Manhattan, KS vs. Pensacola, FL


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 credit: Livability.com (via Debbie Nuss)

Photo credit: Livability.com (via Debbie Nuss)

Manhattan, Kansas

Entry submitted by: Debbie Nuss, Jared Tremblay, and Chad Bunger

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.

Three recent initiatives immediately come to mind in terms of residents shaping our community's future.

On November 6, 2018, voters approved, by a 60% to 40% margin, a special city-wide ballot question that renewed a 0.25% sales tax for recreation and trails improvements for ten years. The tax is expected to generate $2.75 million annually, for a total of $27.5 million over the 10-year period. Expected projections of revenue will begin in June of 2019, and planning will begin on indoor facilities located at two middle schools. These facilities will be utilized by the community at large as well as the school district. Planning on outdoor recreation improvements will occur after the completion of indoor facilities and collection of the sales tax is accumulated. Trail projects will span the entirety of the ten-year window of the tax collection.

We have been working diligently to redevelop our ward districts by using existing infrastructure and re-investing in those areas to ensure that we can provide affordable, safe housing to young families and students.

The second initiative that represents residents shaping our community's future is the establishment of the Greater Northview Action Team (GNAT) in an underserved area of our community. Funded through a grant from the Kansas Health Foundation, the GNAT Vision is "a safe and healthy neighborhood where everyone knows their neighbor." The group's mission is "to bring residents together to create a healthier and more connected neighborhood." A recent GNAT success was the inclusion of a prep kitchen in the proposed community recreation center that will be built adjacent to Eisenhower Middle School, which is located in Northview.

A resident led initiative that the community still reaps the benefits from today was the passage of a no smoking ordinance by voter referendum 10 years ago. At that time, the State of Kansas did not have any laws on the books that prohibited smoking in public places. A group of citizens acting under the name Clean Air Manhattan (CAM) gathered enough signatures to put the question on the ballot in November 2008. Manhattan was the first city in Kansas to enact an ordinance by voter referendum, which meant that the law could not be changed for ten years. The restrictions in Manhattan's ordinance are some of the strongest in the state and are more restrictive than those passed in state law a couple of years later. The no-smoking ordinance will come up for discussion again this year, as the 10 year time period has passed.

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?

We recognize that we have much work to do on this front. Historically, our community has not seen financial solvency as a prerequisite for long-term prosperity. City commissioners (five people serve on our city commission—they run at-large) have tended to focus more on keeping the mill levy flat and funding projects through growth in assessed valuations. We seem to be relying more and more on sales tax as opposed to property tax and fund projects through general obligation bonds more than we should. There tends to be a "kick the can down the road" mentality when it comes to new investment, with the tendency to think that someone else will figure it out later.

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 the results of a deliberate decision to build the Manhattan Town Center Mall adjacent to our historic downtown in order to protect the downtown area. The design of our mall architecturally complements the historic buildings in our downtown. The recent construction of the north and south end redevelopment projects (financed through a TIF district and STAR bonds) further strengthened our historic downtown. Additionally, we have been working diligently to redevelop our ward districts by using existing infrastructure and re-investing in those areas to ensure that we can provide affordable, safe housing to young families and students.

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?

Home to Kansas State University and Fort Riley, our local economy relies heavily on government to provide good jobs, decent wages with good benefits, and stable employment. Kansas State University, USD 383 (our school district), Fort Riley, Riley County, and the City of Manhattan are the top employers in our area. Private businesses that contribute significantly to our economy are CivicPlus, Manko, BHS Construction, and Champion Teamwear (formerly GTM Sportswear). Our community is light on industrial businesses, and we rely heavily on the service industry to make up the difference.

Current city commissioners who were once opposed to investing in public transportation now acknowledge its benefits in terms of helping the business community and supporting economic development.

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?

2012 brought citywide public transportation to our community through the Flint Hills Area Transportation Agency (ATA). In 2018, ATA was able to expand its routes and stops so that 83% of our population is within a 5-min walk of a bus stop. ATA also provides, on average, 70 rides per day with its on-demand service (people must call a day in advance to schedule a ride). There are routes from Manhattan to Wamego, Ogden, and Junction City and back. Current city commissioners who were once opposed to investing in public transportation now acknowledge its benefits in terms of helping the business community and supporting economic development.

Manhattan is also designated as a bronze level bicycle community. The Green Apple Bike program is an important part of Manhattan’s integrated public transportation network, connecting communities to destinations across the city. Bike sharing is ideal for short distances, allowing users the ability to pick up a bicycle at any “self-serve” station and when finished, park neatly upright anywhere for other riders to enjoy and share.

Green Apple Bikes is not owned by any government or corporation. It is entirely run by a board of volunteers. Bicycle maintenance is provided by volunteers. The bicycles available for public use are 1-speed beach cruisers. We also have an Essential Bikes program designed to address community transportation needs, by providing donated bicycles to individuals that are found in need.

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?

Individuals interested in starting a business can find assistance at the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce, Kansas Entrepreneurial Center, or our local Small Business Development Center. Kansas State University sponsors an annual Entrepreneurship Challenge, and the National Institute for Strategic Technology Acquisition and Commercialization (NISTAC) is available to acquire and commercialize technologies from a variety of sources, particularly Kansas State University, to impact the regional economy in terms of high value job creation and worldwide exports of high-value products and services.

The biggest challenge our community faces is that we too often try to meet today’s challenges with yesterday’s mindset. However, as a new generation comes into professional positions in our community, we’re finding that the conversation is shifting and we’re looking at problems with fresh perspectives and with new ideas.

While small scale developers may find our planning and zoning regulations onerous, they will find the staff in the City of Manhattan's Community Development Department able and willing to help them with the details and the nuances. Development in our community continues at a brisk pace.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

The spirit of collaboration we have even when times are tough. You can always count on people to step up when there's a crisis—such as the recent flooding of Wildcat Creek, which displaced a lot of residents. An F5 tornado in 2008 did the same. People immediately stepped forward to help their neighbors—no questions asked.

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

The biggest challenge our community faces is that we too often try to meet today's challenges with yesterday's mindset. However, we're making progress. As a new generation comes into professional positions in our community, we're finding that the conversation is shifting and we're looking at problems with fresh perspectives and with new ideas.

Our economy is non-diversified, wages are low, and we have a high poverty rate, yet we are still able to maintain a relatively good quality of life. However, that means that the "haves" must be willing to take care of the "have nots," and sometimes that's easier said than done. In 2014-2015 our community undertook a comprehensive community needs assessment; we are getting ready to do another one this year so that we can determine what, if any, progress we have made in addressing some of the challenges we face.


Photo by Michael Spooneybarger

Photo by Michael Spooneybarger

Pensacola, Florida

Entry submitted by: Quint Studer, Anna White, Dottie DeHart

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.

The citizens of Pensacola are involved in shaping the city’s future in many ways. One is the Mason Dixon Quality of Life Survey, which is done each year with the help of the Pensacola Young Professionals. This helps us to understand what people in the community are truly feeling. In 2008 the question was asked, “Is the city on the right or wrong track?” 27% said we were on the right track. That question was asked again in 2018 with 63% now saying the city was on the right track.

In our city, it is also not just local government. We have an event called CivicCon, where fourteen of the best and brightest speakers in urban planning have come to educate and inform the citizens of Pensacola. This has led to an increase in the Civic IQ and the quality of discussion around the city. More recently, we have had some private entities bringing back some of the speakers. This has resulted in the creation of the Master Development Plan and the Waterfront Resiliency Program taking place in Pensacola.

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?

In Pensacola, like in many communities, we have done a better job on the private side than the public side when it comes to financial commitment in the community. For example, different projects funded by the private sector in the community have enlisted people such as Peter Bazeli, of The Weitzman Group, and James Lima to truly look at not only the return on investment but the sustainability of the project.

There are also times where leaders have looked at whether a project is financially sustainable and, concluding it was not, have said no to the project. There was a plan for a large museum to be opened downtown by the University of West Florida. While they had the money to build the project, a total of seventeen million dollars, in the long run, they decided not to go forward with building this museum because they came to the conclusion that its operational costs were not sustainable. However, we, like many communities, can continue to look at how we can get better.

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?

On your walking tour, you would see a community that, in the last four of five years, has improved its assessed property value over 30%, has gotten investments in the downtown community up 60%, and has seen the population grow by 5.4% after years of decline.

You would also see infill projects. Particularly of note are buildings that were rehabbed that were once sitting vacant, which according to Joe Minicozzi is one of the best things you can do, to create those vertical tax dollars.

Our community is proud that instead of depending on one or two large employers, we create a great ecosystem for building small and mid-market companies.

Continuing on, you would see office buildings growing vertically instead of sprawling. One of the best examples of this in Pensacola is the site where an old one-story newspaper building was located. The newspaper building was obsolete, with a printing press that was no longer running. That building was purchased and on those five acres are now a new $16 million YMCA building, a $14 million office building, a $52 million apartment facility, totally enclosed with 258 apartments. All told, this land, which was bringing in $70,000 in property tax, will now pay seven hundred thousand dollars.

Another characteristic you would see in Pensacola is that for the first time, the code has been amended so that new building have their garages and parking lots in the back of the building rather than the front, leaving the streetscape intact.

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?

Within the local economy of Pensacola, one of the challenges is that many of our large employers are not-for-profit. It is nice to have their employees in the community, yet these larger employers do not pay taxes.

The key players in Pensacola’s local economy are large government healthcare entities and universities. Additionally, there is Navy Federal Credit Union, which now has over seven thousand employees and has proven to be a very strong and resilient company.

The thing that local businesses here in Pensacola are most proud of is our focus in on building small business. 60-80% of jobs created here happen organically. Additionally, our local Institute has 20 different training programs per year. We have a conference called EntreCon here, which is a two-and-a-half-day session for 450 people focusing on professional and leadership development. Our community is proud that instead of depending on one or two large employers, we create a great ecosystem for building small and mid-market companies.

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?

Like many communities, we do not have great public transportation, a result of our history of sprawl and of poverty. It is something that financially has been a very big challenge to do here. Lately, however, we have brought in Jeff Speck, an expert on walkability, and have made an effort to make the community much more walkable. We also suggest, if you'd like, to go to the City of Pensacola’s website and pull up the mayor's transition document, which goes into great detail on future plans to make our community more walkable, bikeable, and environmentally friendly.

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?

We would say that here in Pensacola, we are as good as anyone in the country at making it easy to become an entrepreneur or small-scale developer. The Studer Community Institute, through its offerings, has helped create a number of offers for entrepreneurs. Additionally, here, there are ways for entrepreneurs to access funds, including ways to get guaranteed bank loans. We also have a great co-working space and a less rent space to provide various options for entrepreneurs. More than anything, it's not the money; it's the intellectual capital that we provide these small businesses with that helps. They have access to training in practical skills, as well as ways to network with each other to provide support.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

Our favorite thing about our town is opportunity. It was twelve years ago when the people of Pensacola agreed that we had to find a way to keep young people here. The past several years, we have taken steps, such as with the Quality of Life Survey run by the Pensacola Young Professionals, to attract talent by making Pensacola a place that is welcoming to entrepreneurs and small businesses. We try and keep the young talent we have, attract new young talent, and get the young talent that has left to come back. What we have done more than anything is create a great environment for young people and a place for them to learn and grow.

Our favorite thing about our town is opportunity. We would say that here in Pensacola, we are as good as anyone in the country at making it easy to become an entrepreneur or small-scale developer.

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

The biggest challenge Pensacola faces is a lack of a strategic direction from our elected officials. The report on the City of Pensacola’s website for the Mayoral Transition team highlights that in our community we have been too myopic over the years. However, in the last six or seven years, Pensacola has become much better at allowing private investment to take charge.

We do agree that public officials are vital. We in Pensacola are addressing this challenge by taking advantage of the opportunity to now align the government entities with the private entities in securing a financially strong future for the city.


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.