Three Lessons from Muskegon, America's Strongest Town

Last month I had the opportunity to visit Muskegon, Michigan, the 2018 winner of our Strongest Town contest. As with past winners Carlisle, Pennsylvania (2016) and Traverse City, Michigan (2017), I found a lot more there than I anticipated, and my expectations were high. I’m really proud of our little contest (although it's not so little anymore) to identify places that are on the right track.

Here are three things I found in Muskegon that are worth noting for cities seeking to learn from their success.

Solving Problems Incrementally


The first thing we did when I got to Muskegon was take a walking tour with about three dozen people, including some city officials. Each stop highlighted something they had done to incrementally make a specific site better—a small bet they had made. Things like making small changes to the street to slow traffic, planting some trees for shade and aesthetics, and breaking up a long façade on a public building to improve the streetscape and foster economic development.

Taken individually by someone looking for bold and flashy, it might not have been impressive. Viewed collectively by people who understand how incremental action leads to huge, sustained returns, it was really amazing. Time and again, Muskegon officials were seeing opportunities in the next, smallest steps, not the big leaps.

We’ve written about the popup shops in Muskegon before, but they are more impressive in person, especially with some additional backstory. When confronted with a vacant block in a strategic location in the core of downtown, nearly every city I know would reflexively look to subsidize their way to something. That Muskegon would realize the benefits of waiting, of starting with what is viable—a row of incubator, popup shops framing a cool, yet inexpensive, public gathering space—sets them apart from their peer cities.

Great, Home-Grown Leadership

I was picked up at the airport by the mayor, Stephen Gawron, and city planner. My recollection is that they are both natives, but even if that is not technically the case, they’ve both been there for decades—through the tough times—and had enough stories to tell to prove it. I found this over and over throughout my stay there.

In most cases, leaders in cities that struggle with population loss and deindustrialization tend to get stuck. I think it’s a natural human reaction to focus on what has been lost, to try and get that back, to feel the pain of longing for what once was. But Muskegon's leaders are the exception, and that's what's impressive about them. It takes vision and bold leadership to see beyond that. I have found the ability to do that to be rare. Yet there it was, in spades, in Muskegon.

I was particularly impressed with the city manager and city engineer, two clearly competent senior professionals who were bold enough to try new things yet steady and grounded in their understanding of what was happening. I liked them both a lot and felt that, if their attitude permeated the city staff, Muskegon would continue to stay agile and responsive.

Same with the Chamber of Commerce. While they had the “rah rah” cheerleading element you need to have as a chamber, they also had staff who were intelligent and asked hard questions. In other words, their cheerleading was not a substitute for having tough conversations. That’s important—and rare—in a chamber.

Community Participation and Initiative


One way you know you are doing things right is when your residents respond. This is why, when public officials ask us where to start, we advocate that they humble themselves to observe how people struggle to use their community day-to-day. When you tend to people’s needs in small and immediate ways, instead of focusing on the next big grant or transformative project, you make meaningful progress. And people react. 

That’s what I saw in Muskegon. From big hugs and smiles from the venders at the popup shops to all the people gathered in the park to the thousands that were coming in to town after I left for a locally-organized festival on the beach, Muskegon is a place where residents and business owners are an active part of the community.

Here’s why that’s important. A staff that creates positive is great, but relying on it is fragile: competent people with vision can be replaced or ignored rather easily if the next generation of elected officials is not on board with that vision.  Relying on elected officials who create positive is a less fragile proposition, but it's still fragile. They can be undermined by staff, and they must stand for reelection in crazy times. When a community creates positive change, though, that's much stronger and more difficult to reverse. Once a cultural consensus emerges on the direction things should go, sustained progress in that direction is really possible.

Muskegon seems to be well along the path of that cultural consensus. More and more success is only going to build that consensus.

Is everything perfect in Muskegon? Of course not; far from it, in fact. This is a place that is still struggling with deindustrialization, population loss, and decades of bad investments. In that sense, they are just like a lot of other cities in the Midwest. I left optimistic about their future, however, because I experienced a place where people are asking the tough questions, emphasizing Strong Towns-style action, and celebrating the right kind of victories.

Congratulations, Muskegon, on being the 2018 Strongest Town winner. We’re proud to give you this title.