As part of this year's Strongest Town Contest, we've invited Strong Towns members and activists to provide guest commentary on each of the towns in our first round based on Strong Towns principles. While these commentators have not had the chance to visit each town themselves, they read the town's application to the contest, as well as conducted additional background research on the community.
Today, we've got two commentaries on the contest's next match-up: Kent, OH vs. San Marcos, TX. Visit this page to see each town's submission, then read on below to hear a Strong Towns member perspective on these communities. Contest voting closes at 12pm CT on Friday, March 9.
Commentary by Lauren Whitehead, a Strong Towns member from Solon, Iowa.
Land Use and Transportation
The city has a range of coding ordinances incorporating mixed use and a variety of residential density. It appears that they have a range of price points for rental and purchase as well. I note that they have a “greenways” project to connect parks in multiple areas and green space/parks in walkable locations from most residential areas. Their application notes a bicentennial community plan that took place over a long period of time and scrupulously involved communities across the city. All of these criteria match Strong Towns principles.
That said, some poking around reveals that there are clear economic disparities between neighborhoods in town. Partly this is due to being a university town with a huge population under 24 and working below the poverty level. In future development of these areas, the city could consider alternatives to apartment blocks (which will likely be what developers propose) and think about how they could make this area attractive to young families and feel more rooted in an ongoing identity.
Finally, while the partnership with the University in town is clearly a benefit, it’s also clear that the city is always going to have to negotiate to keep the needs of residents above the needs of the university. The University has a lot at stake in town development, but have an eye on how it will benefit them and attract students, not necessarily on the long term livability. It also appears that downtown revitalization meant almost exclusively new construction/tearing stuff down. That said, it seems to be paying off, and the design is in line with what we would hope to see in a strong town.
It looks like the bus service around the university and town is pretty solid, with quick routes and a lot of back and forth, which is good for students as well as retail/university employees. I note that there is also regional service including $1 service to a nearby larger city and options for “dial a ride” bus service. Those are awesome to have. The city also seems to be working to improve traffic safety in neighborhoods with problems and have clearly identified public/metered etc. maps available. That said, data shows that the majority of commuters in Kent still drive alone to work most of the time. Further regional collaboration to connect outlying communities would enhance Kent’s transit services.
The city recently navigated a tense sanctuary city debate and seemed to come through fairly well. In 2016 they introduced a One Kent Initiative to focus on multiculturalism and diversity in the community, which morphed into a citywide adoption of the Community Heart and Soul program to facilitate connection. All of these are excellent examples of the way city leaders can respond to problems proactively and positively.
The city and university partner on projects such as the Together Against Graffiti project, a collaboration between students and residents to clean defaced walls. The city and university also worked to achieve accreditation in what are considered “ideal town-gown relationships.” Additionally, the city has worked with start-ups, students, and entrepreneurs, investing in their success and drawing on talent across the board.
Like most cities in Ohio, Kent has struggled financially for over a decade after the fallout in the national economy. They took out a huge loan to finance a revitalization of downtown — done through many partnerships and with state funding — which will take 30 years to pay off. This seems to be proving successful thus far, but recent massive cuts to the state budget make the city’s ability to cover that debt much more unstable. They have a solid bond rating and it is clear that transparency and accountability are valued by leadership in the city. They take accounting seriously, including participating above and beyond to ensure that they are compliant. This is excellent.
Right now the city seems to be focusing on its downtown area for growth, investing TIF into redevelopment and multi-million partnership projects (e.g. a hotel/conference center). My expectation for this town would be that as they grow, they will extend this kind of stimulus to other areas, but hopefully they will consider more ways to reinvest in what they already have
For a small town in Ohio, Kent is doing pretty well. It is comparative to sister cities in the region in terms of housing price and other factors. Kent’s median income is low due to a large percentage of student employees working low wage jobs. That said, the variety of employment opportunities is strong, and unemployment is comparable with other areas. The University and medical facilities offer a ton of employment opportunities, and there is considerable growth in retail.
Kent seems to be a community driven to succeed despite economic setbacks. It remains to be seen how well they can absorb the impact of state budget cuts and how that will impact the momentum they’ve accumulated. But the town’s leadership seems focused on finding ways to do so, and their past actions have shown that they work hard to make choices in line with the needs of the residents.
San Marcos, Texas
Commentary by John Perkins, a Strong Towns member from Shreveport, Louisiana.
Towns from the Big 10 states, Pennsylvania and Michigan, have dominated the Strongest Town Competition, since its inception two years ago, but this year may be the year that the eyes of Texas, and the world, will be upon a little old town in Southeast Texas that is growing fast. San Marcos has been putting up HUGE numbers recently including double-digit population growth for over a decade. They’ve also recently been listed on two major rankings: Best Place to Raise Your Kids (Business Week 2010) and Most Exciting Small Town (Business Insider 2013), and when you put that along with two years running as the U. S. Census Bureau’s Fastest Growing Small Town, they have the vaunted Double/Double/Double, a remarkable accomplishment. And how do they do it? Their staff points to the Triple P’s, "People, Planet, and Profit", in that order.
Land Use, Transportation and Economic Strength
Take a look at San Marcos on Google Earth and you’ll see a classic town square surrounded by charming, well preserved, historic buildings housing a strong mix of businesses, and on the day the Google Truck was there, it was obvious that it is well cared for and very walkable. But San Marcos doesn’t just rely on historic buildings. Look a few blocks away to the headwaters of the San Marcos River and you’ll find glass bottom boat tours and San Marcos Lions Club Tube Rental, which is really popular in Texas summer months. Speaking of Texas summers, zoom in on the Google map and check out San Marcos sidewalks, shaded by gorgeous old trees that make an easy traverse for the thousands that live within a five-minute walk from downtown. San Marcos artists have enhanced that natural beauty with thirty gorgeous murals.
But one thing that may trip up San Marcos on its march to the Final Four is a plethora of expensive to build, and expensive to maintain stroads, that from this vantage point appear to be home to some Texas size parking lots, and also home to the old “Taco Johns” style of development that is falling out of favor.
Will that be enough to deny San Marcos a championship this year? We’ll have to see, but citizens there have shown plenty of resilience with a new Comprehensive Plan called, A River Runs Through Us, that is the result of dozens of community meetings and workshops and thousands of interactions with citizens. San Marcos’ Intermodal Transportation Plan has struggled to find footing with a state legislature that is reluctant to do light rail, but San Marcos has overcome that problem by developing interurban bussing that can even take commuters to nearby Austin, Texas, and is even looking toward joining forces with local anchor, Texas State University, a source, and a resource for many local entrepreneurs, year after year.
With huge positive numbers and strong urban planning that has San Marcos citizens and the local developer community all singing from the same page of the hymnal, San Marcos looks to be sitting in the catbird seat for a big win in the 2018 Strongest Town Competition.
Voting is now closed.