Strong Towns Presentation Brings Big Idea

More than thirty community and business leaders from New Rockford, Sheyenne, Tolna, and surrounding areas attended a community planning presentation and dinner at the New Rockford Eagles Club on Jan 11th.

The speaker for the presentation on sustainable city planning was Charles Marohn, Jr. PE AICP, Executive Director of Strong Towns, a non-profit, non-partisan city planning advocacy organization based in St. Paul, MN.

From the organization’s website, “The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model for growth that allows America’s towns to become financially strong and resilient.”

The presentation, part of Strong Towns’ Curbside Chat program, covered many topics relating to former and future community development patterns. Using financial data and research from non-partisan organizations to show causes and impacts of the current economic crisis, the presentation leads the audience through the history of the growth and decline of our towns in pre- and post-WWII America.

Citing specific case studies to demonstrate financial and economic principles, the presentation illustrated the way current growth patterns trade long-term maintenance obligations for short-term gains in tax revenue, and how in many cases the investment will not lead to a positive return for the public, rather leading to deeper and deeper maintenance debt as infrastructure ages.

Another core idea is the marked contrast between historic building patterns with densely grouped buildings – such as New Rockford’s traditional downtown business grid – and modern, widely-spaced commercial and residential areas in terms of tax base, job creation, financial stability, and economic resiliency.

Quoted from Marohn’s presentation, “Our ancestors weren’t stupid. They knew that when they built something, it had to retain and create as much value as possible. That’s what we see in the historic development pattern, for thousands of years, until WWII and the ‘suburban experiment’ in the United States.”

Local leaders were asked for their thoughts and impressions on the information presented. Most responded that they were led to consider what to do differently to create the sustainable, strategic growth needed in our new economy, and how to plan projects with a stronger return on investment for private and public funding.

Many referenced recent projects that local leaders have undertaken that fit the new model of development. These included:
1. Renovating old buildings to retain classic or traditional architecture and prevent demolition (such as 3 Sisters Quilt Shop)
2. Filling in town center lots (such as Rockin’ Fitness, the new ambulance facility, and the new duplex housing units) using existing infrastructure instead of building out to costly new developments
3. Restoring empty downtown and other commercial buildings for new businesses, or repurposing them to add value or services (such as the donation of the Methodist Church building to DPRCA)
4. Adding value to existing facilities and businesses through renovation or the addition of services, products, or space (such as the Lutheran Home of the Good Shepherd renovation project and the Pro Shop addition to Do-It Best Hardware)

Tracy Henningsgard, President of the NRABC Board of Directors, referenced a key strategy from the presentation regarding job creation, “Instead of recruiting a brand-new company hiring 25 people, why not work with 25 of our existing businesses and help them to add one job each? Incremental growth is more resilient, because the risk is shared over many different businesses instead of relying on just one.”

Many also discussed the concept of “placemaking”, which is the idea of value created by the appearance and livability of an area. Well-planned city parks, walkable downtowns, classic architecture, slower city traffic, mixed-use buildings, access to basic services, and entertainment and cultural offerings are all examples of placemaking principles that can increase the value of a neighborhood or town.

Several locally important placemaking projects include the crow’s nest and new dugouts at Jim Johnson Memorial Park (South Park) and the new playground area at North Park.  Still to come are the pool renovations and the movie theater’s upgrade to digital.

These projects maintain our quality of life and add value to the town. At its core, placemaking reminds us that tax base is not the only measure of a city, rather that taxable value comes as a benefit of creating a place where people want to live and do business.

The entire presentation, a companion book, and many other resources are available free on the Strong Towns website, www.strongtowns.org. The event was organized by the New Rockford Area Betterment Corporation in collaboration with Strong Towns.