Those who read “Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity” by Charles L. Marohn, Jr., a new book published by Wiley, might at first be overwhelmed by Marohn’s bad news. America’s cities are insolvent. And though he doesn’t mention them by name, his metrics would certainly implicate our own Hibbing, Chisholm, and all the towns of the Iron Range.
Our towns will become more and more broke over time using current fiscal and development practices. Lacking corrective action, and even perhaps with corrective action, we will one day be forced to abandon expensive infrastructure out of fiscal necessity. Moreover, it will be impossible for economic development efforts to change this. It’s inevitable.
But a open-minded reader will also realize something amazing in “Strong Towns.” These same cities — yes Hibbing, even and especially its most blighted neighborhoods — hold value that we don’t appreciate. Generations of assumptions about what make a successful town have warped our thinking. We possess capacity to change this and enjoy happier, more fruitful lives in towns that serve us even better than they do now.
That’s the defining message of “Strong Towns” and Strong Towns, the nonprofit organization that Chuck Marohn leads. His work takes him all over the world, speaking and advising cities.
I first met Chuck years ago through my work at Northern Community Radio, the local independent public station based in Grand Rapids. We both became local versions of talking heads, people who spewed their opinions into microphones. Today we co-host the podcast and radio show “Dig Deep,” which explores the practical realities of liberal and conservative policies in Northern Minnesota.
As he mentions in the book, we both prefer not to focus on our differences, but on our most critical point of agreement: local action is most important.
Marohn details this in his book, offering proclamations that many will find deeply challenging, troubling, even sacrilegious.
“Any community serious about their own financial stability is going to take the obvious first step and stop adding more liability,” writes Marohn in “Strong Towns.” “There is no reason for any North American city to build another foot of roadway, or put in another length of pipe, to serve new property anywhere. Our infrastructure is maxed out; we’re done expanding and, in fact, I anticipate nearly all our cities contracting their obligations to some extent.”
We’ll pause here to allow local economic developers wipe up the coffee they just spat.
Marohn thinks the math that cities use to figure out cost benefits is all wrong. When developers propose new projects — like a housing development, industrial or commercial park — those projects are listed as assets and their cost of construction the only liability. Marohn argues that a city’s only asset is the wealth generated by its entire tax base. Everything else — the maintenance, repair and staffing of infrastructure — is a long term liability. In this most towns across America, whether they are poor or affluent, urban or rural, find themselves deep in the red.
Marohn demonstrates that building a new box store on the edge of town produces less wealth for the community than a block of old buildings, each with one, two or more tax paying businesses within. Suburban-style developments produce less tax revenue, require more maintenance, and generate fewer “spinoff” jobs, even though developers tout them for the opposite reasons.
Meantime, communities that currently draw very little investment often quietly outproduce the flashy, expensive development on the freeway. With regular attention paid to poor, low-cost interior neighborhoods Marohn argues that cities become more attractive. The value of those neighborhoods would increase, along with the home owners’ desire to improve their properties.
From this would come private investment in new businesses to serve the happier, more valuable neighborhood. Extrapolating this to Hibbing, empty storefronts and vacant lots on First Avenue and Howard Street would become the best targets for new developments, all of which would come for less expense than city efforts to build up the outer Beltline or Highway 37.
This sort of action is fundamentally local which Marohn argues will require an uprising of sorts by elected and community leaders in our towns.
“State and federal officials frequently express their reluctance to turn over decision-making to local officials they view as incompetent, ignorant, or worse,” writes Marohn. “They fail to recognize how turning city councils into glorified dog-catchers, by simplifying their authority and degree of action, Congress and state legislatures have created the conditions where the most competent, innovative, and dynamic local leaders tend to stay far away from city hall.”
He doesn’t think top-down leadership will ever ask local governments to do more. But they’ll need to to get out of this predicament. Yes, local governments will make mistakes, he reminds, and will encounter failure. But the process of innovation requires such things, and can best be corrected locally.
“By remaking local government to focus on the broad creation of wealth, local leaders will develop the capacity to assert their own competence. America needs that to happen,” concludes Marohn.
Chuck Marohn has done something remarkable here; he’s presented a practical response to the decline we see in our towns that reads like a revolutionary screed. He writes himself that implementing his ideas will be very hard for cities to do. However, I would challenge every city councilor, local leader and citizen of the Iron Range to read this book with an open mind. We should also ask what the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources can do to empower Range communities, rather than forcing them to conform to the status quo. To quote an old t-shirt, we need to question everything.
Marohn would argue, and I would agree, that we must not think of what our Range towns don’t have, but to think of what we do have that could be made better, more inviting, and more secure.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).