Fargo adopted strict extended river and floodway setbacks with ordinances passed in 2011 to prevent development too close to rivers, drains, and low-lying areas. To determine public will and vision, we used $400,000 of our $1,000,000 Energy Efficiency Community Development Block Grants from the ARRA funding to fund hiring of BNIM to help us get community ideas and feedback for the GO 2030 Comprehensive Plan.

With over 35 art studios and galleries, 64 dining and entertainment venues, and 81 retail shops, downtown is truly the cultural center of the city – especially given that over 90 percent of those total amenities are locally owned or unique to the Fargo area.

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

Downtown Fargo has reemerged as the heart of the metropolitan area. With over 35 art studios and galleries, 64 dining and entertainment venues, and 81 retail shops, downtown is truly the cultural center of the city – especially given that over 90 percent of those total amenities are locally owned or unique to the Fargo area. Downtown is also bustling with activity throughout the year with unique events, such as TEDxFargo, StreetsAlive!, 1 Million Cups, Health Pitch, Mobile Tech Meetup, Cultivate, Build, Frostival Unglued’s Craft Fest, Startup Weekend, street fairs, parades and Alley Fair to name a few. Downtown Fargo has a walkScore of 96 - up from 92 in 2014. 4,300 people live downtown (goal of 10,000) and 11,200 employees. Downtown Fargo is home to City Hall, a post office, and a public library.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

The best thing about Fargo is its residents who actively work to make our town one of the most livable communities on Earth. Fargo is a city of pioneers. Pioneers built this city and watched it grow. Today, Fargo’s pioneers are transforming the city. There are more than 22,000 college students in the Fargo-Moorhead area and adding to the vibrancy of this community. Our downtown business district is full of amazing restaurants, entertainment options, and a culture that cannot be matched. Our city is “North of Normal”. You know it the moment you arrive. The people of Fargo are culture creators. They’re kind. They’re curious. They’re misfits. We wouldn’t have it any other way.


Voting is now closed.