Welcome to the second match up in our Sweet 16 Round of the Strongest Town Competition—with our first international submission. 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.


Wollongong's annual 'Honkfest', a not-for-profit  music festival featuring lots of performances by kids with instruments held in Wollongong's town centre. (Photo by Paul Pennell)

Wollongong's annual 'Honkfest', a not-for-profit  music festival featuring lots of performances by kids with instruments held in Wollongong's town centre. (Photo by Paul Pennell)

Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia

Entry submitted by Greg McPherson and Gavin Dixon

Give an example of an incremental project that has happened in your town.

Wollongong has undertaken the ‘Wollongong Public Spaces Public Life - A City for People’ project, which included a series of public meetings and consultations, incorporated public feedback and engaged the services of the Copenhagen-based Gehl Architects firm to guide its aspirations of making Wollongong a more people friendly and ‘liveable’ city. Some of the recommendations are in the process of being built.

One specific example of an incremental project is the upgrading of Wollongong’s central ocean foreshore and harbor precinct and its connection with Wollongong’s town center. Wollongong has a near continuous walking-cycling track that extends for around 31miles (50kms) along the regions coastline. Close to Wollongong’s city center is a section of this track known as the ‘Blue Mile’, which was once upon a long time ago a tram line. The city’s vision is that the Blue Mile will become a high quality, popular and beautiful open space area that links the city centre to its magnificent foreshore, and provides a substantially enhanced amenity for residents and visitors.

This project is ongoing and is being incrementally staged. As a skeptical private citizen with no connection to Council whatsoever, this project together with Wollongong’s push to have far more residents living in its urban center is in fact successfully creating a more vibrant place to live with much needed higher urban population densities that is increasingly attractive to interesting and interested people. 

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

Wollongong is a linear town occupying a relatively narrow strip of coastal land between the ocean and an escarpment on the Australian eastern coast, hence running in a North South direction. A heavy rail line runs in the same North South configuration giving people extensive access to many parts of the metropolitan area including the city centre, the two University of Wollongong campuses and other major tertiary education institutions. This same train line provides a link to Sydney to the north.

Perhaps an under appreciated aspect of Wollongong are its laneways through some of its residential areas. Originally used to cart sewage from some of the earlier residential housing, these laneways remain between properties and can be used to traverse parts of the city on foot, in a somewhat car-free context.

Wollongong also operates an extensive bus system that covers a large area and includes many ‘back routes’ through suburban streets. Should one wish to travel by bus one can. Wollongong operates a very well utilized ‘free bus shuttle’ which connects a few key locations including the city center and the two University of Wollongong campuses and other major central educational locations. Any tertiary student should easily be able to operate without a car and indeed most off campus students do use the train and the bus shuttle. The University at least operates excellent and well utilized bicycle lockup facilities, which in combination with the coastal bike track and its many links into the residential areas of Wollongong means cycling and cyclability is a reality.

Perhaps an under appreciated aspect of Wollongong are its laneways through some of its residential areas. Originally used to cart sewage from some of the earlier residential housing, these laneways remain between properties and can be used to traverse parts of the city on foot, in a somewhat car-free context.

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

By way of example, in implementing the ‘Wollongong Public Spaces Public Life - A City for People’ project for walkability and liveabiity, the council actively invited discourse by various means. Wollongong council regularly attends public events where they listen to concerns and accept feedback, in addition to advertising and marketing their intentions.

When it was determined that rebuilding the pedestrianized section of Wollongong’s central main street was a goal, my wife and I [while out walking] were delightfully accosted by two council staff resolute on getting our view on some of the detail of how it might be done.

A different example: Under a hill overlooking our manmade industrial harbor are WWII defense tunnels defending the harbor from assailants who never arrived. The tunnels are a drawcard for local teenagers who soon circumvent attempts to close off the tunnels to access. Now residents have decided they’d like the tunnels to stay open. The teenagers are doing no particular harm to the tunnels or each other. The tunnels are to stay open because that’s what the residents wanted!

Another example: Recently my perplexing daughter wanted to have her 12th birthday party at a local school grounds that is not even her school. The school principle said ‘yes, no problem at all’. It proceeded very successfully with no problems at all. Delighted friends in attendance from Sydney were stunned that it was even possible to do such a thing, adamant it would not have happened at their schools.

Wollongong has faced the same problem as thousands of other locations - of the central business area being supplanted by suburban shopping malls. Wollongong is now fighting back with a clear desire to bring the urban city center back to life.

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

Wollongong has faced the same problem as thousands of other locations - of the central business area being supplanted by suburban shopping malls. Wollongong is now fighting back with a clear desire to bring the urban city center back to life. While it is not being totally original in how it is doing this, it is at least doing it! Wollongong has identified that it needs lots more people living in its center. Wollongong maintains a height limit on buildings of (I believe) twelve stories.

Wollongong has recently moved to remove much of the ‘red tape’ in the approval process for residential development, and consequently a suite of appropriate new apartment buildings are nearing completion in the central city area. The early signs are positive. Not only are local suburbanites increasingly interested in living more centrally, more people are moving from the major city of Sydney 50 miles to the north, to Wollongong for our apparent life style advantages.

For two years, the heart of Wollongong [the historic geographic town center and main street] has hosted a weekly ‘Eat Street’ every Thursday evening via pop up food stalls in its pedestrianized mall. This includes music and entertainment. The food needs to be ‘authentic’ and packaged food or drinks forbidden. It is only gaining in strength and clearly helps permanent bricks and mortar restaurants that operate in the same space. Everyone is busy and the place is crowded, a far cry from the less than safe place of only a few years ago. Wollongong is coming back to life!

For a while Wollongong stalled while it exhausted alternatives to acting intelligently. Now the signs are clear. Wollongong is making a comeback!

Is your town financially strong and resilient for future generations? How do you know?

Yes. Wollongong is actually a ‘place’. Wollongong is a post industrial and manufacturing city, deeply affected by the loss of the manufacturing sector. Wollongong is desperately needing to reinvent itself. For a while Wollongong stalled while it exhausted alternatives to acting intelligently. Now the signs are clear. Wollongong is making a comeback!

Wollongong is near Sydney. Sydney has a major housing affordability crisis. Sydney’s response? Build large housing estates on greenfield sites beyond the traditional boundary of Sydney! Suburban sprawl, pursued in areas geographically close to Wollongong but not Wollongong. These locations will never be places of any substance. Wollongong will again be. Wollongong has a mix of old and new. Jane Jacobs might have approved? It has affordable space for creative people and creative people living and working here, being creative! Wollongong has an excellent music scene including excellent street music festivals including large bands of kids and teenagers using their instruments, a huge annual folk festival, an affordable conservatorium of music …

Wollongong now has the largest of passenger cruise ship liners coming into its decayed industrial harbor full of eager tourists happy not to be seeing another pacific island ‘paradise’. This is new and is gaining momentum. Wollongong has a history. It is from a local resident (Lawrence Hargrave) that the Wright Brothers acquired most of their technical knowhow. On our hills, wings were developed! Its history and diversity will feed its future. Wollongong is gaining in strength!

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

Wollongong certainly has a central downtown, and it’s becoming better and better! I’ve lived in Wollongong for eight years. I moved here as a gamble. My gamble was that Wollongong wasn’t doing so well when I moved here. Australia’s Detroit perhaps? I was betting that being a part of an urban renewal would be more interesting than living in a staid safe place.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Wollongong eight years ago, was its downtown. It presented too many blank walls with almost no explorability, and didn’t feel safe. This has changed a lot and is still changing with more and more people living in the downtown and unlikely nocks and crannies attracting commerical activity.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Wollongong eight years ago, was its downtown. It presented too many blank walls with almost no explorability, and didn’t feel safe. This has changed a lot and is still changing with more and more people living in the downtown and unlikely nocks and crannies attracting commercial activity.

Several hundred yards of the main street at the town center is closed to motor vehicles and is pedestrianized. This is where pop-up markets and food stalls happen as does random music and entertainment. New shops are opening all the time and all the major grocery retailers have built new stores in the downtown where none previously existed - while the suburban malls are losing patronage. People are going to the downtown just because it is more interesting to do so. The downtown is not huge. It is serviced by Wollongong’s central train station and from the train station there is a concentration of commercial activity on a single street and the crossroads of that street. This street leads all the way to the ocean and the beach about one mile away. This places you onto the fantastic ocean foreshore walk mentioned previously.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

I love living in a place that has been through decline and decay is in the process of reinventing itself! I love the Makers and Makerspaces in Wollongong where aspiring creative people and diverse users can afford space to pursue their objectives, - meaning there are a diversity of uses and many artists of many descriptions that do not need to be already successful in purely commercial terms in order to simple stay in business and afford the rent. There are shops that you would not see in more expensive real estate. I love that art and music and creativity is playing an active role in Wollongong’s case. I love not being able to ‘rest on one's laurels’,- of being able to wake up each day determined to be a part of creating something new and different and better. I love that the local government isn’t sure it has all the answers and is interested to know what the plebeians think and feel. I love that there are chances being taken, where risk is involved.

But above all else I love that Wollongong is focused on rebuilding and redefining its central urban area as a place for people, for liveability, sociability, vitality, food, music or just meeting up. Wollongong keenly understands the need to save its ‘downtown’ and is acting on this. I love that what’s happening in Wollongong is at least ‘interesting’ at least from the perspective of a person actually living here, aware of the past and with an eye to the future. Wollongong is increasingly synonymous with optimism!


Ellsworth, ME

Entry submitted by: Cara Romano, Beth Fendl, Kirsten Henry, Leann Beal, Crystal Richards, Kristy Overlock, Phyllis Young, Paul Markosian, Teresa L. Sarget-Smith, Charles W. Birdsall III, Nathaniel Hanson, Elizabeth Trocki and Louie Luchini

Give an example of an incremental project that has happened in your town.

The Heart of Ellsworth is a great example of an incremental project that is happening in the City of Ellsworth. Ellsworth has teamed up with the Maine Community Foundation, Camden National Bank and Eaton Peabody to raise funds for the Downtown Ellsworth Association to hire a part-time Executive Director. From these funds the organization has regrouped organized as a 501c3 and changed it's name Heart of Ellsworth. While this project is in the very beginning stages we have many years of work ahead. One program that our group has put into production, Monthly Public Forum series running during the winter, 6 to 7 months a year. We are working to increase public awareness about issues facing our town and highlighting organizations in our region who are doing great mission based work to make Ellsworth a vibrant community to live, work and recreate. The Heart of Ellsworth kicked off this Public Forum series in June of 2016 when the board hired a part-time Executive Director.

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

Ellsworth is home to Downeast Transportation offering commuter service between Ellsworth, Bar Harbor and Bangor available to all residents, stopping at major shopping centers and of course Acadia National Park. Downeast Transportation has additional bus service from Bar Harbor and Ellsworth to Bangor on Mondays and Fridays. These trips are available year round.The West Coastal Connection operates daily between Calais and Bangor, with a stop at Mike’s Country Store on Water Street in Ellsworth. The bus to Bangor departs Ellsworth in the middle of the day. The Bar Harbor-Bangor Shuttle offers daily limo-type service between Bar Harbor and Bangor from June through October

We have a great town paper, the Ellsworth American. It is a regionally respected news source recognized nationally... So many people write in and state opinions with great perspectives on small town life, national happenings and political opinions.

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

Residents in the City of Ellsworth are able to do the following to be involved in local decision making:

  • Attend city council meetings and speak during the public comments section of the meeting, voicing questions and or concerns about issues facing our community.
  • Join the Heart of Ellsworth board or any of the other local Chamber, Rotary or nonprofit boards in our region. Membership to organizations such as these allow people to have their voices be heard by a larger party. We have a very active group of people who dedicate their time and energy to our town and causes through organizations listed above.
  • Lastly we have a great town paper, the Ellsworth American. It is a regionally respected news source recognized nationally. We boast anywhere from 2 to 5 pages of commentary and letters to the Editor each week. So many people write in and state opinions with great perspectives on small town life, national happenings and political opinions.

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

Ellsworth is really taking center stage in Downeast Maine to bring high-speed broadband internet to our city and region. Since Ellsworth is what they call a "last mile" community it is a very important step for the entire region. These days with more and more resources online and the concept of working from home becoming the norm people are starting to use this as criteria of relocation. Connectivity of rural communities is the hardest part. Being a "last mile" community for high-speed internet means that we are a hub for connecting communities Downeast; if we don't jump on we will be stopping progress in the region. The City of Ellsworth and the Ellsworth Business Development Corporation have been working hard to raise money and hire the manpower to create initiatives to make the improvements in broadband. City officials hope to have an Internet Service Provider set up by spring 2017.

Is your town financially strong and resilient for future generations? How do you know?

Yes, our town is not only the largest City in the area it is the county seat. Our town council does a great job of making sure finance meetings are open to the public to attend and minutes are published on line for all community members to view. Additionally our town is now home to Jackson Lab newest location. This project will bring 200+ new jobs to our town over the course of the next two years. We are poised for growth in 2018 and beyond making Ellsworth a Strong town!

With a gentle uphill walk or drive one passes many quaint small brick building shops, restaurants and services that cater to the local community year round.

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

Yes!!! Main Street's lower section crosses over the Union River. With a gentle uphill walk or drive one passes many quaint small brick building shops, restaurants and services that cater to the local community year round. Mid way up Main Street you hit the Franklin cross street. If you pause and look to your right you will see the most magnificent City Hill. This building is an architectural pillar in our community. This building is the perfect backdrop for so many photos events and gatherings in our city. As you ascend further north on Main Street you will see the Grand Theater that has a traditional 1930"s Art Deco marquee. This land mark, local attraction is another iconic building in our downtown; subject of many paintings and photographs in the past 70 plus years. Our Main Street ends connecting to High Street, a hub for many stores, businesses and office spaces.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

Our authentic downtown. If we can have two favorites, our central location to many area attractions.


Voting is now closed.