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: Marshall, MI and Muskegon, MI. 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 Kaleena Menke, a Strong Towns member from St. Louis, Missouri.
Land Use and Transportation
The bulk of Marshall’s land appears to be used for single-family residential. There are several industrial pockets and a small airport. I see one main city park with a creek running through and also a hydroelectric plant on North Branch Kalamazoo River. Marshall is sandwiched by Interstates to the North and West and I was surprised to see part of the town extended over the interstate to the North. I’m also seeing a couple islands and a donut, and wonder how Marshall is able to extend (or exclude) city services from these areas.
Marshall has demand-responsive transport (Dial-A-Ride Transit or DART) that appears to be a really elegant solution to providing public transportation for a smaller town. I was impressed to learn that the service area extends a mile outside the city limits. In addition to the Dial-A-Ride, the Albion-Marshall Connector Bus provides transportation to/from the neighboring town, Albion, about 12 miles away. Although these systems could be more robust, I think these flexible options fit Marshall well and allow for future optimizing.
This is my favorite line from Marshall’s application: “A smile, a ‘good morning,’ a giggle and a new friend are a few things you'll find when strolling the streets of Marshall.” Marshall even has this culture of hospitality and customer service written into their City Mission Statement. Citizens of Marshall show each other they care through volunteering for a wide-variety of events and also through maintaining existing city treasures.
Historic Preservation and the Arts are also both priorities in Marshall. Residents in this community collaborate to renovate a Center for the Arts, host historical home tours, and paint the town.
Marshall hired a certified economic developer to bring new jobs to the city. Marshall has a balanced budget that is approved by City Council and includes room for development, capital improvements, and most importantly, maintenance.
Yes, the economy in this community does appear to be healthy. Marshall is a Certified Redevelopment Community (by Michigan Economic Development Corporation) which means they’ve spent a great deal of time engaging their community to plan for their economic future. I’m excited to see where they’ll be in 5, 10, 50 years!
Commentary by Sylvia Menezes, a Strong Towns member from Brampton, Ontario.
Land Use and Transportation
From aerial view the predominant land use in Muskegon is residential on a grid system. The residential areas have very thick tree cover to the point where many blocks almost seem to be forests. The overwhelming majority of these homes appear to be detached single family homes. Near the waterfront the homes are on smaller lots with little in the way of side setbacks with several of the large homes appearing to actually be multiple units as well as some apartment buildings.
Downtown is composed of a large number of one and two story buildings with plenty of parking lots. As Muskegon is a port of call for cruise ships, the city could benefit by redeveloping some of downtown with low rise mixed use buildings which if done correctly could provide more retail space and housing while enhancing downtown's aesthetics for tourists. Muskegon does have a transit system called MATS (Muskegon Area Transit System) with hourly frequency on the routes and designed for coverage. While the bus system is not an effective way to move around, the city itself is small with most of it being within reasonable biking range.
The city and citizens show they care by hosting a number of festivals. Despite Muskegon only have 38,000 residents, it boasts a symphony, a theater for plays, a Farmers Market, and multiple museums which shows community participation to keep them running.
Muskegon's Farmers Market was built by donations and then donated to the city to operate, but there is not information on how its operations are funded. Examining the city budget shows that since 2012 the city has been running a modest surplus in the general fund each year. The issue with that is that, while there is a surplus, each year since 2013 the planned expenditures are as large, or larger than then revenues the previous year.
The city economy appears to be growing due to two cruise ship lines now using Muskegon as a port of call. The city has a reasonably diversified economy with a number of businesses in the tourism and manufacturing sectors as well the the hospital which is by far the regions largest employer.
Voting is now closed.