Hopkins, MN vs. Fort Atkinson, WI

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  Tim Kiser

Photo by Tim Kiser

Hopkins, MN

Entry submitted by: James Warden (Zoning & Planning Commission member), Kersten Elverum (Director of Economic Development & Planning), and Meg Beekman (Community Development Coordinator). Edited for length.

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

Hopkins is easily the most convenient Twin Cities community for residents without a vehicle outside of the very core of Minneapolis. Hopkins has nearly 150 bus stops spread across its 4.1 square miles, or about one bus stop for every 17 acres with both express and non-express routes. 

Hopkins has about 30 miles of sidewalks, plus four regional trails overseen by Three Rivers Park District. While these trails are popular with recreational users, they are mostly commuting hubs traveled throughout the year by cyclists going to work, running errands or heading into Hopkins’ downtown for food and entertainment. The Cedar Lake Trail through Hopkins sees 600,000 users per year. The City of Hopkins demonstrated its commitment to ensuring these regional trails are practical transportation infrastructure by using its own money to buy a vehicle for plowing the trails. City staff, not park district employees, clear the trails after each snow just as they would with roads – often faster. Upcoming downtown street projects will narrow streets and put in bike lanes and expanded sidewalks in order to better connect these trails to make them even friendlier for carless commuters.

Children and parents can be seen walking to school even on the coldest days.

Meanwhile, Hopkins’ 30 miles of sidewalks are laid out in a strategic, systemic manner. The city has no sidewalks to nowhere, and it has a master sidewalk plan to fill in the few gaps that exist between sections. Hopkins does not assess for residents for the cost of building sidewalks; it uses property taxes because our city understands the importance of having a “livable, walkable community.” Our schools are a great example of this. Hopkins’ elementary schools are built beside major housing areas. Teachers encourage students to walk or bike to school. And the street design reassures the many parents and children who get there without a vehicle. Children and parents can be seen walking to school even on the coldest days.

Hopkins has 55 miles of city streets. This is both sufficient to get around and financially sustainable. The bulk of the street system is centered on a grid platted in the pre-automobile days. Hopkins’ 123-year history means it has successfully navigated several infrastructure life cycles. The city does not assess homeowners for the full cost of street repairs, and it caps total assessment costs. The result is that assessments are well in line with the actual benefit to the homeowner. 

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

Hopkins has many great examples of using an incremental approach. Here is one: The Blake Road corridor is a two-thirds-mile stretch of county road that has the highest concentration of low-income families in Hopkins. The area had above-average crime, but the built environment was the real root of the problem. Not only did the road have an unattractive streetscape, its width, lack of sidewalks and space between crossings made it hostile to pedestrians – even though many of the families who live in the area don’t have vehicles. The city recognized that it had neglected the neighborhood and embarked on small, quickly completed projects that visibly demonstrated its commitment to residents.

One of these projects came about when city staff noticed a desire path along Blake Road. Residents from nearby apartment buildings had been walking and pushing strollers through the mud because there were no sidewalks to take them to nearby bus stops or the retail outlets where many of them work and shop. So the city and county split the cost of building a sidewalk along the county road. Not only did that win over residents, it demonstrated the city’s commitment to other government partners. Among these was the watershed district, which worked with Hopkins to expand a neighborhood park. The larger park improved residents’ quality of life, reduced runoff that contaminated the adjacent creek and discouraged crime by creating active public spaces. Crime rates are now identical to those in other Hopkins neighborhoods. With such success, Hopkins is ready for its next phase. The City Council has approved a preliminary street redesign that will narrow lanes and add protected multi-use paths.

Business owners were skeptical about plans to narrow the roadway, cutting parking spaces... So the city used a tactical urbanism approach to test the proposal.

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

Hopkins aims to remake one of its core streets, Eight Avenue, into a pedestrian-focused boulevard that better connects Mainstreet to the transit hub and future light rail station two blocks away. Business owners and some residents were skeptical about plans to narrow the roadway, cutting parking spaces, adding a two-way dedicated cycle-track connecting the two regional trails and making it easier to close the street to cars periodically for community events. So the city used a tactical urbanism approach to test the proposal. It used cones, tape and removable paint to create temporary bike lanes. It provided 30 bikes that people could use to try out the cycle track for free. It set up pop-up parks and lawn games along the street to give passers-by a taste of future amenities. And it invited residents to share their thoughts on chalkboards and at a community table where they could share ice cream with their neighbors and talk, as well as contribute their own artistic flair with sidewalk chalk.

By the end of the day 2,000 residents had experienced the project, 170 had filled out surveys expressing their opinions about what elements of the project were most important to them, and people were overwhelmingly convinced that Eighth Avenue could be more than just a place to drive and park cars. Some residents even expressed disappointment that the cycle track, held down by electrical tape, would be only temporary, eager to see the project completed. The City Council, after witnessing the success of this event, unanimously threw their support in for the project.

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

Hopkins recently undertook a major renovation of its Mainstreet as part of the normal maintenance cycle. Although this was necessary, a number of businesses were going to lose front door access for a period of time during construction. Everyone knew that this would be hard on these businesses and the downtown as a whole, which the city agrees is the most important physical asset in the community. The city consistently works to protect and enhance its downtown businesses. So the city offered grants up to $500 to downtown businesses who would have front access impacts that could be used to improve their rear doors. The funds could be used for beautification, lighting, signage, or to make the rear access accessible. About 20 businesses took the city up on its offer. While it wasn’t much money, the businesses appreciated the offer from the city. A spillover benefit is that now that the construction is done, the alleys look much nicer because of the improvements that business owners made to their rear entrances. Hopkins also launched a mobile application that promoted the obstructed businesses and allowed them to offer special deals. For about $10,000 – less than 0.1 percent of the city’s general fund budget – Hopkins mitigated business losses and encouraged businesses to invest in properties. Several of those businesses wound up having better years than normal, and the city preserved financially productive properties at very little cost.

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

Hopkins came into being as three railroads were built through the area between 1871 and 1881. It has been a standalone city throughout its history, not a suburb. Consequently, it has a thriving, traditional downtown that predates suburban development. Its walk score is a whopping 89.

This is not a dollhouse, touristy downtown meant for show. It’s a genuine, lived-in district that serves residents’ needs.

This is not a dollhouse, touristy downtown meant for show. It’s a genuine, lived-in district that serves residents’ needs. The downtown has about 180 businesses within an area roughly seven blocks by three blocks. A healthy mix of businesses boosts resiliency against economic changes. A newly renovated grocery store meets the shopping needs of the many families that live within walking distance. Barbers, nail salons, dry cleaners, day cares and masseurs offer people a place to take care of personal needs. Law firms, financial businesses and health care companies provide jobs. And the Hopkins Center for the Arts concert series, several restaurants, a microbrewery, a discount theater and a soon-to-arrive comedy club provide a fun night on the town. Like the best old towns, Hopkins also has decades-old establishments like our diner Hoagie’s, where it’s standing room only on weekends. Hopkins’ streets are active 18 hours a day.

This did not happen by accident. Changes from the postwar suburban experiment gave Hopkins a reputation as a “cars and bars” town by replacing traditional businesses with auto dealerships and drinking establishments that drivers cruised by in the evening. But Hopkins’ leaders re-emphasized traditional downtown strengths at the beginning of the 21st Century and have seen that focus pay dividends. At the same time, downtown property owners invested in their own properties. A local tavern remade itself as a hopping place for young adults. The locally owned grocery store completed an ambitious redesign so it could compete with the big chains.

Hopkins’ focus on traditional development doesn’t end with the downtown. The bulk of Hopkins’ residential zoning mixes single-family and multifamily housing. Like many older communities, a walk through a typical neighborhood will take you past individual homes, duplexes and apartment buildings.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

Hopkins is a community that grew organically from a small industrial hub into the thriving city that it is today. That type of growth created quirky, genuine neighborhoods where the built environment is every bit as diverse as the people who live here (the non-white proportion of the population is nearly 20 percentage points higher in Hopkins than the Twin Cities as a whole). We have one of the few legitimate downtowns in the metro because of this history. It’s a flourishing business district where century-old-buildings stand beside 21st Century mixed-use projects. The locally owned grocery store is right off Mainstreet, and one of our elementary schools is just three blocks away. Senior housing, affordable apartments and 19th Century homes recognized by the Hopkins Historical Society share the same neighborhoods. Our trails and transit system make Hopkins a place where people can live whatever their circumstances in life. We have the third-highest city Walk Score in Minnesota, behind only Minneapolis and St. Paul. Throughout the year, residents bike or walk to events like the weekly farmers market, a free summer concert series or our famed Raspberry Festival. Hopkins is both a wonderful community for people and a community of wonderful people. We humbly believe it’s the country’s strongest town.

Photo by  Jib

Photo by Jib

Fort Atkinson, WI

Entry submitted by: Beth Gehred, Howard Moon, Walt Christensen, Kitty Welch, and Cynthia Ficenec with input from city staff. Edited for length.

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

Our town’s transportation system is based on the automobile. This is neither deniable nor strong. Our Main Street is a north-south stretch of Hwy 12, and stroads intersect with it and travel east/west off of it. What emboldens us to enter this contest, however, is the emerging agreement among different interests that this is a weakness, and a willingness to do something about it.  Ten years ago, Fort Atkinson bought the right-of-way of an abandoned stretch of rail line, including a bridge spanning the Rock River, which is a feature of our downtown. We’ve converted it to a bike and pedestrian trail, recapturing the value of the bridge, and call it the Glacial River Trail. Six additional miles of bike lines have been demarcated with paint throughout town to connect the Glacial Trail with the Rock River Trail, making it possible to use it intra- and inter-city. Popular since opening, its value is still growing:

  • People of all ages use it, at all times of the day and into the night. There is room for more, however.
  • The local, independently-run hospital, wellness groups and others sponsor runs/walks/contests to keep people moving on the trail.
  •  A full service bike/canoe shop has opened and expanded downtown. Great people will make a go of this.
  • An ice cream stop is now opening along it to give trail users a fun stopover. Remains to be seen, but promising.
  • Citizen-funded art and trees line it. None offer shade – but we are correcting that.
  • An ordinance is being changed to allow skate and longboarders to use it.  More hope.
  •  It connects to our new & superb river walk with recently-installed boat launches – now kayaks are seen downtown.

Other signs of change toward people-powered transportation: a grant has been submitted for a Safe Routes to School initiative, (pending June 2016 decision) and conversations are being held between the senior center, the downtown farmers market, and the police department to see if a neighborhood electric vehicle can be employed to help those with physical handicaps access the market and city events like parades and concerts.  There is a contracted, subsidized cab service for the elderly and handicapped that is preserved despite tenuous funding.

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

Please indulge us to share two – one small- and one large scale.

  1. A bike rack was needed for our city’s aquatic center park. The local community college welding program needed a real world problem to solve. Earlier, during a community-wide welding-art contest, the welding instructor and the parks director had met. Therefore, instead of a make-work project, the welding instructor called the city park and rec department head. Fort Atkinson’s kids can now park their bikes in a custom, marine-blue bike rack in the shape of a fish. The city’s cost was $200 in total for an $8000 bike rack that they never would have been able to afford. It’s a functional art piece. 
  2. Once upon a time in Fort Atkinson, there was a skating pond, with a simple warming shed, at which kids spent entire winter days outdoors. The pond had been created from an early industry excavating clay to make the cream colored brick to build houses in town. The skating rink was maintained by the people who used it and was a social center for teens from the 1920s through the late 1980s. But whatever: climate craziness, computer games, fear of crime and the pond was only half-heartedly used for several decades. Warming shed razed. No place to skate. Homegrown citizens, distressed by the lack of fitness, the lack of outdoors experiences of our families, and expressing a willingness to give back what they had had, initiated the rejuvenation of the pond as a rink. “My theory on this whole park is to have the community build it by the community for the community,” leader Steve Mode said. “For me, it’s a passion. It is a special place and something that needs to come back.” The city parks & rec was enthusiastic but cautionary – zero budget for the rebuild, and zero for maintenance, plus spring flooding. The citizens were on their own. Everyone is clear on this, and it has fueled the best.  A flood proof and beautiful architectural design was donated by a local industry; local craftspeople agreed to build it out with volunteer labor.  Presentations sharing history, pond shenanigans spurred donations and matching grants. Bricks were reclaimed from a building to be torn down – tons of them – but in order to be used they needed to be cleaned, by hand. Workdays were established and hundreds showed up. Now there’s this: http://friendsofhaumersonspond.com/. The next step is getting local feet back in skates, skis, and winter boots. Incrementally. . .
Organized initially to oppose a-Wal-Mart coming to town, our Heart of the City group has matured into ... a Strong Citizen training ground.

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

No other city to my knowledge has a Heart of the City group that empowers and leverages citizen input on local decision-making as their mission. This non-profit citizens' group has been meeting monthly for nearly twenty years, with a focus on educating citizens about city issues, sustainable growth/land use, and community building. Organized initially to oppose a-Wal-Mart coming to town, it has matured into a sort of “Friends of Fort Atkinson” group and Strong Citizen training ground. Heart of the City has had direct impacts on the direction the city has taken, much as the Chamber of Commerce. HOC provided funding for the city to hold a “Closed To Open” campaign, that hung dryboard markers by strings on shuttered Main Street  shops and invited citizens to write on the windows the businesses they wished would open there; over the course of two weeks people wrote all over the windows, and all their input was captured. There has been a flurry of new openings.

HOC sponsored landscape architect students to study our downtown and printed and distributed their findings – with the lowest-hanging fruit being proposed to the city council. HOC organized and hosted a free street tree workshop so citizens could learn about their terrace trees and how to maintain them; From putting on candidate forums to council receptions HOC continually works so that people meet the faces of the staff and leaders of their city. They’ve partnered with the Chamber to being founding members of a revitalized farmers market; to funding a Shop Local initiative that paid a 10% bump to any purchase of local chamber bucks; to sitting on government boards and the council itself. To the city’s and Chamber’s credit, they have moved beyond a sort of skepticism of the group to an acceptance, and have turned to the group on occasion for help with various projects that are mission consistent. The  City itself is now hosting visioning sessions inviting the public to help them  address on-going operational budget challenges. The city was an early adopter of Smart Growth planning which also mandated local input & continues to update the plan, despite this no longer being state law. We also have an inordinately endowed Fort Atkinson Community Fund which literally is able to share millions of dollars annually through its scholarship and matching grants. This endowment spurs much collaboration between public and private citizens and transforms the best of residents’ ideas into realities.

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

Like Everywhere, USA, our city budget is lean. Our capable new city administrator, lead engineer and police chief had inherited a known trend from their predecessors: Fort Atkinson was home to a rapidly growing number of privately-run group homes for the mentally, physically and emotionally handicapped. The population in the aggregate placed a disproportionate number of emergency calls. And of these calls, a small but significant number were preventable – for situations that were not remotely emergencies. This was straining responders’ capacity, and spiking city costs. In less lean times, it was enough to note these trends but this administration is tackling the problem. First they collected data. Turns out Fort Atkinson includes a much higher density of adult care facilities than municipalities several times our size. City staff asked for, and received, a moratorium from the planning commission on adding more while the problem was studied. They established a working group consisting of the police and fire chiefs, industry reps from the larger and smaller homes, and the city engineer to create an industry self-regulating plan that included disincentives ($1000 fines) to reduce the number of frivolous calls. The city council is being kept updated to their progress, and baseline numbers are being established to see if their actions are working. The moratorium is staying in place for the near future to allow the group to refine its procedures and assess its impact.

Despite all odds, our downtown, where no fewer than four state highways converge or intersect on a half mile stretch of road we call Main Street, manages to continue to sprout.

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

Yes, imagine a seedling emerging through the cracks of a cement sidewalk. Despite all odds, our downtown, where no fewer than four state highways converge or intersect on a half mile stretch of road we call Main Street, manages to continue to sprout. Don’t get me wrong – it is not yet as beautiful as it was when it was built. But today’s civic leaders truly are standing on the shoulders of giants and together we keep downtown relevant. The anchor tenants downtown are public: the municipal offices, community gym, library, post office are within a few blocks of one another and are glorious buildings. The library was renovated just three years ago and was done with an eye toward the long game.Same said for the Fort Atkinson Club – new community center. A riverwalk, with boat launches, invites people to notice, not simply drive over, the Rock River. There are also practical commercial needs being met yet downtown: a florist, pharmacy, well-run resale clothing store, card shop, carpet sellers, shoe repair, yoga studio, antiques, jewelry store, bookstore and grocer are within a couple of blocks’ walk.

A wealthy native citizen acting as a smallscale developer has spent much of the last twenty years remodeling downtown businesses to adapt them to today’s needs. We therefore have a mix of classic cream city two story brick retail, with updated yet beautifully-intact structures, in play. There is stuff to do – live music, sports can be found in up to five venues along Main Street on weekends. Locally sourced, gourmet and downhome cooking, with a real breakfast diner are not in short supply in downtown Fort Atkinson, and it is not uncommon to see people out on the weekends, traveling from favorite to favorite. Then there are the places that are just us:  Catfish Alley -  giant statue of a catfish that was donated to the city that is underused, but offers something to work with when we think of it; two bronze casts of Chief Black Hawk flank the river walk – they work; the Café Carpe, a nationally-known live music and local food mecca that is chaotic, but smart; a coffee shop and a McDonald’s each that host the retiree crowds who meet to jaw and joke to check in that they have all made it through the night. We have a local newspaper that still has its production crew in a rambling building that takes up half a block; and, a  move in the right direction, in 2015, we had a professional services company that employs 30 people, move from the edge of town business park to a fabulously restored downtown office building.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

Our people, when they turn off the computers and get out of their cars. We have great public and commercial spaces, but none are worth much when they sit empty. Luckily, some of our people create music or art, or play soccer or baseball. Others come out to appreciate music, art, soccer and baseball. Those that spearhead civic improvement projects, and those that donate or are simply willing to do one task. The ones that garden, and start school  and community gardens. People who volunteer, and use the bike path and shop locally. Good-natured vendors  and shoppers at our downtown farmers market that keeps on growing.  We come together to celebrate Rhythm on the River, summer concerts at the bandshell, and the Holiday Parade. We celebrate the 4th of July together at the free citywide Ice Cream Social on the lawn of the Hoard Museum and Dairy Shrine.  Our outstanding library’s five community rooms are sometimes all booked simultaneously with knitters, activists, lecturers, book clubbers, luncheon ladies, tutors, plotters, gamers, storytimers and philosophers.

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