Am on my way home after a week of vacation in Texas, the Long Stroad State. I had a great time with family and the battery is now recharged. One of my favorite things to do on vacation is to go to the movies, which I did three nights this week after the family was all tucked in (I'm a night owl - they are not). I'm not sure what the critics' problems with the Lone Ranger were, but I loved it. I also thought World War Z was fascinating -- very solid show -- and then last night, when the movie I planned to see was at a bad time, I wound up at Pacific Rim. I was sure it would be ridiculous, but it wasn't. Robots fighting alien sea monsters is not exactly a chick flick, but for summer fun in a great 3D theater, it was pretty good. Go see Lone Ranger, though. Johnny Depp is fantastic.

Now for an abbreviated news digest from a guy who shut off the news this past week.

  • Multiple people emailed me this article written by Mitchell Silver, the man who single-handedly gives me hope for the planning profession. I can't begin to explain how deeply I admire the man, so it was truly humbling to be named in the piece. If you don't know Mitch and the great work he has done with APA and in the city of Raleigh, you really should.

Over the past few years, economic planning is surging back in planning circles. New planning concepts to aid decision-making, like “return on Investment” (ROI) – which looks at how long would it would take pay back a public investment like a road with new property and sales tax revenue – are changing how planners look at managing growth and change in a fiscally responsible way. Planners like Joe Minicozzi, Charles Marohn and organizations like the APA, Urban Land Institute and Smart Growth America are issuing reports on the value of ROI to manage growth, operating and capital budgets.

  • For those of you in Connecticut, you are being asked to weigh in on your vision for transportation. There's one idea in particular that could use your support.

Building Strong Towns makes you immune to the ravages of inept and costly State and Federal government planning. Let's give the voting residents of CT and their families an opportunity to build strong towns. It's not hard if we have our priorities in place. Simply download Chuck Marohn's Curbside Chat for a recipe on how to do it.

  • Brice Maryman at CityTank is on to something when he recently wrote about ideology breaking down when it comes to cities and growth. Movements like Strong Towns defy tidy ideological labels, as do thinkers like Ed Glaeser and Matt Yglesias (two individuals also mentioned in the piece that I appreciate as well). If you have a dogma or political ideology you generally adhere to, I challenge you to at least understand the other side when it comes to these issues. Nobody is going to "win" until the entire conversation is redefined. We all need to be part of making that happen.

The limitless sprawl of various American urban areas into surrounding farms and resource lands has long been derided for its impacts to the environment (deforestation, species loss, polluted waterways, etc), but more recently, fiscal conservatives like Charles Marohn of Strong Towns have been giving the financial model supporting this type of growth pattern a serious, well-argued drubbing. This week, Charles began digging deeper with a series called Dumb Money. It is wonky, but fantastic. The hard-nosed fiscal analysis by Strong Towns, based in the heartland, resonates well with the coastal capitalists who read Fast Company.

  • Colorado Springs is apparently toying with the idea of a downtown baseball stadium as a catalyst for growth and investment. As I like to point out, the Romans didn't build the Colosseum in the hopes of creating Rome. It happened the other way around; a productive place is one that can support -- and benefit from -- ever more sophisticated (and expensive) entertainment venues. The Colosseum was the result of Rome's success, not the cause of it. Nonetheless, if Colorado Springs insists on going this route, its leaders would do well to read this insightful post from the blog Urban Landscapes.

Single-use Stadiums and “Entertainment Districts” are destined to fail. It should not require an event planner to keep it activated. The first floor, or street facade of a stadium must be activated with everyday retail and restaurant opportunities. Settling for stadium specific/related uses only results in a seasonal area that will be desolate on the off-season. Upper floor uses must also be activated with offices and luxury apartments. The ROI on this is incredible when implemented correctly. Imagine an office with a Birdseye suite on to the stadium.

  • It is projects like this one in Kiowa, CO, that border on fraudulent, but because they are so common, they are not even considered unethical for professionals to recommend. A $5.5 million sewer and water project for a city of 704 residents. That's $31,250 for a family of four or, to put it another way, that's $200 per month per family just for debt service for the next two decades. That doesn't include operations and maintenance, let alone any type of replacement or repair costs for the existing system. The people quoted in the article have the guts to blame their shortcomings on a new development that failed to materialize. Well, unless that development was going to increase the population by six times overnight, it was not going to change the ultimate outcome. And let's pretend it was predicated on that much growth; who would recommend such a project? Rest assured, the project engineer, bond counsel, economic development advisor and planner all got paid, likely with nice bonuses to boot. Do the math, people. It is not hard.

Kiowa's downfall began in 2005, when the town board approved issuing bonds for $5.5 million. About 60 percent of that money paid for new water pipes and the water tower, and 40 percent went to a mechanical sewer plant. The town had previously used natural "lagoons" for disposing its waste. The upgrade was mandated by the state because Kiowa didn't meet certain quality standards.

The water tower was needed, the town council felt at the time, in part because a new residential subdivision was being planned there — and those folks would need water. It made sense for the town to do it, they rationalized, because homeowners would be charged tap fees, which would help pay for the tower and the water system.

"At the time, the town determined that if you have to put in a sewer system with a dated water system, it didn't make sense," said Kiowa town attorney Corey Hoffmann. "No doubt there was a belief that they would have enough growth to pay for that."

But the town soon found itself not being able to pay back the loan. A November 2011 water study by an outside consultant found that Kiowa hadn't gotten a new water customer since 2009.

  • And in Taylorsville, UT, the Growth Ponzi scheme is unfolding before our eyes. Many people have said to me that, "well, people will just have to pay more," when their city starts to fall apart. Great in theory, but the world just doesn't work that way. As growth slows and things are starting to fall apart, the last thing people can handle (or will agree to) is a huge tax increase that will simply slow the decline. This proposed increase in Taylorsville -- 47% -- is on the low end of what I believe is needed in most cities if they hope to remain solvent in their current form.

“Our city is aging,” he [the mayor] said “I’m mostly concerned about some of our older neighborhoods. We’ve got neighborhoods that are 50, 60 years old now that are rundown and need to be brought back to life.

“Also, we’ve got economic development we need to do to get the business back in. Our City Council, our public, the residents have said we really need to focus on economic development because we’ve got a number of storefronts that have gone dark over the last two years, and they’re concerned about that,” he said.

Rechtenbach said the tax increase is an investment necessary for Taylorsville to prevent further decline.

“Statistically, as your city declines, you get less desirable elements moving in, crime begins to increase, and then your costs actually become higher because now you have to have more police and fire (officials),” he said. “It snowballs from there.”

  • In Adel, Iowa, they have adopted something they call an "Urban Revitalization Plan." As part of this plan, they are refunding 100% of the property taxes paid for anyone who builds a new home as well as providing incentives for a new hospital ($400k), a hotel ($250k), highway retail development ($100k) and something they are calling a "sports field complex" ($250k). And if that doesn't sound "urban" to you, check out the map identifying 33% of the city as horizontal expansion areas. If Adel was a stock, I would be aggressively selling short right now.

Under the terms of the plan as amended in 2012, anyone building a home in Adel through 2016 would be eligible for 100% abatement of property taxes for seven years. The full final version of the Plan and exhibits may be found by clicking here. The Plan is a short run, sunset driven program that expires at the end of 2016. The underlying premise is to provide incentive to those considering a move within or to the Des Moines metro area to build a home in our community. Also, by encouraging those who already live in the community to maybe consider building a new home and thus, making their existing home available for others who do not want to or can not afford to build new. 

  • For all of you antagonists that got on my case during our Dumb Money series and claimed that the central bank needs to print money, and the central government needs to deficit spend, because that is how we are going to get the economy gong again....the commies don't even agree with you anymore.

President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have flagged for some time that the rapid growth of the past three decades needs to shift down a gear, and analysts said Friday's announcement was a signal that they intended to press on with reforms despite evidence of a sharper-than-expected slowdown.

"The guideline shows China's policymakers will focus more on economic restructuring to stabilize the economy rather than providing more liquidity to support economic growth," said Li Huiyong, an economist at Shenyin Wanguo Securities in Shanghai.

Some of the Twin Cities' freeways are nonsensical; they could disappear without anybody missing them, as Bill Lindeke pointed out in a recent Blog Cabin post.

Also fueling the "junk the freeways" crusade is the increasing expense of repairing them. We're coming to a point where many freeways are reaching the end of their 40- to 50-year useful lives. Both I-94 and I-35, for example, were built in the 1960s.

  • There was a story in the local paper about a new diverging diamond and I received a flurry of emails from people egging me on to trash everyone involved. Let me clarify: For places where we are concerned exclusively with moving automobiles, the diverging diamond is fantastic because it moves more cars at a lower cost. That does not mean that we can throw in some decorative brick and a death star trench and all of a sudden it becomes "pedestrian friendly" (not to mention providing a great scenic overlook opportunity). A road or a street -- pick one or the other and I'll be happy.
  • Sitting in my inbox for some time now is a link to this Econtalk podcast on infrastructure. I listened to it when it came out, but it is worth running through again.
  • One of our favorite city administrators here in Minnesota, Scott Huizenga of East Grand Forks, has resigned to take a new position as budget officer in the city of Kansas City. We love Scott not only because he was an early one to host a Curbside Chat, but also because he blogs and, in that spirit, is quite open with the people of the city. A rarity that was much appreciated. Well, some words of advice, Scott: they don't like bloggers in KC, at least those that offer a critique and advice on their desolate downtown. I'll be interested to see if we can get some real budget information for a city on the downward side of the illusion of prosperity.
  • Finally, I'm really upset with the stupid critics and their take on the Lone Ranger. If you are interested in this film, don't let the reviews stop you from seeing it. It is a good movie -- lots of fun and a bit of a serious side to it as well.

Take care, everyone. See you back here on Monday.


You can get more of Chuck Marohn's insights by reading his book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on the Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.

You can also chat with Chuck, Nate Hood, Andrew Burleson, Justin Burslie and many others over at the Strong Towns Network. Join the ongoing conversation on how to make yours a strong town.