The City of Hillsdale may not rank among the top towns in Michigan in terms of its household income, but it is still considered a “strong town,” according to the Strong Towns Strength Test. The city’s current conditions meet six of the test’s 10 standards, which were laid out in the form of 10 “yes” or “no” questions.
Kea Wilson, director of community engagement for Strong Towns, said the national organization was founded to help keep towns financially strong and resilient. According to the Strong Towns Website, a “town” can include “every city and town in North America.”
This nonprofit media organization provides communities with tools, resources, and other online content to encourage and inform them about how to keep their towns strong.
One of the key features of the Strong Towns organization is the Strong Towns Strength Test.
“The Strong Towns Strength Test is a list of 10 questions that we encourage any citizen or leader to ask of their town,” Wilson said. “You don’t need advanced analytic skills or a big budget for in-depth analysis. It’s something anybody can do.”
Some of the questions include: “If your largest employer left town, are you confident the city would survive?” and “Is it safe for children to walk or bike to school and many of their other activities without adult supervision?”
Hillsdale City Manager David Mackie answers “yes” to both of these questions.
“Hillsdale College is the city’s largest employer and Hillsdale Hospital is our second largest employer,” Mackie said in an email. “If the college left town, the city would survive, but it would be a much different community. Inevitably, we would lose additional businesses that are supported by the college’s staff and students.”
He also said he believes Hillsdale is a safe place for children and families.
“I believe Hillsdale is a safe place for children to play or walk to school without adult supervision,” Mackie said. “We continue to have a strong public safety presence in both the City of Hillsdale and Hillsdale County.”
The Strong Towns organization and its Strength Test were both developed by Charles L. Marohn Jr. He is a professional planner and engineer who realized that the feedback public organizations received weren’t built on a human scale — the feedback was too general or too complicated for ordinary citizens to understand. He decided to create this test as a way to provide “bottom-up feedback,” meaning the feedback would come directly from the citizens of that town.
“He wrote the test as a way for the layman to start identifying a town through a small- town lens,” Wilson said.
The test isn’t about the wealth of the citizens who make up the community. Rather, it’s about the wealth of the community seen in things like land value per acre or the revenue of local businesses.
One of the major influences on a town’s strength is the ease of opening and running a business. Two of the 10 questions on the Strength Test pertain to the city’s ordinances, such as: “Imagine your favorite street in town didn’t exist. Could it be built today if the construction had to follow your local rules?”
Jane Stewart, owner of Smith’s Flowers, said the City of Hillsdale is great to work with.
“When I first purchased the building, I had to get various permissions, but they walked me right through it,” Stewart said. “There were things I needed to fix things for my own safety and for the customers, like adding in a light-up exit sign, but they walked me through it. They’re not hard people to work with. If you have any questions you can call them or just walk on over.”
As it pertains to the way a city manages its money, the test asks, “Before building or accepting new infrastructure, does the local government clearly identify how future generations will afford to maintain it?”
In response to this question, the City of Hillsdale has a six-year plan for capital improvements for the years 2019 – 2025. The 41-page document can be found on the City of Hillsdale’s website and outlines the new projects, the budgets for them, and where the funds are coming from.
Another aspect of the test reviews the safety of the town, its sense of community, and the ability for families to live near one another.
“This is an awesome community. People will say, ‘Really, you trust me to send you a check?’ I say of course,’” Stewart said. “We all look out for each other and help each other. It has a ‘homey’ feel, that small, hometown feel.”
Superintendent of Hillsdale Community Schools Shawn Vondra spoke very highly of Hillsdale’s community and the relationships between businesses, schools, and families.
“There are many local businesses who employ school-aged children. Employers do this because they see the value of helping one another develop a positive work ethic, build confidence, develop a sense of responsibility,” Vondra said. “The local businesses are very generous with providing support for extracurricular activities for children. Last year, when our high school’s robotics team qualified for the World Championships, individuals and businesses made sure the team had the necessary financial resources to be a part of that amazing opportunity.”
Hillsdale High School also supports 21 athletic teams and offers 21 enrichment and service clubs, such as National Honor Society, student government, and esports.
“From my family’s personal experience, we — myself, my wife Stacy, and two children — have lived in Hillsdale for a bit over 20 years. It has been a wonderful community to raise our children,” Vondra said. “Like all Hornets, our children have been able to enjoy and benefit from a variety of experiences in sports and extracurricular clubs. When combined with the opportunity for curriculum that ranges from nearly A‑Z, from AP Calculus to welding. We couldn’t be happier with the options available for our children.”
In September, Marohn published a book titled, “Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity.” Wilson said the book is an encapsulation of how the Strong Towns message came to be, as well as Marohn’s personal journey from a professional planner to a thought leader.
“His new book is about the Strong Towns message as a whole, which is a nonprofit media organization to give people of all walks of life tools to identify our problems to grow and build our cities,” Wilson said.
More information about Strong Towns and a full list of the Strong Towns Strength Test questions can be found at www.strongtowns.org.