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 Julie Ayers

Photo by Julie Ayers

Guthrie, Oklahoma

Entry submitted by: Kris Bryant, Justin Fortney, and Kailyn Swonger.

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.

Guthrie provides a number of avenues for residents to get involved and share input on a human scale. For a town of only 10,000 people, the City of Guthrie maintains numerous boards and commissions with diverse representation. Openings for these civic bodies are promoted and encouraged by the Mayor at every opportunity. Lifelong residents and those new to the community can become involved without going through a network of good 'ol boys.

Guthrie finds its rhythm in the yearly cycle of events and festivals that engage citizen volunteers to serve on boards and committees. These include Guthrie's Territorial Christmas Foundation, Guthrie Tomorrow Coalition, Red Brick Nights Planning Committee, 89er Celebration Board, International Bluegrass Festival Committee, Guthrie Ministerial Alliance, The Arts in Guthrie, Guthrie Collaborative, and Guthrie Bed & Breakfast Association.

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?

Because of Guthrie's history, size, and demographics, the town is a fiscally conservative community to begin with that is very cautious about funding large scale projects or raising taxes. When larger projects are considered, the City routinely explores alternative and diverse funding sources which include both state, federal, and private grants. Value engineering and sweat equity are common methods of funding as well. Tax incentives for economic development are not offered as the City is unable to afford them.

At a recent City Council workshop, citizens and council members discussed a range of funding options to build a new sports complex. Maintenance and operations costs over the long-term were factored into the overall budget as well as a conservative estimate of tax revenue increases, combined with a sobering acknowledgement that a city-owned sports complex would contribute no new property taxes. They did the math and faced reality at the same time that they dreamt big.

Guthrie has prioritized preservation of its historic district, the largest in the U.S., and surrounding neighborhoods over fringe development. The result is a concentration of local businesses in a walkable town center, which is a very responsible and efficient use of land. A recent school bond issue focused a large portion of its budget on the rehabilitation of historic, traditional school buildings in neighborhood settings.

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?

Because of Guthrie’s history, size, and demographics, the town is a fiscally conservative community to begin with that is very cautious about funding large scale projects or raising taxes.

Guthrie is famous for its well-preserved turn of the century Victorian architecture, much of which was designed by Belgian architect Joseph Faucart. Guthrie has the largest historic preservation district in America. A walking tour of our town is like traveling back 120 years in time, or stepping onto the backlot of a movie set. The ornate buildings create a sense of enclosure on the street. The windows and exterior ornamentation demonstrate a craftsmanship and attention to detail unlike anything the modern era can build.

Downtown Guthrie is not an entertainment district, but a village of local businesses that are essential to daily life. In a four square block walk one would notice hotels and B&Bs, offices, coffee shops, the post office, performing arts theatre, banks, a dentist, a veterinarian, bicycle shop, hair salons, laundromat, antique stores, plumbers, dance studios, a board game lounge, and numerous others. Throughout the rest of the town, land use is clearly divided between urban and rural with very little suburban development in between. Unlike most Oklahoma towns and cities, Guthrie neighborhoods have rear alleyways, which improves front elevation aesthetics and encourages on street parking. Most neighborhoods in Guthrie feature a variety of housing styles and price points. This allows for aging in place, and for people with a diversity of incomes to live on the same street.

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?

Guthrie is a town of mostly local businesses and business owners. The primary drivers of the economy are hospitality/services and tourism. Key players include the Vance and Eskridge Auto groups, who contribute a great deal of time and funding to schools and non-profits in the community. Other key players are the Ropps, who recently purchased the historic train depot with plans to revive passenger train service. The Pollard Theatre employs many artists and is a strong economic generator, as many patrons come from nearby Oklahoma City for an evening or weekend in Guthrie while coming to see a show.

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?

Guthrie has prioritized preservation of its historic district, the largest in the U.S., and surrounding neighborhoods over fringe development. The result is a concentration of local businesses in a walkable town center, which is a very responsible and efficient use of land.

Guthrie is a very walkable town, whose residents find that most destinations are located with two miles of home. Guthrie operates the First Capital Trolley services which consists mostly of on-demand door to door ride service. This service primarily caters to the elderly and disabled in our community. Guthrie was recently named one of the best places to live in retirement by AARP.

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation recently completed a new viaduct bridge which connects the west side of Guthrie to downtown and includes a lengthy protected pedestrian sidewalk. Sidewalks are being constructed and planned to connect neighborhoods to schools and parks. Most Guthrie neighborhood streets are fairly narrow and encourage slower traffic.

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?

Guthrie is one of the last places in the larger Oklahoma City metropolitan area where a person can start a business without a large amount of investment capital. The Boarding House is one of Guthrie's favorite third places and the first board game lounge in Oklahoma. The owners, Timothy and Kailyn Swonger, used a pop-up shop and incubation to test the market shortly before leasing their first space. They did not have a nest egg to begin with and are still in business. Hoboken Coffee Roasters was recently named one of America's most beautiful coffee shops by Architectural Digest: it started as a humble, abandoned garage. Guthrie is quickly becoming known as a place where you can make your business dream a reality, live affordably, and raise a family the old-fashioned way. I suppose that is the American Dream.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

Our favorite thing about Guthrie is its Victorian charm. Walking the red brick streets or gathering at one of its many festivals, one feels a kind of soulfulness that is hard to find elsewhere in Oklahoma.

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

Guthrie's population grew to 10,000 overnight in the Land Run of 1889. In 2019 our population is still 10,000. Our small population is a hindrance to employment and growing our tax base. It is very expensive for property owners to maintain our historic downtown, and many storefronts are empty because the buildings are not up to code and not insurable.

To address this problem, Guthrie is actively recruiting new families and young professionals to be urban pioneers and to discover the affordability and quality of life that has been a best-kept secret for too long. Our festivals draw thousands of people to our downtown throughout the year. It is during these events that many families come to Guthrie for the first time, fall in love with it, and later make plans to move here.


Photo courtesy of John Yé

Photo courtesy of John Yé

Westwood, Kansas

Entry submitted by: John Yé

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.

We are a small (but Strong) town. But we border 7 other municipalities. Citizens here are actively involved in everything. We have a 9 member appointed planning commission, City Foundation with volunteer board members, and a 5 member city council of elected residents. Working committees are comprised of resident and business volunteers. We have public meetings and work sessions which have included our Comprehensive Planning, Economic Development, Shared Community Services and Neighborhood Social Functions (Oktoberfest, 4th of July Fireworks, Music in the Park, Easter Egg hunts etc.) We have also started a block captain initiative known as Community Connectors to better engage and communicate with the public.

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?

Westwood has the advantage of multiple officials with backgrounds in finance: the mayor has served in the financial services industry as both a CEO and financial advisor, and the council president is a CPA. We have professional members of council that include a municipal attorney.

Plans began well over a decade ago to overcome the Great Recession by diversifying revenues and avoid the pitfalls of relying on Federal or State funding mechanisms. The culture within the City was altered beginning in 2008 to embrace three foundational themes:

  1. We are here to serve.

  2. We are open for business (to all our business partners: schools, churches, businesses, residents, prospective students, and commercial and retail interests).

  3. We will be self-reliant.

All decisions of the Council and Mayor begin with this foundation.

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?

We are undergoing a residential renaissance. New construction is happening amidst houses that are between 70 and 100 years old. Our School District is planning to rebuild the neighborhood elementary school that serves 5 municipalities. We have inter-local agreements to share public safety and public works services with surrounding areas. Since we are bordered by 2 state highways, County Line Road and State Line Road, we must work side by side with all neighbors.

New road plans incorporate walkable and bikeable planning and LEED certified standards.

On a walk through town, you would see neighbors sharing time in the streets, seniors being helped by their younger counterparts, and a sense of "home in America." We are planning new parks for enhanced green space, and welcoming new single family homes. Blend this with the most centrally desired location in Johnson County, Kansas, with the best schools and access to downtown KC and the Country Club Plaza shopping and dining distrit, and you have one of the most sought after places to live in the region.

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?

University of Kansas Cancer Center is recognized with the National Cancer Institute designation. The Cancer Center, through world-class research, partnerships and patient care, is working toward a world without cancer.  Midwest Transplant Network is a federally certified, not-for-profit Organ Procurement Organization (OPO).  Every day they are saving lives by honoring the gift of organ and tissue donation with dignity and compassion.

Woodside Village is a new town center in the City of Westwood. The Village integrates the Woodside Health & Tennis Club with 335 new luxury residential apartments, 36,500 square feet of retail shop, and an energized public realm.

We are also a tech-centered city. Westwood was the first city in Johnson County to have Google Fiber, and we have multiple startups beginning in the area, such as Red Nova Labs.

Westwood is full of small business entrepreneurs. Getting a business permit from City Hall is easy and inexpensive.

Westwood's average education level is higher than that of nearby communities, and its average income is higher than most, while its cost of living is lower than many cities in the county. We border both the Missouri state line (Kansas City, Missouri) and the Wyandotte County line (Kansas City, Kansas). Our community is a diverse and welcoming area, with a very blended professional mix and work force. New economic development over the years has established audiences for a mix of dining experiences, such as KC Joe’s BBQ, Gus's Fried Chicken, 1889 Napoleon Pizza, Blue Sushsi & Saki, Eat Fit Go, Conroy’s Irish Pub, Lulu's Asian Bistro, Taco Republic, etc.

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?

Public transportation is in its beginning stages, but our location makes it quintessential to the success of our area businesses. Planning has already begun for major infrastructure repairs and improvements. This will include major thoroughfares and overdue stormwater system repairs. Discussions have begun about future potential stops nearby, which will include the KC Streetcar. We are already served by the public bus system, Uber, Lime & Bird scooters etc. A road diet has been in the planning stages on County Line Road, which will welcome bike rentals from BikeWalk KC.

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?

Westwood is full of small business entrepreneurs. They already work from their homes and small offices that align the major state funded highway known as Rainbow Boulevard. Getting a business permit from City Hall is easy and inexpensive. We have welcomed start-ups, and the City supports them by using their services, thus promoting them publicly. For example, Glass Bandit offers glass recycling curb side pick up, used by the City at city functions. Westwood Brewhouse serves custom made ales at the local Oktoberfest, local musicians play at Music-in-the-Park functions, and so on.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

On a walk through town, you would see neighbors sharing time in the streets, seniors being helped by their younger counterparts, and a sense of “home in America.”

This town has so many people that truly care about each other. If you come to Westwood, you inevitably want to move here and stay. It truly combines the comfortable feeling of a 1950 neighborhood with the modern attractions of the 21st century.

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

The town is, first and foremost, addressing change. Homes are being torn down and rebuilt, the school district is at a pivotal juncture, there is political instability at the state and federal levels, and the budget crunches from the County and State impose challenges on local governments.

People's demands are high and expectations are challenging. With that said, if everyone pulls together, the local level is where success will reign supreme. And what am I doing to address it? I am the Mayor! I live and breathe Westwood’s future every single day.


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.