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.


Niagara Falls, New York

Entry submitted by: Seth Piccirillo, Ryan Undercoffer, Christine Marino, and Jarrett Steffen

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.

2017 was the first year of participatory budgeting in Niagara Falls. With $360,000 in HUD CDBG funds, residents proposed ideas for public parks improvements and voted on which ideas to fund. We are only the second American city to use PB to allocated CDBG funds. The “idea sessions” were brainstorming public meetings where no idea was out of play. From there, ideas were narrowed down to 10 ballot items for public vote. Voting was available throughout the month of August at public events and places in a way to maximize civic engagement – by bringing the vote to where people are already engaging in the community.

One funded project, a new playground pod at Hyde Park (our city’s largest, most used, and most central park), has gone through even more rounds of public participation. Playground improvements have already taken place at Hyde Park, but we felt the need to go beyond ADA compliance to ensure play areas for all. The City teamed up with the School District, playground engineers, local organizations, and parents to design a truly inclusive play area for children of all abilities. The inclusionary play space is designed for both children with special mobility and behavioral needs. Focus groups and public meetings have already taken place and we are waiting until spring for construction. After construction, we plan to have events and workshops to connect people with this great public asset that was initiated through public participation.

As a recipient of the New York State Zombie Remediation and Prevention Imitative Grant, Niagara Falls has led the way in New York State, largely through community participation from the residents themselves and by being a part of the discussion with other communities. Residents began this effort early on through reporting properties to the city to find out where the worst offenders of bank owned properties in foreclosure limbo were. As our team built tools and created action, Niagara Falls has shared information and provided resources to Niagara Falls residents and other New York State communities in an effort to generate even more informed, positive action.

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?

American cities, including the City of Niagara Falls, have offered payment in lieu of agreements (PILOTS) via Industrial Development Agencies, to attract new investment. These decisions, while creating ribbon cutting opportunities, damage long-term financial sustainability, let alone prosperity. Over the past four years, our team has targeted long vacant, government owned structures (former schools, and administrative buildings) that have never generated tax revenue and were headed towards government funded demolition. We then attracted developers via outside competitive grants (state, federal), historic renovation tax credits and payment in lieu of nothing agreements. These agreements allow the developer to have a predicted tax rate over 15 years, and it helps the city generate new tax revenue while avoiding millions of dollars in demolition costs. This approach is our best example of “better math.” Offering a tax abatement on an already profitable parcel is short-sighted. Repurposing a blighted building, instead of relegating ourselves to a vacant lot, both improves the quality of life in our neighborhoods and our municipal bottom line. In 2017, both the Niagara City Lofts and Walnut Avenue Homes, opened in our Center City neighborhood. Combined, the projects represent $38 million in new investment, while preventing a $1.4 million cost. Both buildings were vacant school district buildings, vacant for over ten years. Now, they provide a combined 73 housing units within short walking distance to two of the city’s largest employers, the tourism district, the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center and are served by public transit routes. Currently, a trades training center is being renovated directly across the street from the Walnut Avenue Homes, in another vacant former school district building, with classes starting in July. Another tax agreement was also approved for more apartments in a former Catholic school. All of these projects will provide the tax revenue needed for future financial solvency.

Repurposing a blighted building, instead of relegating ourselves to a vacant lot, both improves the quality of life in our neighborhoods and our municipal bottom line.

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

First off, we want to make sure you see the main attraction of Niagara Falls: Niagara Falls! As expected, your walking tour would surely include a stop at this historic place to enjoy the views and experience of the falls. However, this stop would only be part of one stretch of 8 miles of trails connecting three other state parks and one city park that line the city’s waterfront. You’ll notice our previous phases and upcoming phase of a major road diet, the deconstruction of the old Robert Moses Parkway, to be met with a $42 million investment in public land and waterfront restoration project.

From there, we’ll take you around our residential neighborhoods to see the historic architecture of homes in Niagara Falls and the public places they use to recreate. You’ll see approximately 14,000 homes built before 1954 with 5,000 of those built before 1920. Among these neighborhoods, we can stop in any of the 30 public parks and over 20 parks improvements made in the last five years. Nearly all city-dwellers are within a half mile of a park, so we will be sure to get our rest in.

While rest is needed on this walking tour, so is food! We can stop at any of the six main business districts throughout the city -- all within walking distance from the neighborhoods and parks. We might skip the one stroad we have, but otherwise these business districts are friendly for us walkers. After our meal, we can check out new public art and placemaking installments as well as browse the wares of our local shops.

Lastly, to make sure your upper-body gets its fair share, we’ll turn this walking tour into a paddling tour. Launching from Griffon Park in our LaSalle neighborhood (approximately 6 miles upstream of the falls), we can experience the mighty Niagara River on the water itself and see where natural resources, residential neighborhoods, and local business meet all in one place.

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?

In January 2018, the City of Niagara Falls adopted an official Complete Streets Policy to better plan and execute street projects designs for pedestrians, bicyclists as well as cars. According to a 2014 Oishei Foundation Mobile Safety Net Report, 36% of Niagara Falls residents reported walking as their primary form of travel. This percentage increases during the summer months, when the city sees both millions of international travelers, and internationally based J-1 students that work at tourism destinations. Still, roads are designed for cars only. That fact is changing in Niagara Falls. In 2017, NFCD partnered with GOBike Buffalo, the Niagara Falls Police Department, the school district, and Cornell Cooperative to paint artful crosswalks in close proximity to area schools. It was a tactical way to show the community that a complete streets policy can be focused on common sense safety, creativity, and low cost fixes. We have ten more school crosswalks planned for 2018 and are working with the New York State Department of Transportation to put the 300 and 400 blocks of Niagara Street, in the heart of our downtown core, on a road diet. Simple acts of tactical urbanism are changing the way we will make larger transportation investments in the future.

Another recent transportation investment has close ties with our tourism industry. The Discover Niagara Shuttle launched in 2016 to provide public transportation to destinations along the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area. The downtown tourism district has been disconnected from other city tourism attractions for years. This shuttle is a free hop-on-hop-off service that brings tourists and residents alike to explore our community better. In its initial year, the City itself invested $100,000. A recent study by Tripp Umbach shows that this service produced a $35 million total economic impact to Niagara County and a $4.4 million government revenue impact in state and local tax revenue. With our city being the epicenter for the tourism industry in the county, this investment in transportation not only reduces negative environmental impacts through public transportation, it provides positive economic and social impacts that create recurring gains and returns.

For the residents working hard to make change, Niagara Falls is as much an idea as a destination. We know change is possible and that we can learn from the best practices of other cities with similar challenges.

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?

The City of Niagara Falls’ top three employers are the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Base, the Seneca Niagara Casino and the Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center. The casino and the medical center are located within a mile of each other, and both have significantly expanded in the last ten years. The air base survived the 2006 BRAC Commission, and since then a new passenger terminal has been added to the property, and the main runway was completely repaved. Niagara Falls does not have a strong cooperate culture, with most of the chemical plan headquarters leaving by the 1970s. However, the city has added ten new and remodeled hotel properties over the last eight year’s better positioning us as a year-round tourist/convention destination. More local businesses are renovating long vacant spaces on the edges of the new hotel investments. What local businesses are we most proud of? Power City Eatery opened on Third Street, less than a mile Niagara Falls State Park. The building was a state parole office before three local residents bought it and turned it into a modern café and delicatessen. Local residents, assisted by the city and New York State, proved that unlikely transformations are possible.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

In Niagara Falls, public involvement can directly cause action, if you are willing to put in the work. An opportunity to make a real impact, in the place we call home, is our favorite thing about Niagara Falls. This small city is far from perfect. We have many big and complicated issues, caused and compounded by years of shortsightedness and selfishness. Despite a troubled history, or maybe in response to it, progressive residents are working hard to forge a new style of leadership rooted in participation. Local conversations are creating results. Most people in the world have heard of Niagara Falls, and can visualize water falling off of a cliff. More locally, regional residents may visualize the city’s difficult past more often than a tourist’s scenic view. But for the residents working hard to make change, Niagara Falls is as much an idea as a destination. We know change is possible and that we can learn from the best practices of other cities with similar challenges. A better way is possible, and we are proving it, every day. That’s what makes Niagara Falls our favorite Strong Town.


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Westmont, Illinois

Entry submitted by: Evan Walter

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.

A major train line bisects the community, leaving the appearance of much asphalt and other hard surfaces along this line that do not promote community wealth or peacemaking. Under a joint effort by Westmont and a neighboring town, community activists and businesses opened the Richmond Gardens. Richmond Gardens includes a major public garden and an apiary on what was an unused 0.15-acre public road right of way. The garden and apiary promotes access to resources, community ownership of process and product, localization, empowerment and collaboration, healthy eating, and organic and environmentally sound gardening and landscaping practices, and is sponsored by local non-profits and businesses to ensure financial independence. The Village works with local schools to ensure that children have access to this fine educational establishment. 

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?

Westmont is generally a built-out community, so new developments of scale are very rare, but the Village has done very well to provide high-quality services at a lower sustainable cost than our neighbors. For example, Westmont is the only fire department in Illinois to earn a Class 1 ISO rating with a part-time/combination department, meaning that we are able to access all of the benefits of a high-quality fire department but at a much lower cost. The Village takes care to understand the needs and rights of neighbors before permitting development; they understand that the people who live in the neighborhoods should have a say in how it gets developed and redeveloped.

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

Westmont has a very unique terrain, being the highest point in the Chicagoland area west of Chicago. Westmont is home to a housing stock wherein a family could spend every chapter of life without moving out of town; there are condos, apartments, starter homes, middle-class homes, and stately mansions all within walking distance both north and south of the downtown on Cass Avenue. Westmont is turning 100 in 1921; as a result, the Village has commissioned a resident to paint a large mural in different parts of town every year from 2016-21 to commemorate this history. One such has already been painted, which documents our history as a dairy and brick supplier to Chicago. Finally, you would likely take note of the variety of businesses throughout town; Westmont is home to many unique businesses not found in other communities.

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?

Westmont has a downtown that contains many alleys and gangways, areas which for years have not been useful space due to rotted streets and flooding. In 2017, the Village decided to fix these issues by reconstructing the deteriorated asphalt alleys with decorative pervious brick pavers and pervious concrete base for structural stability, and also includes storm sewer installation along the alley. These projects were completed with grants, and businesses along the alleys now are able to use the outdoor space to its fullest extent. Rents have gone up for commercial space along these alleyways and the amount and aesthetic quality of the public space has increased as a result of these investments. Instead of simply putting down a basic street, the Village decided to do a more extensive upgrade, which now accommodates people instead of moving traffic.

Instead of simply putting down a basic street, the Village decided to do a more extensive upgrade, which now accommodates people instead of moving traffic.

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?

Westmont has an automall on the edge of town which supplies a majority of tax dollars, but has a growing downtown sector which has a diverse roster of businesses. The Village is working block-by-block with local land and property owners to improve the overall usability of space to create value where there currently is none. Westmont supports local small businesses with a publicity grant program, which allows businesses to receive up to $1,000 to host community events which are used as advertisements for the residents who attend them. One of the best businesses in Westmont has to be the Tasty Treat, located just blocks from several schools and only accessible by walking. Tasty Treat is an ice cream treat business which also promotes reading by allowing kids to take books from shelves on-site! Certainly not the sexiest business in the world, nor are they in our "top 10 taxpayers", but I cannot imagine downtown Westmont without Tasty Treat.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

Westmont is unafraid to do things their own way; literally, the motto of Westmont is "The Progressive Village." Westmont is surrounded by communities that are "wealthier" but Westmont focuses on community life, and does not base their success on the almighty dollar or property value. Westmont happily closes their downtown for car shows and restaurant tastings in the summer so that people are encouraged to walk downtown and get to know the town, instead of driving through like other communities around it. I feel like people are able to age in this community and are able to make this their "forever home". Westmont's economic development motto is "World Class Village", but I believe this motto is accurate in that the Village promotes community development, not necessarily attracting the largest businesses.


Voting is now closed.