Welcome to the next match-up in the third annual Strongest Town Competition! In this round, 16 towns are facing off and 8 will advance to the next segment of the contest based on your votes.

We invite you to read the answers that representatives from these two towns provided to questions about economic resilience, citizen involvement, land use and more, then vote for the strongest. Can't decide? Read commentaries by Strong Towns members to help inform you choice here.

Voting closes at 12pm CT on Friday, March 9.


 Source: Jon Ridinger

Source: Jon Ridinger

Kent, Ohio

Entry submitted by: Dave Ruller - City Manager, James Bowling - City Engineer, and Harrison Wicks - Assistant to the City Manager

How are residents in your town involved in the life of the community? Share a few examples of times when residents came together to work on a project or make decisions about the future of the town.

Residents of Kent are deeply rooted in the life of the community. Participation in community initiatives, annual events, and service organizations are popular and growing. Kent is also the home of Kent State University, which boasts 29,000 students on its main campus as well as an array of student led community organizations and faculty that are directly involved in the larger Kent community.

There is no better example of the residents of Kent coming together to make decisions about the future of Kent than the 2004 Bicentennial Plan. In all, nearly 50 meetings were held over a 14-month period, and a total of 450 residents participated -- all of which contributed to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) issuing a national award to Kent for “Excellence in Community Engagement” in 2005. A direct result of this plan was the downtown Kent revitalization project undertaken in 2011 that provided over $140 million in new investment in Kent. Mixed-used developments and the construction of a Kent State Hotel and Conference Center in the heart of downtown were made possible with previous plans laid by the Bicentennial Plan that emphasized a closer town-gown relationship.

Another great example of community collaboration occurred in the early 2000’s when the Kent community worked with State agencies and engineering firms to reopen the dam that had previously closed off the Cuyahoga River for over a century. A 1999 study conducted by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency identified water quality problems in the Cuyahoga behind the dam. A feasibility study was conducted to evaluate alternatives to meet water quality objectives while also addressing concerns raised by the Kent community. It was agreed that the design should modify the Kent dam and restore the Cuyahoga to a free flowing reach, thereby enhancing water quality and habitat while also providing opportunities for kayak/canoe passage. The project was such a blockbuster hit that it was listed in a United Nations Environment Programme study of best practices for water quality around the world. And closer to home, neighboring cities have followed Kent’s lead and opened up old dams all along the Cuyahoga.

At Strong Towns we believe that financial solvency is a prerequisite for longterm prosperity. What steps has your community taken to ensure its financial security? Do local leaders adequately do the math on new investments proposed in your town to ensure that theyll be able to afford them now and afford their maintenance in the future?

On the brink of the Great Recession in 2006-07, Kent City Council formed a citizen advisory team to review the City’s financial strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. This Blue Ribbon Panel spent 18 months working with City staff and City Council to develop a strategic financial investment plan that recommended leveraging reserve funds to be a catalyst for the public private partnerships that resulted in over $140 million in downtown reinvestment and record growth in the City’s income tax base.

Coupled with prudent financial policies and far-sighted investment decisions, the City of Kent was fortunate to come out of the 2008 recession in a stronger position financially than when we went in, culminating in Kent being recognized by the State of Ohio in 2016 as 1 of only 16 cities out of 240 in Ohio to achieve the highest rating of overall financial health.

On the brink of the Great Recession in 2006-07, Kent City Council formed a citizen advisory team to review the City’s financial strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.

Following public discussions and meetings, in 2012 Kent City Council also developed the City’s first multi-year utility rate stabilization plan which provided a funding plan for the capital and operating revenues for water, sewer and stormwater utilities. This landmark rate plan provided a framework to balance the revenue needs with the capacity of residents to afford utility rate increases. As a result of the rate plan, rate increases have stabilized, capital and operating needs have been met, and for the first time reserve balances are growing in each utility fund to meet future unexpected needs.

When you work in the realm of managing public dollars, trust is the one ingredient you can never afford to lose. The push for greater transparency in government reflects one way we work to validate that trust by allowing folks to see what it is the government is buying, hiring and generally doing with our tax dollars. The computer age has made transparency much more possible and long term that should strengthen the citizen-government relationship. The City of Kent also regularly participates in the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting Program and has received the designation for the past 30 years.

If we took a walking tour through your town what would we see? How does your community use its land to the fullest?

Kent is home to 30,000 residents year-round and 29,000 students at Kent State University during the academic year. With 9.25 square miles, Kent has used its land judiciously to balance the need for economic development, environmental preservation, and quality of life.

Land use has been guided by decades of community based planning that produced comprehensive, sub-area, and special-district plans to optimize land availability and fulfill the City’s commitment to its community values including smart growth, environmental preservation, and City/University synergy. The strategies to achieve these aspirations are contained in multiple documents including: Vision 2000, RiverEdge Park and Trail Plan, Green Corridor Plan, Downtown Campus Connection Study, Westriver Revitalization Plan, Destination 2006, Kent Bicentennial Plan, Kent Bike Plan, Multi-Modal Transit Study, and Downtown Redevelopment Plan.

A great example of these plans in action is Kent’s award-winning revitalized downtown. Voted the #1 economic development project in Ohio for 2011, the area focused on walkability, entertainment, and culture to ensure a pedestrian-oriented, active dining, and great people-watching environment. An award-winning downtown pocket park, abundant street furniture, the transformation of old alleys into new, and attractive walkways serves as a notice that downtown Kent puts people first, and the use of unconventional street signage (“smile” “high five”) provides a flavor of Kent’s personality and humor. These elements are an intentional effort to use the public realm to engage people in surprising ways, and would make unforgettable memories on a walking tour.

Kent also has a proud history and we’ve worked hard to honor that past, helping to restore historically important properties that would be an easy find on any walking tour such as the former Franklin Hotel and the historic Train Depot on Franklin Avenue. Finally, Kent prides itself in being the original ‘Tree City’ with origins stemming from the Davey Tree Expert Company that has called Kent home since 1880. Kent has received the ‘Tree City USA’ award for the 32nd year from the National Arbor Day Foundation. A robust tree canopy in many of Kent’s neighborhoods adds to the quality of life for all residents and is an unmistakable landmark.

At Strong Towns we believe transportation investments are a means to an end not an end in themselves. How is your city using transportation investments to make your community more successful?

The City of Kent has placed great importance on developing pedestrian, bike, transit, and automobile transportation methods that encourage community synergy and safety. In the last 5 years major investments -- including increased resources for sidewalk repair, bike-friendly roadway sharrows, and the signature $3 million Esplanade that connects campus to downtown Kent -- have been made to enhance the “physical” connections in Kent, strengthening ties between campus, neighborhoods, and the downtown.

The City is continuously improving roadways with traffic calming methods that make driving in Kent safer, more efficient, and economically viable.

In partnership with the regional transit agency and Kent State University (KSU), the City participated in the construction of a new downtown transit center that is a hub for bus service within Kent and throughout northeast Ohio that also includes electric vehicle charging stations, bike share and lockers. In an effort to encourage biking in Kent, the City and KSU implemented a bike share program to provide residents, students, and visitor’s greater mobility with convenient pick-up and drop-off stations located throughout the KSU campus and downtown.

Major extensions of the trail network within and through the City has put Kent in the center of 100’s of miles of regional trails. The trail connects with area trails from Cleveland and Akron, as well as connects KSU with the downtown and nearby amenities such as the Haymaker Famers’ Market and John Brown Tannery Trailhead. For added pedestrian safety, brick crosswalks and increased signage were included throughout the course of the trails to provide a visible buffer for motorists.

Finally, the City is continuously improving roadways with traffic calming methods that make driving in Kent safer, more efficient, and economically viable. A great example of this work is being done on State Route 261, a 4-lane limited access highway known as an overbuilt highway to nowhere. A regional planning study is being conducted with a community advisory team, City staff, and state agency to look at options to “right size” the roadway to match the long term land use of the 261 corridor. Fundamentally, the four lane highway could safely be a two lane street which opens opportunities for new local circulation patterns with an emphasis on bicycling and walking.

Tell us about your community's local economy. Who are the key players big and small and how do they help your town to be financially strong? What local businesses are you most proud of?

Kent State University is the largest employer in the City and Kent’s local economy encompasses a diversity of businesses and organizations that are largely built around the resources, customer base, and knowledge base that is generated by the economic engine of the University. The City’s business development strategy is built on the premise that innovation and business growth enjoy a competitive advantage in places where the specialties of research, technology, commerce and culture are given opportunities to converge. The goal is to create a shared physical environment where people will gather, ideas will cross-pollinate, and innovation becomes a way of life. Kent is working to be that place.

Thanks to the recent downtown revitalization project, this strategy has been able to take shape. World class engineering and environmental companies are able to work alongside locally owned businesses, shops and boutiques, start-ups, and restaurants in a symbiotic relationship that promotes interaction. Notable businesses and organizations that contribute to the Kent economic base include the world headquarters of the Davey Tree Expert Company and Smithers-Oasis, manufacturing research leaders like Ametek and Alpha Micron, and locally owned entertainment and media companies like the Kent Stage and Each + Every (a local graphic design firm). Each one of these organizations brings a special focus and prestige to Kent and exemplifies what makes Kent unique and successful.

Looking to the future, Kent is seeking to affirm its role as a place that attracts and retains people and businesses who seek out the energy and culture unique to university locations; seeding the pipeline for emerging business opportunities that generate real growth in the local and regional economy.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

The unmistakable culture is what makes residents, students, and visitors realize that there is something special about Kent. People choose to live in Kent because it’s got room for everybody. If you like living outside the lines, then Kent is your kind of place. Where some communities seek depth within a narrow range of life styles, Kent goes wide, celebrating the edges of convention.

Unabashedly honest, unapologetic, unmistakably Kent. That’s the heart and soul of the Kent brand.

Whether we’re talking about the cast of characters that call Kent home or all the haircuts and clothing styles prominently displayed by students of the fashion design school or even the tattoo parlors and muscle cars that are favorites of Kent’s biker crowd. Any way you twist it, Kent is a lifestyle choice. As a diverse community, we have people that follow straight lines, crooked lines, and curved lines but my favorite parts are at the edges — that’s where things get interesting.

Unabashedly honest, unapologetic, unmistakably Kent. That’s the heart and soul of the Kent brand. That’s our point of origin; where Kent exists as a verb or way of life. Fulfilling that lifestyle promise isn’t easy because you have to keep it real, you can’t be a poseur, and you have to tolerate things that may be disagreeable to you because that’s Kent. In a world full of choreographed, spoon fed look alikes, Kent’s a breed apart and proud of it. Kent’s the undiscovered moments that sneak up on you and last a lifetime.

I won’t go so far as to call Kent the modern equivalent of Pan’s Neverland but it’s definitely got a similar sensibility that encourages a youthful spirit for people of all ages. For obvious reasons college towns are notoriously youthful. When you’re immersed in so large a youth based culture it’s hard not to be influenced by the water you’re swimming in. It may not be the fountain of youth but it sure helps keep the dreams of youth alive and kicking. And whether it’s nature or nurture, Kent has broad appeal to folks with the enthusiasm of youth and ideals to match.


image1.jpeg

San Marcos, Texas

Entry submitted by: Katie Orr, Chris Salazar, Phoenix Castilla, Deputy Mayor Pro-Tem Scott Gregson, and Mayor John Thomaides

How are residents in your town involved in the life of the community? Share a few examples of times when residents came together to work on a project or make decisions about the future of the town.

As a community along the corridor between Austin and San Antonio, called the Innovation Corridor, we have experienced significant growth. Given our experience, we have had to prepare our community for this growth through the creation of numerous master plans that include transportation, water/wastewater infrastructure, parks, stormwater management, and downtown master plans. These have all been brought together with a city-wide comprehensive master plan called A River Runs Through Us (“Comp Plan”). The Comp Plan has now formed the basis for the rewrite of our land development code, which will codify our community’s consensus vision for future development. This new land development code includes: where development will occur, where people will live, how mass transit will fit into this plan, efficient development of soft and hard services like utility infrastructure, and fire and police protection; all while still maintaining a focus on creating a truly walkable, bikeable community that is less auto-centric. Synthesizing these principles together has taken an incredibly youthful staff of energetic professionals in the field of urban and land planning. Now, the hard part: change is hard for any community. Our city staff and leadership has had significant outreach that have included:

- 34 small group meetings

- 25 open house and workshops

- 2,000 pieces of mail

- 40 Newsletters emailed with a total of 16,438 opened emails

- Over 2,500 individual comments received, analyzed and considered for inclusion.

- 30 “Think Tank” meetings (A group of diverse professionals and informed citizens who litigated every aspect of the new land development code)

- 28 public meetings and workshops of City Council, Planning and Zoning Commission and other related board and commissions.

– 21,234 interactions with citizens and the development community.

As a result, we have engaged our entire community into the process and will have a completed a land development code that will be accompanied by a resolution of direction to our city staff, giving both the development community and our citizens a clear roadmap into the future.

At Strong Towns we believe that financial solvency is a prerequisite for longterm prosperity. What steps has your community taken to ensure its financial security? Do local leaders adequately do the math on new investments proposed in your town to ensure that theyll be able to afford them now and afford their maintenance in the future?

The city of San Marcos is determined to ensure that explosive growth does not come with an expensive price tag.

The city of San Marcos is determined to ensure that explosive growth does not come with an expensive price tag. While investments in sustainable initiatives has been a top priority of policy makers and residents alike for the past decade, the city has adopted inclusive and forward-thinking policies that will ensure fiscal security and responsibility for today and tomorrow.

San Marcos has taken an aggressive approach to managing our growth in a cost-effective way. In the development of our city’s land development code (“Code SMTX”) there is an entire section on issues to be considered during each zoning change request or change to our Preferred Land Scenario Amendment. Additionally, our Council has directed staff to develop “fiscal notes” on each new development. Both of these take a holistic approach to the impact of all city changes: diversity and balancing our socio-economic growth within our city, the impact on police and fire protection, park and library services, density considerations and the impact of development on creating an efficient and sustainable multi-modal transportation options.

Additionally, with respect to the Council, the city has a priority to take into consideration the impact of our decisions on other institutional partnerships, including the school district, and how transportation and access to academic services may be impacted by the development of these plans.

As for economic development prospects, while cities in Texas are prohibited by law from having a local minimum wage, our city unanimously approved a policy that requires any company requesting and being granted an economic incentive to provide living wages currently defined at $15 per hour, plus benefits to include health insurance. This program ensures that with any new incentive there are no “hidden” costs to the community and also ensures that family incomes can support housing, adequate health care, food sufficiency, an occasional vacation, and an education for our youth.

If we took a walking tour through your town what would we see? How does your community use its land to the fullest?

Our primary and most cherished natural resource is the San Marcos River, which has its headwaters in our downtown. Secondly, we have a lauded historic downtown that has some 3,000 residents living with a five-minute walk of the downtown square. Adjacent to our downtown is Texas State University, one of the largest institutions of higher learning in Texas, boasting around 38,000 students. Within a short walk of downtown are 7 historic districts, with homes dating back to the mid-1800’s.

Our primary and most cherished natural resource is the San Marcos River, which has its headwaters in our downtown.

Art is also an important component of your walk. We have an arts mural program that has significantly reduced “tagging” and has resulted in large displays of expressive art resulting from both our youth and talented artists commissioned to add life and culture to our otherwise dull wall space. The brainchild of our current mayor, the San Marcos Mural Arts program has funded over a 20 murals bringing the total number murals both private and public close to 35. One of our most recent additions is a 180 ft mural in the middle of our downtown that pays homage to United States Veterans representing all military branches. The artist, a Texas State University graduate was commissioned for the piece and sought input for the initial design through community workshops that invited veterans to share their experiences.

Lastly, our parks program boasts hiking and biking trails along the river, and some 2,000 acres of greenspace and parkland, and 25 miles in our trail system, all within the city limits and situated over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. In San Marcos, you can stay outside all day and enjoy the natural and historic beauty of our great city.

Realizing the importance of development inside the “core” of our city, the land development code, based upon our Comp Plan, is designed to maximize utilization of underutilized land, including undeveloped parcels and greenfield developments inside our existing city limits, in order to accommodate the continued population growth we face. Code SMTX is designed to meet the housing needs of our increasing workforce population, and their families, along with executive, active adult and retirement communities. In addition, our Downtown Business District received a “Smart Code” (form based code overlay) in 2010, which has resulted in millions in new investment and numerous buildings being built or planned to the new height limits of 5 stories.

At Strong Towns we believe transportation investments are a means to an end not an end in themselves. How is your city using transportation investments to make your community more successful?

Our city’s leadership understands that development patterns and density of population are critical in creating a sustainable and supportable multi-modal transportation system. In 2012, we implemented a Complete Streets Ordinance that requires each new street built as well as any existing street being redesigned, provide for a true multi-modal transportation outcome that maximizes transportation options, using context sensitive design guidelines, along each city street and arterial. Each year we have continued to make systematic investments in sidewalks throughout our city utilizing a city crew to replace, repair and install new sidewalks and requiring all new developments, to place sidewalks along their property lines, focused on ultimate connectivity.

Given our location between two of the largest cities in Texas, our city leadership has been outspoken advocates for intercity and commuter railways. However, in Texas, they have been fighting an uphill battle. Despite this, the city has developed an effective inter-urban metro connector bus system to Austin and an inter-city bus system, providing access to transportation for senior citizens and our workforce community. The Council has been considering consolidation of the Texas State University into our bus system and requesting the city become a Direct Recipient for federal and state transit funding allocated to the San Marcos urbanized area.

Given our location between two of the largest cities in Texas, our city leadership has been outspoken advocates for intercity and commuter railways.

Lastly, our Comp Plan calls for both the effective densification of our city’s core, while providing creative housing options to create walkable, bikeable cores within “intensity zones” of new development that provide necessary population density for sustainable transportation solutions. Cities all over this country are changing. They are changing how we work, how we live, how we get from point A to point B, how think about the environment, and how we plan for not only today but tomorrow. San Marcos continues to to a leader for small-medium cities in Texas and beyond.

Tell us about your community's local economy. Who are the key players big and small and how do they help your town to be financially strong? What local businesses are you most proud of?

Historically, San Marcos has been a community at the “drip line” between Austin and San Antonio that has enjoyed, as a significant part of our economy, Texas State University (now the State’s fifth largest public institution of higher education). For years, however, the city’s business leadership has expressed a degree of desperation about our lack of growth. Over the past two decades this has markedly changed. Several years ago, our community landed an Amazon distribution facility within the city, hiring over 3,000 individuals during peak season, and this past year, Best Buy’s only Texas call center. Prior to that, Epic Pipe has invested in our community, working alongside Austin Community College to develop workforce training opportunities that result in the employment of our youth in highly technical welding jobs, which pay outstanding wages with benefits.

Demographers define our area as a mega-region uniquely located between Austin and San Antonio, and more ultimately located between two even larger markets: Houston and Dallas. This places us at the epicenter of the Innovation Corridor. Texas State has focused on materials science as a core curriculum that has led to the development and expansion of the STAR Park, a science and technology incubator and our city is currently planning and Innovation District overlay for our Downtown Business District that borders Texas State University.

All that said however, our small businesses are the ones we are most proud of. These are the local businesses, ones where the owners and their families live right here in San Marcos. This is because we offer a great natural beauty and environment and a slightly slower pace than Austin or San Antonio, despite a significant economic incentive. We recognize that these businesses are less likely to pick up and leave after their incentive expire. Our businesses include artists, smartphone application designers, computer programmers, and scores of Texas State graduate entrepreneurs desperately working to find ways to stay here in our community and improve upon it.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

We could tell you that San Marcos was the fastest growing city of its size for three years in row.

We could tell you that San Marcos is home to Texas State University, an emerging research institution that produces some of the brightest minds with the biggest ambitions.

The true strength of San Marcos comes from the diversity of its people, the beauty of its unique natural assets including the San Marcos River and the greenspace that surround us, and the resilient small business community.

We could tell you that San Marcos was recently named one of the best places to retire, proving that retirees and college students might have more in common than we all like to admit.

We could tell you that the heart and soul of our community flows through the middle of our town at a constant 72 degrees and is truly one of a kind; and that our finances are just as pristine as the over 2,000 acres of green space that reside in our city limits.

We could tell you that San Marcos was named one of the best U.S small cities to travel to in 2018 or that our vibrant downtown comprises of over 300 small businesses, and we believe there is nothing bigger than small business.

We could tell you a lot of things, but the honest truth is our favorite thing about San Marcos is our community’s hyper focus and continued persistence on the three P’s: People, Planet, and Profit— specifically in that order.

The true strength of San Marcos comes from the diversity of its people, the beauty of its unique natural assets including the San Marcos River and the greenspace that surround us, and the resilient small business community. The success of our country is dependent on the success of our cities and while we believe every city is unique and special in their own way, what being a ‘strong town’ means to us…is truly understanding that it is not possible to have a perfect community, but it is always possible to try. And San Marcos will never stop trying. #strongsanmarcos


Voting is now closed.