Is Everything with Strong Towns About Money? No. Not Even Close.


Last week I presented a plan to apply an incremental approach, combined with a long-term commitment to maintenance, to save the historic water tower in my home town of Brainerd, Minnesota. The first comment on the piece took me to task in a way that is pertinent to the broader Strong Towns conversation. It deserves to be pulled out of the comments and discussed more fully.

Here is that comment, with some slight edits:

The water tower serves no utilitarian purpose and has not for a very long time. This site harps on trying to maximize value to a city from land that belongs to private parties all so the city can extract more tax revenues from the private parties. Perversely there are various articles on imposing land taxes or forcing particular types of improvements for the benefit of the city and to the individual detriment of the private land owners.

For those that read ST postings looking for a coherent message, the differences in position appear hypocritical. Why not tear down the tower and encourage private development so the city can tax it? Why insist upon preserving something that can only be of interest to an ephemeral and shrinking part of the population at best?

In short, there appears to be a bit of hypocrisy in the idea that the water tower "must" be preserved. To do so seems really more of an unaffordable luxury desire for a small and shrinking part of the local population, not a need. If the ST message is cutting liabilities and maximizing tax extraction from other people's property, it's a bit difficult to understand why it can't do so with its own property. Why is this one not a prime candidate for the chopping block?

There are quite a few things wrong with the framing of this question; I’m going to address those quickly so we can get to the meat of the issue. Strong Towns does not, never has, and never will:

  • Recommend that local governments undertake action “so the city can extract more tax revenues from the private parties”,

  • Suggest policies “forcing particular types of improvements”,

  • Believe that a local government can prosper when their policies are “to the individual detriment of the private land owners”,

  • Or recommend policies for “maximizing tax extraction from other people's property.”

This comment characterizes the Strong Towns message in a way I’ve heard many times before, often from those who identify as libertarian. I find it representative of one particular distorted understanding of what we are saying and why. I have a lot of love for libertarians, but I’m wary of narrow frames for interpreting the world. They often prevent you from viewing someone as an ally who is actually helpful to your cause.

Let me re-frame all these pejorative statements to accurately reflect what we do advocate for:

  • Strong Towns doesn’t care what your local tax rates are—you can be high tax or low tax—so long as you are paying for the services you want, not operating a financial Ponzi scheme where today’s residents benefit at the expense of tomorrow’s.

  • A Strong Towns approach would certainly empower cities to decide that they don’t want a certain kind of development pattern for financial reasons (e.g. big box stores), but we never advocate forcing people to build anything. That’s kind of crazy.

  • We always say that local government is a “collection of us,” and that it is unstable—and often predatory—to have the incentives for local government misaligned with the overall prosperity of the residents they serve.

  • And finally, we don’t care about maximizing “tax extraction,” but we are obsessive about demanding approaches that balance revenues and expenses over the long term.

Why Ever Invest in “Luxury Goods” for the Public?

So, now on to the heart of the matter, which I’ll restate and expand as:

Chuck, the historic water tower seems like a luxury good, not a necessity, so how can you justify spending money to save it, especially when your city is so financially fragile?

This is a question I struggle with—it’s one my local friends have pushed me on—and I don’t know as I have the perfect answer. It’s messy, and that’s why this question cuts so deep. I agree that the tower is a luxury good. I also believe that we’re really fragile financially, more so than most anyone here is ready to come to grips with. So why spend any time or energy on this tower? Why not just rip it down and be done with it?

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1. The value of a brand. First, for better or for worse, the historic water tower is a major part of the community’s identity. It’s on the city’s logo, website, and letterhead. It’s the one physical feature that identifies Brainerd as a place different from any other. If Brainerd were a private-sector business, we’d have the water tower on the balance sheet as a goodwill entry, something that creates real but intangible value. Brainerd tearing down the water tower would be like McDonalds throwing away the golden arches or Nike quitting the swoosh. You don’t casually throw away the brand.

2. The value of a landmark. In fact, you build off the brand, and so the second reason I’d save the water tower is the wealth-building potential it creates. Our ancestors didn’t build this tower because they were vain or because they had money to throw away; in most ways, they were much poorer than we are now. The built the tower in the style they did, and placed it where they did, because it was a landmark the magnified the value of that place.

I look out my office window and I can see the tower. I walk through the park and I can see the tower. I’m downtown and I can see the tower. For the people who lived here when walking was the way one got around, the tower oriented life in the city. And for that reason, the land near the tower had extra value. It would be like being located at the highway interchange today—you don’t need an address. In the auto-era, the city has allowed this intersection to atrophy, but a lot of wealth and productivity remains. Having that orienting landmark at our most important intersection is a critical part of building on that wealth. Lose the tower and lose that potential.

3. The lack of viable alternative uses. Third, if the tower goes, there is no subsequent use for the site. There is a law office attached to the base of the tower, but otherwise it’s surrounded by lightly-used parking lots. There is little likelihood that site will be anything but parking without the tower. It’s not like we’d be giving up the wealth-creating potential of the tower for some greater private gain on the site. Maybe if somehow the land around it were developing, but with the high number of vacancies downtown, there is little chance of that happening in the foreseeable future, especially if the historic tower is gone.

4. The importance of a “fix it first” mindset. I would also like to—as a fourth reason for my advocacy on this—see the city government development some good habits when it comes to maintenance. We tend to approach maintenance like most cities: we wait for something to catastrophically fail, then we lament how poor we are while looking for money to replace what failed, while simultaneously building more stuff we can’t afford to maintain.

Just last week, the city council heard serious presentations from serious people on building a children’s museum, constructing an underground parking ramp, and building a new city hall. It’s bizarre, because the time and effort we spend on maintenance is so tiny in comparison to the time spent on all the new stuff we want to do. This water tower should never have degraded to the point it has. By committing to maintaining our landmark properly, we can develop good working habits that we can apply to the long backlog of existing obligations as well as the list of zany projects that serious people are seriously proposing we undertake.

Does Lovability Offer a Return on Investment?

Finally, I’m going to paraphrase Steve Mouzon—my friend, and the author of The Original Green —when he contends that a place needs to be lovable to survive. I’m an engineer and I don’t generally deal in love as a metric, but I know Steve is right. Tear down the historic landmark, and the strip malls, gas stations, and fast food joints that we’re building in this corridor are indistinguishable from those being built everywhere else. We become as loveable—or unlovable—as all of them.

My $25 is not going to go far, but the efforts of my neighbors—motivated by love—have more potential for transformation.

I’ve watched how the efforts to save the historic water tower have mobilized people in the community. I just had an old friend—someone I never imagined being involved in something like this—sell me a keychain with the proceeds going to save the tower. My $25 is not going to go far, but the efforts of my neighbors—motivated by love for this disrespected symbol of our community—have more potential for transformation.

Not everything in a Strong Town can be about dollars and cents. The finances constrain us, and they are an important check on our avarice. But the things that make a place worth loving go far beyond the balance sheet. We should never forget that.

I would be a hypocrite if my plan for saving Brainerd’s historic water tower were to go to the state capitol and beg for money, pinning my hopes on someone bailing us out despite our irresponsible stewardship. To the contrary, I am calling on this community to own this problem, and to solve it ourselves. We can, and that’s a very Strong Towns thing to do.