Strong Towns member Morgan Goodwin has been on the town council of Truckee, CA since 2014 and was selected for a one-year term as mayor in December of last year. (You might remember Truckee from our 2016 Strongest Town Contest.) I spoke with Goodwin this week to hear about his experience as mayor of a small town and how he utilizes Strong Towns principles in his leadership role.
Rachel: What have been the biggest successes and challenges so far in your term as mayor?
Mayor Goodwin: Probably the biggest success has been our continued investment in our downtown, in our walkability and cohesiveness of the downtown as a place where you go […] We’re getting close to our river and incorporating more of our historic district. Our downtown is doing phenomenally well, and we’re taking those lessons and applying them to other areas of town.
Our biggest challenge is we’re experiencing a huge local housing crisis as this becomes a more and more desirable place to live and vacation. We’re seeing our housing prices shoot up and wages go up slowly. The Strong Towns question in there is, “Why is the market not providing really any housing that’s affordable on local wages?”
Rachel: Do you have plans to address that?
Mayor Goodwin: Definitely. We have partnerships with developers that are promising. This is one of the other Strong Towns tie-ins—the balance between efficiency and fragility. We’ve committed $2 million in general funds to partnering with developers to build a hotel/housing project. It’s a huge downtown infill site that needs it. It’s not income restricted, but it is local employment restricted. So that’s 137 units of housing where you have to show a local paystub to live there.
It’s one big simple stroke that we could spend this money on to get this big project. But, it’s also [risky] because it’s one big project. The housing and urban development loans they thought they were getting this spring, they now won’t get until December. That’s not a huge deal…but that fragility is something we’re really trying to think about. Who knows what else will happen? Maybe it won’t go through and then that’s two years where $2 million didn’t do anything to provide housing. The incremental development aspect of Strong Towns is something we’re still trying to think about.
Rachel: So how did you learn about Strong Towns in the first place?
Mayor Goodwin: It was through a friend of mine who I think you guys know very well, Mike McGinn. He and I went to the same college, several years apart. I’d worked with him on climate change activism. When I was thinking about running for town council, I came to him for advice and he was really helpful. It was right after I got elected that he said, “There are a few things you should check out.” He said, “Strong Towns is amazing.”
Right after I got elected I read some [Strong Towns] articles, and it just didn’t click. That was in 2014. It felt like I was hearing one side of the conversation, not the other. Your homepage has been redesigned since then. A year later I came back to it and thought, now it makes sense. I totally get it.
Rachel: I bet your time in council leadership gave you a new perspective on these issues too.
Mayor Goodwin: Absolutely.
Rachel: How do you apply Strong Towns ideas in your work as mayor?
Mayor Goodwin: A big one that we’re right in the middle of is trying to look at our long-term road maintenance budgets and city pensions, and being very fiscally prudent in allocating money now to pay for those things. For example, our year-on-year road maintenance budget—if we project out—we’re looking at $4.5 million a year, averaged out. Our current funding dedicated to that comes out to about a $1.4-1.7 million gap. We’re currently deciding to put $1 million of general funds toward that to close the gap. California just passed a new infrastructure bill, which will also help get that gap down pretty close.
Having that conversation and saying, even though this doesn’t impact us for 5 years, when we look at the long term, we can’t back off. This is what taxpayers are expecting us to do.
Rachel: Are you from Truckee originally?
Mayor Goodwin: I grew up in a small town in upstate New York, which is similar to Truckee. It’s a small community with that hardy, mountain lifestyle. [...] I grew up in that and I’m comfortable with that kind of community, but it was very isolated and slow. Truckee is vibrant. We’re more connected here. Being a three-hour drive from San Francisco is a perk, too.
There’s something unique here in how cohesive and tight knit and engaged it is. That tipped me over the edge to say, it’s not just a great forest/rivers/sunshine place, but also great socially.
Rachel: It sounds like you and your town are very focused on the outdoors and enjoying outdoor activities. How does that effect the decisions you make about your town’s future? How do you prioritize that in your leadership?
Mayor Goodwin: We place a huge value on open space. Certainly you get the classic conflict between, “We need affordable housing but we also like our open space.” We have a lot of land that we will not develop in town.
On the other side, there’s a huge investment in our trail system. We have a specific tax going toward building trails. The idea of connectivity and building a trail that helps people get around town as well as being a recreational amenity is one we’re prioritizing.
It’s very clear that the town’s economy, both from a visitor and tourism perspective, but also from a “Why this is a valuable place to live” perspective, is just deeply intertwined with skiing and trails and outdoor amenities. […] It’s part of our town brand.
Mayor Goodwin: It was really fun. It was a chance to get a number of folks together from the Chamber of Commerce and some of the other [local] groups to both introduce Strong Towns to them, and also to think about our town. I’ve heard since then, especially from the Chamber and downtown marketing folks that they really liked having an angle with which to talk about the town that was different from the outdoor tourism recreation angle. “Great Mountain Towns to Live in,” “Coolest Ski Towns”…those are the sorts of lists we’re used to getting on. It was good to highlight another aspect of the place. It was cool to get the community voting and get people involved.
Rachel: I want to close by asking, what do you love most about Truckee? Do you think you’ll stay for a while?
Mayor Goodwin: I’m going to be here for a long time. I feel like I’m married to this place. My favorite thing is absolutely the downtown. It’s a great walkable, liveable place in the mountains. We have this “Base camp for a big life” branding and messaging. So, what is a "big life"? I think it’s the fact that I can wake up early and go skiing or mountain biking, then sit down at my computer and be super productive and work on global issues. Then I can go walk downtown and run into friends and not have a plan per se, but end up having a really social evening. It’s great for the body, great for the mind, great for the soul.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
(Top photo of Truckee Thursdays event, by Bill Stevenson)