A Small Town Mayor Puts Strong Towns Principles into Action

Mayor Lou Radkowski (Photo by Elena Radkowski)

Mayor Lou Radkowski (Photo by Elena Radkowski)

Lou Radkowski is a Strong Towns member and the Mayor of St. Marys, a town of about 13,000 in northwestern Pennsylvania. On top of that, he’s also a dad to seven kids (see the photo at the top) and works another full-time job. I chatted with him in the midst of his busy life about his time in office, how he’s implementing Strong Towns ideas in his community, and what the Strong Towns movement has taught him.

Rachel: What encouraged you to run for office?

Mayor Lou: I decided to run basically because I’ve always wanted to. From a young age, I was always interested in government, politics and the machine that makes everything work. I have a family and relocated back to the town where I grew up. I felt that [running for office] would be a way to share some skills and experience I have with my town.

Rachel: What are the biggest issues your town is facing that you want to address?

Mayor Lou: The big one is trying to stop the brain drain and population decline. I’ve been catching up on my Strong Towns Podcast episodes and the one with Haile McCollum from Thomasville, Georgia really spoke to me. As I’ve been reaching out on Slack and contributing to discussion, I’m seeing that there are a lot of folks out there in rural America struggling, too.

Basically the overarching principle is to just stop it — either flat line or increase the population by 2030. I’m hoping we can adopt a strategic plan in one of our next meetings. One key part of that is reinventing our downtown to make it a place again and not just an area where traffic just passes through. We also want to get kids more involved. I’d like to start a youth council in town to get them more engaged and let them know we care about them. I saw [Jonathan Holth's] recent article on that topic. A lot of the things that I want to do are in line with the stuff you all put out on Strong Towns. That’s why I became a member.

Rachel: How did you initially find out about Strong Towns and start getting interested in these issues?

Mayor Lou: I found out about Strong Towns when I ran for city council back in 2013. In that whole journey, I was trying to educate myself more on: What are other places doing? Are there concrete examples of that? 

An aerial view of St Marys

An aerial view of St Marys

Rachel: You mentioned trying to combat population decline by refocusing on downtown and getting young people more involved. What other actions do you have planned to help fight brain drain?

Mayor Radkowski: One of the other big things I’d like to do is just tell our story — get out there and meet with people. We have one of the lowest costs of living in Pennsylvania and jobs galore, paying [starting wages] close to $20 an hour. The city life is good and I enjoy going to the city myself, but there’s a story we have, too. Pittsburgh and Buffalo are two hours away. New York City is five hours. You can have a good quality of life here and still do the weekends in the city. I want to get the word out and try to entice folks and bring them in.

Rachel: How are you choosing to invest in downtown and why?

Mayor Radkowski: One of the main things is how we’re not spending money. [With] that strategic plan I mentioned, we’re trying to be self starters and say, This is our strategy, mission and vision. Those will set the guiding principles on how we spend the money. We want to encourage small businesses and entrepreneurs. They’ve been our lifeblood since the city started.

I talked to [our city manager] and laid out the challenge. If someone comes to town and says, I want to start a business, and we can’t point them to a sheet of paper or website and say, This is how you do it, then we’ve failed. Andrew Price’s article, "Cities as Platforms of Productivity," really inspired me.  This is exactly what we need to be. We have a history of small business, family business, and manufacturing. We can be a platform of productivity.

I [also previously] started a process that took our parking meter money and used it to help defray start-up costs for new businesses. Unfortunately, it fell victim to the next year’s budget cut, but we funded seven businesses and six are still open. It’s something I can point to and say, Hey, this works

I’ve also had some discussions with Emily Brown at the Incremental Development Alliance trying to understand what we can do to encourage downtown development. We have some gaps in our downtown corridor that nobody seems to want to buy and develop. We’re trying to approach that in a Strong Towns way.

[Additionally] we were able to get Chuck Marohn to come to our town and speak for a day about some of these issues.

Vet Memorial in St Marys' downtown

Vet Memorial in St Marys' downtown

Rachel: In an earlier conversation with me, you mentioned that St. Marys has some housing challenges. What are they and how are you working to combat them as mayor?

Mayor Radkowski: Houses don’t turn over as they should. We have a lot of old stock that needs to be updated. What’s the right way to help people with those homes? As the mayor, I have to tread the line. I want to make sure that people get the help they need.

It’s an older population, which is great. We have a lot of lot of great role models and examples in town. But it’s also somewhat of a change resistant community, so it’s a matter of how do we do this in a way that protects that history and those folks who may need encouragement. 

Rachel: I know you recently held a town hall to discuss the lack of grocery stores in your town. What was the outcome of that meeting? Does that discussion format work well for your community? 

Mayor Radkowski: It went very well. People who showed up seemed to like it and the ones who couldn’t attend still appreciated that we did it. We shared why we don’t have a grocery store and a member of the Chamber of Commerce quoted some numbers from chain stores about the population they need [to support a store].

What I tried to get across in that meeting was: What do you want out of this? We do have a Walmart and a Save a Lot. There was mention of needing better fresh produce. Other people said they don’t want to go to a big store and would rather go to a local grocery store. We’ve had some talks and there is a local grocery chain that’s in two towns nearby, and the owner was at that town hall so he could hear [these responses] firsthand. Now it’s just a matter of, how can we get that to work?

Since that meeting, we’ve held a public workshop where we had citizens come to the council room and talk about what they want out of their downtown and St Marys.  I plan on doing much more of these, probably 3-4 [conversations] a year. The idea for the small business one-pager came out of a town hall.

Rachel: How has the Strong Towns movement helped you in your role as mayor?

Mayor Radkowski: Strong Towns continues to inspire me. Sometimes I feel like I’m standing out on a limb as an elected official as I try to do these things. After connecting with Strong Towns, I don’t feel quite so alone any more.

I think the one thing I’m realizing is that we can’t flip the switch overnight to go small and incremental. We have to be smart in how we work these Strong Towns ideas into our places. If you look at the town of St Marys, we’re the second largest city in Pennsylvania terms of land area but we have 12,000 people. How do I manage that with the tax base as it is? There’s a lot of public land. We have more road than we can handle. We’ve had discussions on what we can do to manage that…

So we’re having the tough conversations as well. One way to fix it is hopefully enticing people to move here and live here. Just like we want to grow incrementally, we have to go about this incrementally and change hearts and minds slowly.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Top photo of the Radkowski family by Penelope Murray.