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.


Image via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Entry submitted by: Nancy Pearson, Rebecca Perkins-Kwoka, Nancy Colbert-Puff

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 include public input in every city council meeting; every other council meeting is divided between 45 minutes of straight public comment, or public dialogue with council members and staff. Unlike public comment, public dialogue allows council members and city staff to engage with the residents and answer questions. The public also has the ability to provide input on city-wide projects before the land-use boards. For special projects—for example, a parking garage, or a public art installation—we engage in a series of public input sessions that take a variety of forms and are held at different times of the day/days of the week.

We also have an independent community group of volunteer facilitators called Portsmouth Listens that run public input sessions in conjunction with the city. In exceptional cases, like a large-scale project, we hire outside facilitators to run a public input process over several months, as we did for the master planning for Prescott Park. These facilitated sessions include in-person engagement as well as online surveys and opportunities for the public to submit ideas via the city’s website. We try to hit all the boxes of engagement.

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 city is lucky to be a business hub as well as a tourist economy. We have 21,000 residents, but there are as many as 50,000 people in Portsmouth on any given day. Our commercial property tax base is close to 45%, while accounting for only 17% of actual properties. In new Hampshire, we have no income or sales tax, so in addition to property taxes, we use fees to generate revenue and cover costs.

Standard & Poor, for the sixth year, has affirmed the City’s long-term rating of “AAA,” the highest obtainable rating. S&P weighs a host of financial, economic, debt and managerial information in order to assess the City’s performance; a strong economy, very strong management with strong policies and practices, strong budgetary performance, very strong budgetary flexibility, very strong liquidity, and strong debt and contingent liabilities position as positive credit factors.

Due to outstanding bond ratings, the City continues to experience low interest rates when financing City capital projects.

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?

The city is seeking and investing in alternative transportation models to discourage people from driving into downtown to park.

We are known for having a walkable downtown, and our neighborhoods surrounding the downtown have sidewalks that link to the downtown and each other. We recently received a grant from the state to install safe-routes bike lanes through one of our major thoroughfares (that we share with the state) that connects the downtown to the high school.

We are working on connecting, and have a plan to connect, those neighborhoods that are more than one mile from the downtown not only to the city center but to one another via bike lanes, improved sidewalks, and better, safer crosswalks.

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?

We have a combination of large and small businesses that help Portsmouth thrive. Liberty Mutual Insurance, Lonza, and regional hospitals make up the largest employers, but our proximity to Boston means that many of our residents commute to work for larger companies in Massachusetts. However, our local small businesses, downtown shops, nonprofits, arts organizations, cafés and restaurants are the heart and soul of our city. They sponsor the youth team sports, the local nonprofits and drive the community. There are two restauranteurs who each own multiple establishments and are making significant investments in Portsmouth by expanding into other sectors, sponsoring special events, purchasing historic properties, rehabilitating them, and partnering with up-and-coming small businesses.

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 exists, but is a struggle as a viable business model because of the relatively low ridership/population and has to be heavily subsidized. The city is seeking and investing in alternative transportation models to discourage people from driving into downtown to park. We currently offer a free seasonal shuttle service for those who choose to park outside of the downtown core, but are exploring other options such as a micro transit system, drop off areas for ride-sharing, bike lanes and bike corrals, and mobile parking apps.

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?

Entrepreneurial support is readily available in Portsmouth; there is an SBDC small-business specialist embedded in city hall, as well as a local SCORE chapter, a thriving incubator and accelerator program, a makerspace, and a state-wide women’s business center. The city also supports the local Chamber with a grant every year.

Portsmouth has the feel and vibe of a small European city. It’s walkable, historic, charming, and there are many independent merchants and businesses to support. It has a small-town feel, but is also very sophisticated.

There is an economic development committee that has representation of community members, business leaders, city staff, and elected officials. The charge of that committee is to keep an eye on the economic strength of the city as well as forecast, and prepare for, trends. The city collaborates with the state’s flagship university just two towns away on business retention as well as workforce development and attraction.

Our historic city doesn’t have “vacant lots” for a small scale developer; land is space and expensive.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

Portsmouth has the feel and vibe of a small European city. It's walkable, historic, charming, and there are many independent merchants and businesses to support. It has a small-town feel, but is also very sophisticated. Our community is highly engaged and people choose to live here. Residents come from across the country and across the globe. Many come for a visit, fall in love, and and then move here. Both in person and via social media groups, it’s easy to make friends and find your tribe in Portsmouth.

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

The price of real estate, and the pace of development. In the 1970s, the close-knit, culturally diverse neighborhood on the north side of town was bulldozed in the name of urban renewal. A four lane road was added through the heart of our downtown, and the lots sat vacant for decades. Since the great recession, developers have slowly built on those lots with large-scale projects that some feel are out of character with the rest of the city.

New construction including hotel chains and luxury condos has resulted in an outspoken group of activists that fight any new commercial development projects, even good ones. Inevitable lawsuits and pushback lead to “safe” projects that carry no risk. We can’t get anyone to invest in affordable housing because the density needed to make the economics work is usually met with vocal pushback and a lawsuit. We try to engage and educate the community on why density done right can be very good for a community, but have made slow progress. Affordable housing is scarce across all of southern New Hampshire, but Portsmouth is ground zero, and we are losing young people, artists, and hospitality workers.


Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Redding, California

Entry submitted by: Julie Winters, Barry Tippin, Larry Lees, Paul Hellman, Dave Michal, Hope Seth, Joe Chimenti, Eva Jimenez, Scott Swendimen and Jake Mangas

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 horrific Carr Fire and Camp Fire in 2018 damaged our town severely. But Redding, California is reborn to WIN. The fires served as a catalyst to bring about a collective response, identify what’s missing from the community, and stimulate creative innovations and outside-the-box responses.

New collaboration between the City and County, non-profits, churches, and the community at large have created a new spirit of unity and ownership to forge a future with hope.

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?

Redding has been in “crisis management” mode; we need to make the shift from crisis management to a proactive vision for the future. We believe that our future financial security rests on identifying and building on our most underutilized assets. We are determined to do this, as evidenced by the recent formation of an ad-hoc task force representing the city, county, and private sector to look not at what is but what can be. This task force is charged with leading a countywide long range quality of life comprehensive and integrated development plan. It has developed a list of the region’s ten most underutilized assets which we can leverage for economic and workforce development:

Redding has been in “crisis management” mode; we need to make the shift to a proactive vision for the future. We believe that our future financial security rests on identifying and building on our most underutilized assets.
  1. Off the grid renewable solar energy—Redding is #2 in the nation for sun hours

  2. Our Sacramento River/I-5 corridor and its surroundings, and related tourism enterprises.

  3. Our natural land resources, and innovative food security approaches and value added production and markets. Providence’s agritourism model site is one example.

  4. Churches and other non-profits’ human, business, and financial assets.

  5. Downtown and Park Marina Drive waterfront development.

  6. Carr and Camp Fire restoration and crossover products and services.

  7. Artificial Intelligence products, services and labor force retraining.

  8. Innovative new opportunities and code alignment for affordable housing development and creative financing. 

  9. The potential to leverage and link some—optimally all—of the above to justify broadband, which could attract tech firms as a byproduct.

  10. Engagement with millennials and GenX’ers in the process in planning for each of the above.

If we can accelerate, integrate and optimize these assets, the resulting revenue would more than offset the current prevailing budget limitations and gridlock, and move us into a new paradigm where we make more creative use of resources and attract new and more private sector investment. Such a plan, once in place, can inspire and mobilize our greatest asset: each of our citizens.

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?

As recently as a few years ago, our demographic and economic base had much room for improvement. Redding has been stigmatized by the ascription “Poverty Flats.”

The walk would inspire you to see a town and community in transition from the stereotype of "Poverty Flats" to the future as Prosperity Place. One example of this transition is the new downtown development project with seed money to "germinate" it from the state and a local foundation. Another is the identification and analysis of the ten most underutilized assets as providing the seedbed for latest state of the art enterprises to transform them into new revenue generation and workforce development opportunities.

The Shasta Venture Hub is the regional center for startup and entrepreneurial development. Its purpose is to accelerate the startup growth cycle and provide a connection point for all available resources.

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?

The key players for the future are the younger upcoming generation of creative and innovative entrepreneurs who see not what is but what can be. Les Melburg, a principal partner in one of the largest architech firms in the northstate—based in Redding—made the following vision statement: "The architecture for a shared Shasta County vision is in a comprehensive integrated plan where all the cities work together with the County toward common goals for collective impact, purpose, prosperity for a hope filled future."

The combination of the McConnell Foundation, the Monmouth Fund Group, Tyndale Investor Group, Bethel Church, and a network of medical, tech and professsional entrepreneurs are building Redding’s economy, along with new and affordable housing model concepts.

Providence Smart Farms is bundling underutilized small farms and land in a cooperative to establish new markets outside Shasta County.

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?

This is an opportunity waiting to be developed. It is a very timely one, in concert with the referenced plan for unlocking the ten most underutilized county assets. An extension of public-sector transportation as well as private sector Uber-type transportation will have the market-driven basis for concurrent development.

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 local Economic Development Corporation runs an incubator hub. The Shasta Venture Hub is the regional center for startup and entrepreneurial development. Its purpose is to accelerate the startup growth cycle and provide a connection point for all available resources. These include assistance with connecting to university research, product development, marketing & sales, angel investment, mentoring, and business planning, and providing a co-working space.

Numerous private-sector-specific business incubators and angel funds are starting to pop up as well.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

Redding has a heterogeneous mix of people—we find unity in diversity. We live in a setting of marked natural beauty with a quartet of distinctives: The four Shastas. Mount Shasta, Lake Shasta, Shasta Dam and Shasta County all contribute to our unique setting. And of course, there’s the key Sacramento River that flows through the middle of our town and county.

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

Redding’s stakeholders need to develop a shared, transcending vision and a plan of which they take ownership. This will help us bind all the disparate and underutilized resources into a symphony of synergy for prosperity, a better quality of life, and a future with hope.


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.