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Strong Towns 'Curbside Chat': Cities' economic stability hinges on growth model

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The focus for the future of cities should be resilience, not ever-expanding growth: that is the message of the founders of Strong Towns.

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"We're interested in economic development; we're interested in long-term economic and environmental stability for communities," said Jon Commers. "The way we do business now is not sustainable for small towns. It's just not."

He and Charles Marohn held a "Curbside Chat" Monday night with about a dozen members of the Bemidji City Council, city staff and interested residents.

Marohn and Commers, along with their partner, Ben Olson, founded Strong Towns because they believe funding sources such as Local Government Aid and Department of Transportation resources are likely to disappear. They said they believe the current model of growth is faulty. With an influx of state or federal aid or bond debt, projects can be paid for at the outset, but they have to be maintained at extensive long-term financial burden.

State or federal subsidies, transportation funding and debt all mean a city trades short-term growth for long-term liability, Marohn said.

The idea of adding more taxable entities to pay to maintain the infrastructure of an existing development isn't financially sound, he said, because then the new development will become another costly project to service and maintain.

The current pattern of development resulting in stretched maintenance budgets would seem to result in higher taxes or reduced services. But Marohn said there is a third variable that communities can control - the current pattern of development.

For example, he said cities recruiting a business that will add 50 jobs - but which will require additional infrastructure, TIF allowances and other enticements - sounds great. The golden shovels at groundbreakings, the ribbon cuttings and the grand openings make news.

"We have all these incentives built in that are detrimental," Marohn said.

A better outcome would be for a community to add one job to 50 already-established businesses that need no additional infrastructure, even though that scenario doesn't seem anywhere near as exciting, Marohn said.

"As stewards of public resources, we have a responsibility to invest as wisely as we can," Commers said.

Marohn and Commers said they began their Strong Towns project about one year ago and have just recently achieved 501c3 status. They said they operate on zero funding and have taken the "Curbside Chat" to about 13 towns so far. They also write a blog at strongtowns.org on the strategies they believe cities must adopt to become resilient in this time of uncertain revenue streams.

"This has been for us a passionate undertaking," said Marohn.

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