Welcome to our first match-up in the fourth 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? If you’re looking for inspiration, check out how we describe the Strong Towns approach, or maybe take a look at the questions that make up our Strong Towns Strength Test.

Voting closes at 12pm CDT on Thursday, March 21st.


Photo by Ryan Taylor Photography

Photo by Ryan Taylor Photography

Erwin, Tennessee

Entry submitted by: Jamie Rice, Tyler Engle, Logan Engle, Kristin Anders, Ashley Davies, Karen Dunlap, Juan Villaba, and 30+ others

At Strong Towns, we believe that local government is a platform for strong citizens to collaboratively build a prosperous place. How are residents in your town involved in shaping its future? How do residents’ experiences, struggles, and concerns directly inform the projects undertaken by local government? Provide one or more examples.

How much time do you have? RISE Erwin is a grass roots 501c3 nonprofit that was organically organized 4 years ago during one of our town’s darkest times. A huge employer, CSX, left town, and took 300 jobs and our identity as a railroad town with it. Like the Phoenix, though, our community rose from the ashes and said, “This will not be the death of us.”

Our Appalachian spirit of survival has prevailed, and we are stronger than ever before. This company closure was a true awakening for our city leaders, and also for a new generation of citizens to step into the future with a new vision, instead of hiding from our past, and complaining about our circumstances.

8 colorful baby elephant statues adorn our Main Street all summer long and are actioned off in the fall. These sweet smiling faces have brought thousands of visitors into our merchants’ shops. They allow us to tell a different elephant story: one of atonement and redemption.

We like to say that we are master story tellers. No one can tell our story like we can. One example is that for decades, our leaders always complained that 80% of our county was federal land. Now we embrace this situation and are using this as an opportunity for growth in outdoor recreational opportunities and creating an outdoor identity. We are now in our 4th year organizing the Erwin Great Outdoors Festival, and have recruited 5 new outdoor-related businesses, including an internal company, Pyranha Kayak, and a new downtown business, Erwin Outdoor Supply. Both occupied formerly derelict empty buildings.

The Erwin Elephant Revival started with a truly tragic story from our past. 100 years ago, a rogue circus elephant named Mary was actually hung in our train yard, after killing her inexperienced trainer in nearby Kingsport, Tennessee. For almost a century, locals have buried their heads in the sand, hoping this story would go away, but the black and white image of Mary hanging from a railroad derrick has resulted in multiple books, songs and plays written about her.

So, RISE brought Mary onto Main Street. In 2016, we started a weeklong fundraising effort for the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. To honor her memory, our community has donated almost $15,000 to the 10 abused captive elephants that live in Hohenwald, and we continue to fight for the rights of these magnificent creatures through various awareness campaigns and by using public art to tell Mary's story. Our elephant-themed public art campaign is the first of its kind for small town Erwin, and is in its 3rd year: 8 colorful baby elephant statues adorn our Main Street all summer long and are actioned off in the fall. These sweet smiling faces have brought thousands of visitors into our merchants’ shops. They allow us to tell a different elephant story: one of atonement and redemption.

RISE Erwin's main mission was to create a new perception of our downtown. We have organized more than 80 events in 4 years, including a weekly downtown Farmers’ Market. These small efforts are being rewarded and have a multiplier effect. Our vacancy rate has dropped 50% in our downtown buildings.

At Strong Towns we believe that financial solvency is a prerequisite for long-term 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 they’ll be able to afford them now and afford their maintenance in the future?

Our community leaders are very forward focused and physically conservative with our budgets for new investments. Out of 6 aldermen, 3 are less than 35 years old.

One example of our conservative approach to budgeting: our community is looking at utilizing a 115-acre watershed property for a bike park and walking trail. One stipulation is that long-term maintenance has been identified and budgeted, and user groups and community volunteers have been contacted to gain support and long term commitment to the project. Total planning and construction on this project is $300,000. Yearly maintenance has a $5,000 budget.

If we took a walking tour through your town, what would we see? How does your community use its land productively to promote long-term financial resilience?

Nestled in the Smokies, our county is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty and resources. The Appalachian Trail is a one such asset. We use "hiker season" as a great tool to promote our downtown and show first class hospitality. We have many many return visits from hikers after they finish the AT. Two great hiker success stories: one hiker came back and took over our local barbershop after he came off the trail to get a haircut and heard the longterm owner telling a customer that he was ready to retire and wanted someone to take over the business. Another hiker from 2012 came back in 2015 and has invested in a derelict school building and is currently working on repurposing it into a 12 unit condo.

We like to use the Great Outdoors Festival as a kickoff to the season with special promotions to especially make the AT hikers feel welcome. Chair massages, wound care by a local doctor, pancake breakfasts, and even hot showers are all free amenities to give these weary travelers some comfort. These small gestures of hospitality could reap unfathomable rewards in the future.

There are two full-time employees within the county to help new businesses thrive. An inexpensive co-working space was opened by our local utility company to help promote their 1-gig fiber service and to help new start ups get planted in Unicoi County. We also offer... a mentor-based 6 week program to help one write a business plan.

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 and resilient? What local businesses are you most proud of?

Unicoi County has 18,000 residents, with 6,000 in the Town of Erwin. Our largest employer is BXT, Nuclear Fuel Services. They are the only supplier of nuclear fuel for US Navy submarines. There are 1000 high paying, technical jobs at this plant.

We have a great variety of businesses in our downtown, and one can use our ADA-compliant sidewalks to walk into our downtown to do business. Banks, the hardware store, a 3rd-generation locally-owned movie theater, coffee shop, furniture store, florist, leather shop and shoe repair, ice cream parlor, wedding venue. My favorite jewel of our downtown, though, is our locally owned pharmacy with the original lunch counter. You can actually order a burger and milkshake while you wait on your prescription.

What transportation options exist in your town for people of varying ages, abilities, and means? How easy is it to live in your town without regular access to a car? What transportation investments has your town recently made or is it in the process of making?

Becoming a more bike friendly community has been a top priority for our leaders. Besides the future bike park, bike lanes have been installed on one of our busiest arteries to connect our neighborhoods downtown, and a 5-mile greenway runs the length of our city limits. This greenway, called the Linear Trail, just completed a 7-year, $1 million tunnel project connecting it to a municipally owned park and retirement village. This tunnel allows northern county residents and inhabitants of this retirement village a safe, flat, shaded and paved trail into our downtown and beyond.

We are also implementing a new program for our Downtown Farmers Market called Farmacy Fit. Basically, one can earn Market Tokens for physical activity, specifically riding your bicycle to our market.

How easy is it to become an entrepreneur or a small-scale developer in your town? What kinds of support are available for a resident who wants to open a business or build on a small vacant lot?

There are two full-time employees within the county to help new businesses thrive. An inexpensive co-working space was opened by our local utility company to help promote their 1-gig fiber service and to help new start ups get planted in Unicoi County. We also offer co-starters programs, where there is a mentor-based 6 week program to help one write a business plan. Mountain Harvest Kitchen is a huge asset to our community. This commercial space is available for rent by the hour to help those individuals looking to get into the catering or commercial food business.

Extensive programming has always been a driving factor of success for each of these initiatives and to help individuals get plugged in to our community.  A successful young professionals group, RISE Erwin, has morphed into a multi-generational grassroots effort to promote small businesses and a thriving downtown. This group has organized over 90 events in 3 years! 

What is your favorite thing about your town?

This is the hardest question! We are proud self- reliant mountain people, who do not wait for someone on a white horse to come and save us. My town embodies this Appalachian Spirit, and we celebrate it every day... usually with a parade, haha! We had a new resident who moved in here from California. He said, "I love this town, you all have a parade for everything!" He is right.

What is the biggest challenge your town faces, and what are you doing to address it?

Housing is a huge problem. As stated earlier, BXT provides great paying jobs, but these people have to live in surrounding areas and commute. We have very old single-family housing stock with lots of charm and character, but zero new construction, no apartments, patio homes, or condos. Land is very limited, as we are mostly federally-owned forest.

We are currently looking at financial incentives for investors to develop infill properties. Downtown upper-floor housing is currently a hot trend, as is repurposing old buildings, such as the old school house mentioned earlier that is being converted into condos.


Photo by Barbara Hunt

Photo by Barbara Hunt

Palmer, Alaska

Entry submitted by Barbara Hunt

At Strong Towns, we believe that local government is a platform for strong citizens to collaboratively build a prosperous place. How are residents in your town involved in shaping its future? How do residents’ experiences, struggles, and concerns directly inform the projects undertaken by local government? Provide one or more examples.

Palmer, Alaska is the hub for thousands and thousands of Alaskans who don't necessarily live in "town." Palmer is a little mountain town which serves people well and where all are welcome. Weather and nature are our common challenges, and Palmer provides the culture, stability, and resources for us all to survive economically and spiritually in the face of isolation. Safety is a major player and a function of Palmer. There is a huge spirit of cooperation and help from the local government because we all face similar struggles in this climate.

There are many examples of the local city council extending support to those in need. Most recently, an after-school youth facility received a grant directly from the city. We see this type of support all the time. It is immediate and natural and proves the reciprocity of people in leadership positions.

At Strong Towns we believe that financial solvency is a prerequisite for long-term 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 they’ll be able to afford them now and afford their maintenance in the future?

Palmer is conservative fiscally and every expenditure is closely analyzed. You won't find a lot of fluff or indiscriminate spending. Because this is a small town, every penny is monitored. Palmer has always been this way because it was a planned community and initiated in the 1930s as a Depression-era project. Every project is still analyzed for its cost and benefits. Private investments are welcomed but also considered for their hidden costs.

If we took a walking tour through your town, what would we see? How does your community use its land productively to promote long-term financial resilience?

You would see a small and vibrant "downtown" with small shops and a library, visitor center, museum, ball fields, parks, sidewalks, and services. All of these low-scale buildings are the tiny foreground to the massive mountains which surround our town. Neighborhoods transition into into more rural areas with school lands, farms, graveyards, river beds and parks in between. There is a large effort to maintain the rural farming flavor, and Palmer is known as the agricultural center of the State of Alaska.

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 and resilient? What local businesses are you most proud of?

Palmer is conservative fiscally and every expenditure is closely analyzed.... Private investments are welcomed but also considered for their hidden costs.

Palmer is the seat of the Borough government and therefore has municipal and state buildings, which no doubt greatly assist in the strong resilience of the town. In addition, the main offices of the school district, telephone company, and electric company are in Palmer. These are stable anchors.

A large number of businesses find Palmer a good place to establish both their headquarters and their operations. It is good synergy and it continues to help the town grow. There are many, many small operations which continue to open because of this synergy. There is the vitality and energy of change. The small businesses collectively gather strength from organization and from the continual town events which happen frequently. Our Main Street businesses are to be admired for staying in operation despite seasonal dry spells. Most businesses are huge contributors to public service and community projects, of which there are many.

What transportation options exist in your town for people of varying ages, abilities, and means? How easy is it to live in your town without regular access to a car? What transportation investments has your town recently made or is it in the process of making?

Palmer is a walkable town. However, because this is Alaska, there will definitely be some difficult weather days for walking. The city just recently invested in smarter snow removal equipment, and Public Works is energetic to keep public places accessible quickly. Biking is a growing habit and "fat” tire bikes are seen frequently in the snow season. Nonetheless, transportation without a vehicle is challenging and definitely needs improvement. There are a number of citizen groups, along with the city, who are working on these problems.

Our Main Street businesses are to be admired for staying in operation despite seasonal dry spells. Most businesses are huge contributors to public service and community projects, of which there are many.

How easy is it to become an entrepreneur or a small-scale developer in your town? What kinds of support are available for a resident who wants to open a business or build on a small vacant lot?

Palmer is generous with its support of small businesses. The City has helpful advisors, and private citizens are also welcoming to new developments, if they fit the flavor of the town. There are a number of business support groups for both entrepreneurs and larger developers. Massive box stores, however, are not encouraged in Palmer because the town sees itself as small and varied.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

Palmer is welcoming. People smile and chat. Neighbors talk in the post office lines. Anytime there is a need or a tragedy or a celebration, people from the greater Palmer area show up and help. You can be confident that Palmer is a helpful town and that is my favorite thing.

What is the biggest challenge your town faces, and what are you doing to address it?

Palmer is not exempt from the challenges of opioids or homelessness. However, because it is a small town, we can identify the problem areas easily. The Palmer Police Department and Alaska State Troopers work hand in hand to help protect and assist with these challenges. Faith and support groups are active in this area as well. Stories of assistance are continual, which only helps further inspire others to join in. Palmer is the kind of town you would want to live in.


ROUND 1 VOTING IS NOW CLOSED.

Voting is weighted so that Strong Towns member votes account for half of each town's score and non-member votes account for the other half.