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 Greg Guimond

Photo by Greg Guimond

Marshfield, Massachusetts

Entry submitted by: Gaya Arumugham and Danielle Kerrigan

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 Town of Marshfield operates on a system of governance which hinges on strong community involvement. We do not have a Mayor, but the Town Administrator (paid/appointed position) works closely with the Board of Selectmen, a three person board comprised of elected volunteers. We hold three Town Meetings annually, where all registered voters may vote on warrant items. Additionally, anyone who is a resident of the town may submit an article for the warrant; some recent proposals have included a ban on plastic bags and a shared community energy program.

Although we are a small town of only 25,000 people, many of the residents and their families have been here for five generations, which contributes to the safety and stability of the community. Marshfield was recently voted the 6th safest community in America, and is located approximately 30 miles south of Boston.

As an example of how committed the local government is to public safety, anytime a registered sex offender moves into town or changes residences, police officers visit every local business and hand out flyers identifying the sex offender—including a recent photo and current address. We have a strong Reverse 9-1-1 system, which is activated on average 2-3 times per year.

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?

The Town has a strong commitment to ensuring that we maintain financial health and are able to draw on resources when needed, most importantly for natural disasters. As a coastal community we are continually working to build up seawalls and keep our residents and their homes safe from flooding.

As evidenced by our balanced, and healthy budget, the Town of Marshfield has taken steps to ensure our financial security. Overall, our spending is very practical, particularly where capital improvements are concerned. Marshfield has its own police department, fire department, department of Public Works (DPW) and Town Hall. Due to our conservative and thoughtful approach to finances, we have maintained our budget for many years with no deficits and publish an annual Town Report which is available to the public, and which includes a significant level of detail about how town funds are appropriated for salaries, departmental projects, and capital development.

Any capital project which succeeds is the result of many years of planning—for example, the new Maritime Center has been a project which has gone through various stages of development for ten years. Marshfield’s next significant project will transform an old, historic building into veterans’ housing.

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?

A walking tour through Marshfield would include natural beauty as well as some of our commercial centers. Brant Rock is a perfect example of our town—it includes a stunning walk along the ocean, several excellent restaurants, a long time church, post office, and other shops set among residential areas—all within close proximity to beaches, rivers and quiet walking paths.

The Town has a strong commitment to ensuring that we maintain financial health and are able to draw on resources when needed, most importantly for natural disasters.... Due to our conservative and thoughtful approach to finances, we have maintained our budget for many years with no deficits.

We are fortunate to have some of the most beautiful, pristine, and clean beaches in the state of Massachusetts, and a vibrant fishing and lobster industry. The beaches stretch for several miles and have a varied landscape—ranging from dramatic sand dunes with large waves perfect for surfing, to some with calm waters, ideal for small children. There is a surf shop which conducts a surfing camp for kids during the summer. We have numerous hiking and walking trails which abut conservation land. Marshfield is one of the few towns in Massachusetts with the maximum allowed percentage of conservation land: in other words, while we do support new development, we also have ensured that natural lands will be protected and preserved. The beaches have no commercial development on them. As a Right To Farm Community, many residents sell their homemade honey and fresh eggs, and farmers enjoy protection for their agricultural practices.

At the Marshfield Fairgrounds, a variety of events take place throughout the year, including several large music festivals. The Levitate Festival and Marshfield Fair, both of which are multi-day events, attract over 20,000 people annually. The year-round Farmers’ Market features local produce and other products from community based vendors.

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?

There are two small commercial centers with several businesses, and countless other small, locally owned businesses including restaurants, yoga studios, beauty salons, food markets, and construction companies. Here, it is possible to obtain everything you need (or want) without patronizing a large chain business.

We are fortunate to have some of the most beautiful, pristine, and clean beaches in the state of Massachusetts, and a vibrant fishing and lobster industry. Marshfield is one of the few towns in Massachusetts with the maximum allowed percentage of conservation land: in other words, while we do support new development, we also have ensured that natural lands will be protected and preserved.

The local businesses which I am most proud of are Grill 139, and Wishbone Beauty Lounge. I am honored to know the owners and call them friends. I’ve seen all these businesses grow from the time they were established.

The town government and school system are the largest employers in Marshfield.

The fishing and lobster industry is a significant part of our economy. The town recently constructed a new Maritime Center, which serves as both an office for the Harbormaster, and as a strategic location on a working harbor. It is not unusual to meet someone whose family has been in the lobsterman business for multiple generations.

Many people in the town work in service professions, such as nursing; I personally know of many nurses who have worked in Boston for over 30 years and yet choose to commute from Marshfield (over an hour each way) because the quality of life is so good here.

We are hoping to encourage the next generation entering the workforce to consider careers in the fishing or lobster industry through programs in partnership with the schools and Maritime Center.

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?

Marshfield has a local bus system—GATRA (Greater Attleboro Taunton Regional Transit Authority)—which is open to all of our residents. A full fare is $1.50, and seniors, disabled individuals, and students pay only 75 cents per trip. We also offer The Ride, which is a program sponsored through the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority that provides door-to door, shared-ride transportation to eligible people who cannot use fixed-route transit (bus, subway, trolley) all or some of the time because of a physical, cognitive or mental disability. The Massachusetts Veterans Transportation System is available to any resident who is a veteran and needs transportation. Marshfield has an active Council on Aging program which offers transportation for our elderly residents.

It is possible to live here without a car, but the majority of residents have automobiles or can rely on friends, family, and neighbors to transport them when they need to go grocery shopping or have medical appointments. We are in the process of applying for funding to improve our streets and increase accessibility for bikers and pedestrians and to potentially add bus shelters.

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?

The town of Marshfield enthusiastically supports small businesses. The vast majority (over 90%) of businesses here are small businesses owned by residents. This includes restaurants, hair/beauty salons, small food shops, a general store, boutiques, bed and breakfasts, pet grooming businesses, consignment shops, tailors, auto maintenance & repair shops, and so much more.

Developers are welcome in the town, as long as they conform with local conservation and other regulations.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

Here, it is possible to obtain everything you need (or want) without patronizing a large chain business.

Marshfield has an incredible sense of community. About a year ago, I was looking for a safe, quiet area and I was fortunate to be able to purchase a home here. One of the first things I noticed about Marshfield is how friendly everyone is: neighbors came over to introduce themselves and welcome me to the neighborhood. The community is safe and peaceful. Children are incredibly polite, and it’s not unusual to see kids walking to school in groups. Neighbors are caring and helpful—during the last snow storm, I was pleasantly surprised to see a neighbor using his snowblower to clear off my driveway. When I tried to pay him, he refused to accept any money.

I also love our beaches. The beaches are clean and absolutely gorgeous. It’s unusual to see any trash on a beach here, even at the height of the summer season. We have signs posted on all beaches which say “The Trash You Leave Today is the Trash You Swim with Tomorrow.” And we all do our best to keep our beaches clean, thanks to the efforts of both residents and town employees. People are very invested in protecting the natural treasures we have here.

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

Flooding concerns and related risk management and hazard mitigation are the most significant concerns in Marshfield. As a coastal community, we have been hit hard by flooding. During the winter of 2018, we had two bad storms which caused serious flooding and power outages, during which time the community came together—one in January 2018, and the next just a few weeks later in March 2018, which lasted for three days. Many homes had not recovered from the first storm when the second hit. During these storms, in some locations the water came inland over ¼ mile from the beaches. The National Guard had to evacuate many residents, and there was serious damage done to many homes. Some residents were able to elevate their homes through a FEMA grant. As a town, we work closely with the Massachusetts Coastal Coalition, which was founded by two long-time Marshfield residents, to ensure that our residents are safe and can access the resources available to them, including flood insurance.

In addition, we have to deal with ongoing concerns such as beach erosion, dredging the harbor, and rebuilding/fortifying seawalls, and repairing jettys. This is in part due to our robust fishing industry and the fact that this is a “working harbor”—not merely a recreational beach.


Photo courtesy of James Fogarty

Photo courtesy of James Fogarty

Safety Harbor, Florida

Entry submitted by James Fogarty

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.

Safety Harbor benefits from a very engaged community support structure. Strict public records laws prohibit elected officials from discussing city business away from noticed public meetings, and make virtually every piece of information touched by the city government a public record. The city is covered by several local newspapers and blogs that are devoted to area events, public affairs, and other areas of interest for residents.

The city is governed by a council-manager form of government, with five elected officials on the city council, including a mayor who serves as chairman. There are seven advisory committees to the council, each consisting of between 5 and 7 appointed citizen representatives. Residents of the city who are interested in serving on a board are encouraged to submit applications, which are used to fill the vacancies as they arise.

To encourage additional involvement and periodically inject fresh perspective into the mix, the city hosts an annual ‘citizen’s academy’. This program is put on by dedicated city staff, who generously give of their time after normal working hours to make the program accessible to working individuals. Each group is introduced to city staff from the various departments, and are shown public facilities including City Hall, the maintenance facility, fire stations, and parks. Several former city commissioners, mayors, and many appointed board members over the years were apparently introduced to city government in this way.

The dedication of the public is evident in the many programs that are supported by volunteer and citizen-led fundraising efforts, such as improvements and programming for the local public library.

Further, the city does respond to public input with capital projects when they are warranted. In 2017, a group of citizens brought together by the county’s planning agency and key city staff conducted a ‘walking audit’ of the city. Participants saw firsthand where there was ‘low hanging fruit’ that could become a focus of the city for future capital projects. Shade trees planted along Green Springs Drive, sidewalks constructed in the walking path along 10th Ave S, and rectangular rapid flashing beacons (i.e. flashing crosswalk signs) for crossing 9th Ave N. and Enterprise Rd. have since been installed. Many of these projects were a direct result of the audit. The crosswalk for 9th Ave. in particular has improved connectivity between an economically depressed area of the city and the elementary and middle schools for the area, as well as the economic activity on Main St.

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?

Safety Harbor has a long tradition of conservative budgeting and has strong guidelines for its budget to ensure its continued fiscal health. The city’s fiscal strength is evident in its budget document. Debt limits for general obligation debt are codified, and state law requires approval of general obligation debt (that which is backed by anticipated tax revenues) via referendum. The city currently has no general obligation debt, and some debt backed by user fees and other non-ad-valorem revenue sources.

Established debt policies allow the city to utilize debt only for large capital projects that are non-routine in nature, require that the term not exceed the expected useful life of related projects, that a fixed interest rate be used, and that level payments are made that pay the principal early in the life of the loan. The city’s reserve policies require that minimums of 20% of the adopted annual budget and 17% of the previous year’s budget be maintained to deal with unexpected dips in revenue or natural disaster response.

Enterprise models for the city’s water, wastewater, and stormwater utilities help make sure that these services are supported by user fees. Revenues are diversified compared to most Florida cities in that ad-valorem tax revenue makes up only about 15% of the city’s regular income on average, and user fees generated by water bills make up the largest share, at 43.8%.

Safety Harbor is already mostly built-out. Thanks in part to its peninsular setting, development was limited in how far afield the town could sprawl and that, combined with a small-town ethic of modestly sized developments, has kept infrastructure relatively affordable. New development is generally small infill that connects to existing infrastructure.

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?

In 2017, a group of citizens... conducted a ‘walking audit’ of the city, and saw firsthand where there was ‘low hanging fruit’ that could become a focus of the city for future capital projects. Shade trees, sidewalks, and flashing crosswalk signs have been installed as results of this effort.

Safety Harbor is a fairly compact town. The city is a rough triangle, 2 miles wide at its widest point (east-west) and 4 miles long (north-south). With a population of about 17,000 at a moderate density of 3,500 people per square mile, we joke sometimes that you could fit all of us into the Pentagon. From most areas of the city, one can reach the center of town by bike in no more than 20 minutes.

The logical place for a walking tour to start would be at the Bayfront in the city’s waterfront park, headed west along the Main Street corridor. This park would be near the center of a trail network stretching along the coast of the city, offering stunning water views and canopies of oaks shaded with hanging Spanish moss.

Looking landward from the pier and marina, the historic Safety Harbor Resort and Spa is the first thing you would see. The resort, built in the early 20th century, was a main reason for the town’s existence and provided winter refuge for Northerners looking to detoxify. Main Street developed as the convenient connection between the train depot and the resort, with its healing spring waters.

Moving along Main Street, you would see a historic block that has been repurposed into an assisted living facility, across from a newer office/retail building built to the same scale. The area behind this building is quickly developing with smaller-scale townhomes, new-urban style single family homes, and small apartment buildings. Going down the shop-lined Main Street you would find older homes on blocks just to the north or south that have been repurposed into restaurants, offices, and shops. A park that is anchored by a gazebo hosts the town’s monthly farmers’ market, and is the traditional gathering place for town officials for holidays. The town benefits from a host of new developments, including a new apartment tower and another new mixed-use building.

No tour would be complete without a visit to the Safety Harbor Art and Music Center (SHAMC). This building was a project put together by a local group of artists without public subsidy. It was funded entirely by small, private donations and helped along by volunteers, who helped create the murals that grace the sides of the structure. The mosaic and bright colors of the center make it stand out in the neighborhood. Combined with a home a few blocks away dubbed ‘Whimseyland’ and decorated in the same eclectic and evolving style, the center anchors Safety Harbor’s arts community.

The town hosts many local restaurants and breweries, which have become popular gathering spots and are sources of pride for the town. This area is transitional between the residential/commercial main street, and the more industrial district of town. This is also where the historic train depot was formerly located. The town center was laid out with a street grid, and the downtown district was originally constructed in the historic pre-war pattern.

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?

Safety Harbor is a small town with a diverse economy that is supported by its location and is largely locally driven. There are roughly 7,500 jobs located in the city. Of the 17,000 residents, roughly 6,000 are of working age and are actively in the workforce, making the city a net importer of workers despite its largely residential character.

Manufacturing and technical services make up the majority of the jobs, and are divided among many other large and small employers. A housing manufacturer (Jacobsen Homes) is the largest manufacturer in town, with 200 employees, but the town also hosts many machine shops, medical supply manufacturers, builders, contractors, repair companies, and professional services providers. The town’s two public schools, located 5 and 8 blocks north of Main Street, are also significant employers.

Health care has become an increasingly important employment sector in the area as well. Several thousand jobs in Safety Harbor are involved in health care through one large employer and many smaller ones. A recently expanded hospital has become the city’s largest employer (Mease Countryside Hospital with 1,168 employees, roughly 15% of the total city workforce). This facility is a beneficiary of healthcare consolidations that seem to be happening around the country, and the hospital continues to grow very rapidly.

As is typical for Florida, tourism is also an important part of the economy. The town was founded a century ago around the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa, built atop a spring rumored to have healing waters. The majority of the town’s early development occurred between the former railroad depot and the resort. Resort guests and those who escape northern winters in the many rental units around downtown support the numerous restaurants and shops along Main Street. The town is also centrally located within the much larger metropolitan area of Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater. Thanks to their proximity, the economies of these neighboring cities also employ many Safety Harbor residents in tourism, health care, agriculture, financial services, and manufacturing.

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?

Safety Harbor is situated on a peninsula on the east coast of Pinellas County, in the greater Tampa Bay metropolitan region. The transportation system is robust, with many different modes available to residents and visitors. Most streets in Safety Harbor are small and residential, with speed limits of 25 miles per hour, and are easy to walk, bike, or drive on. Suburban patterns that dominate the areas away from downtown are made easier to get through on foot or bike using many ‘shortcuts’—sidewalks that connect dead end streets or cross waterways.

There are, however, two large ‘stroads’ near town, one along the western city limit and the other passing through the northern tip of the city limit. These corridors provide the primary means of regional connectivity to the city’s local streets. As is typical for a stroad, these large arterials have a significant retail presence near major intersections.

Personally, we find that it is rarely necessary to go farther than 2 miles from home for anything we might need. There are weeks where we just don’t drive much without really going out of our way not to. The county planning agency Forward Pinellas has cited the ‘20-minute neighborhood,’ wherein most things you need are within a 20-minute walk, as a county goal.

A freight railway runs through the city, on the same track that provided passenger rail service back when Safety Harbor was founded (that has since been discontinued). There are several bus lines that traverse the city, connecting it to neighboring town centers and shopping, and the downtown district is also accessible by boat via the municipal marina near Main Street.

Thanks to its safe, scenic streets and frequent programming of runs and other events, Safety Harbor was selected in 2014 by the Road Runners Club of America as one of the top ‘runner-friendly’ communities in the nation. The city is connected to a robust trail network, including one 15-mile shared-use path connecting to Tampa over a bridge across Tampa Bay. Running mostly along the water, this path offers some of the most scenic views in the area. Though there are exceptions, including the two very notable exceptions mentioned above, most streets in the city would be safe for members of the public to walk along, in, or cross at any age or level of physical ability.

It is possible to meet most of your needs in Safety Harbor without a car, and is relatively easy if you like to bike. Downtown Safety Harbor has nearly everything you might want to live a comfortable life; however, even out on the edge of town, nearby retail along the stroads helps to ensure a grocery store is within a mile of most homes, and never more than a mile and a half. Using the low-frequency transit system or the extensive network of bike trails could allow connectivity to events or appointments in the broader region if needed.

Personally, we find that it is rarely necessary to go farther than 2 miles from home for anything we might need. There are weeks where we just don’t drive much without really going out of our way not to. The county planning agency Forward Pinellas has cited the ‘20-minute neighborhood,’ wherein most things you need are within a 20-minute walk, as a county goal. It encourages Safety Harbor to consider this concept when making decisions about future priorities.

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?

Speaking as both an entrepreneur and small-scale property investor, I can say that there are relatively few barriers to starting a business in this town.  For small developers, the zoning code is straightforward, the permitting process reasonable, and the zoning code allows for a number of different ways to leverage value in real estate, including allowing accessory dwelling units in certain areas.

Through the local public library, various training classes are offered for help with anything ranging from accounting to marketing for your small business, and the town’s strong Chamber of Commerce facilitates connections between local businesses that make the town stronger. Further, the city has established an economic development coordinator position that is staffed by a volunteer appointed by the city council. The coordinator hosts office hours, and functions as a liaison between the city and businesses.

The city, county, and state generally have a very favorable tax structure that places a low burden on someone starting up, and a low cost of living helps to make it possible to do a lot with fewer resources. Safety Harbor also offers grant programs specific to the downtown that can help a small business to improve the appearance of their facade, or help with other build-out needs in some instances.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

There are many things I love about Safety Harbor, most of which center around my mostly laid-back, approachable neighbors. While there are some things that could be worked on, there are also lots of things that make Safety Harbor a good candidate for a Strong Town.

The city benefits from open, accessible leadership that frequently takes the long view on public investment. The city budget is easy to understand and is funded from multiple revenue sources. The city is almost fully developed, and has a strong downtown that is easily accessible despite being surrounded by mostly low-density suburban development.  Mobility is provided by two-lane, local streets that are relatively safe and easy to cross on-foot. The city takes a proactive role in capital maintenance, such as replacing water and sewer lines as they reach the end of their useful life instead of waiting for them to fail, thereby keeping disruptions to a minimum. The city has a stable tax base and a diverse employment base, with many small, local businesses making up most of the jobs in the city. The local restaurant and pub scene is hard to beat while still maintaining a friendly, small-town atmosphere. The city is blessed with a beautiful public waterfront, and is convenient to many other urban areas, world class beaches, and other cultural amenities that are nearby.

Probably the best feature of Safety Harbor is the lifestyle I am able to enjoy as a resident.  Despite living in the suburbs about three miles from the center, I can easily walk to my job, to grocery stores, or to a bagel shop for coffee in the morning, all less than a mile away. Even though I am a very inexperienced cyclist, thanks to abundant small streets my neighbors and I still feel comfortable biking into the downtown district, particularly for special events.  On the way, the ride takes us through tree-shaded neighborhood streets, waterfront parks, a historic, pre-Columbian Indian mound, and fascinating history.

Of course, being in a sub-tropical climate tempered by proximity to the water is also a favorite local feature, with outdoor activities enjoyable here year-round.

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

Safety Harbor citizens love its downtown and its scenic, friendly setting. Recently, there have been many new infill redevelopment projects that have replaced aging buildings or vacant lots with new luxury development. What the city should do to make sure downtown remains both healthy and affordable for the residents who currently live there has been the subject of heated debate. This means dramatically different things to different people.

One new development in particular, a six-story condo tower near the waterfront, seems to have polarized the city. In one camp, there are the folks who believe that such a development detracts from the quaint, historic character of the downtown, may eliminate available parking, and pushes out much of the housing stock that has so-far been maintained as affordable for most of the residents. On the other side is the argument that these new, affluent residents are the key to making sure the restaurants, shops, and other businesses on Main Street continue to thrive; that this scale of development was how the town was originally built; and that downtown is one place where density and taller buildings should be allowed.  Both camps have been very active at city discussions, and the council has spent considerable time trying to reach a compromise between these two groups.  

To help balance this discussion, a group of concerned citizens started to coordinate in 2016 to help make sure Safety Harbor stays on the path to making smart decisions. This group, the Safety Harbor Inspired Planners (SHIP), has organized grassroots events that have multiple benefits for the city.  In 2017, the group organized a bicycle scavenger hunt that attracted more than 100 participants and provided valuable feedback to the city on what was needed to make downtown more accessible by bike. The group has also organized a monthly potluck lunch in conjunction with a local market, and continues to sponsor community cleanups and holiday bicycle rides through town.

The city has also purchased a key property in downtown to preserve a unique historic resource for the district. The privately owned property that is home to the locally famous Baranoff Oak Tree was considered vulnerable to development. The massive tree, which is estimated to be between 300 and 500 years old and is named after the developer of the Safety Harbor spa, has become a symbol of the city. As part of its fundraising efforts for the public library, the local boosters even sponsored a ‘baby Baranoff’ sale, where seedlings grown from the Baranoff’s acorns were available to purchase, with proceeds benefiting the library. The city purchased this privately operated park adjacent to the public library to protect the tree and ensure that it would continue to be enjoyed as a public resource.


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.