Every spring, Strong Towns holds a contest to crown North America’s Strongest Town. Anyone can submit their small town or big city for consideration, from the mayor to city staff to local entrepreneurs and proud citizens. (Indeed, we had all of those and more in our 2019 contestant pool!)
In this year’s 4th annual Strongest Town competition, we asked our contestants to tell their cities’ stories in writing, photos, and interviews: what is your place doing to embrace bottom-up, incremental investment? To support locally-owned businesses? To make the streets safe and inviting? To encourage citizen engagement? And to #DoTheMath and make sure you’re ready for future needs and have a plan to pay for them?
On August 20th, Strong Towns Founder and President Chuck Marohn had the honor of appearing at Pensacola’s REX Theatre to officially present their award. The award ceremony was a bit of a homecoming, in a way: it took place at CivicCon, an annual speaker series and forum for civic education and conversation hosted by the Pensacola News Journal, as well as the Studer Community Institute (which submitted the winning contest application).
CivicCon aims to bring in world-renowned thought leaders on how to build a great place, and help Pensacola residents connect and discuss how to apply their insights at home. Chuck Marohn spoke at CivicCon in 2017, a talk which kicked off a lot of local enthusiasm for the Strong Towns approach.
And it’s yielding results. The secret to being a Strong Town, you see, is that it’s not an end goal you achieve and then you’re done. It’s a process. It’s a way of thinking about your future, of asking the right questions, or being thoughtful about the investments you make in community. And that’s where Pensacola shines. Local leaders are asking the right questions and looking for the right things. In his remarks at the award ceremony, Chuck praised Pensacola for these four things it’s doing right.
4 Lessons From Pensacola’s Strong Towns Journey
1. Nurture and celebrate your local businesses. Pensacola is a great place to start a business. Local entrepreneurs can take advantage of a wealth of resources including business incubators, networking and leadership training events. The News Journal’s Kevin Robinson details some of the local efforts here. Pensacola gets the value of home-grown economic development, a more resilient and powerful long-term strategy for growth than trying to lure jobs from outside.
2. Cultivate a downtown to be proud of. Pensacola has a 400-year history that includes rule by several colonial powers, and it has the historic downtown charm to show for it. But it’s not riding on that legacy: Pensacola has taken concrete steps to revitalize its downtown in recent years, luring in new businesses and events, and making the physical changes necessary to create a place where people want to stroll and linger. For example, Pensacola has improved the walkability of its downtown streets by requiring that parking lots be hidden behind buildings. They get that people are the indicator species of a strong town.
3. Encourage incremental reinvestment in neighborhoods. Pensacola is growing, but it’s doing a lot of it through redevelopment in the city’s core neighborhoods, where there is already infrastructure and a community in place. The city’s tax base is up 36% in the past five years, with new homes and businesses to show for it. Vacant lots have been filled in. Leaders in Pensacola understand that what we need to achieve financial resilience is for our communities to thicken up, not spread out.
4. Develop a culture of civic engagement. Perhaps the thing that bodes most well for Pensacola’s future is its active citizens, business leaders and philanthropic groups who are determined to create an amazing place, and who work together to find opportunities to move toward that goal. Just one example: a waterfront revitalization and resilience plan developed by private citizens, that emerged out of discussions at CivicCon, and that was presented to the City Council this year.
This is the stuff of a Strong Town that, though it still has many challenges, will get even stronger over time. Congratulations, Pensacola. Well done.
Below is a video of Chuck Marohn’s remarks, first featured in an article on the award ceremony by the Pensacola News Journal:
The fifth annual Strongest Town Contest will take place in 2020, and you can bet it’ll be bigger and better than ever. Check back in the new year for more information. And in the meantime, we’re hitting the road this fall to bring the Strong Towns message from coast to coast and celebrate the October 1 publication of Strong Towns: a Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity. Find out more here.