Strongest Town 2022, Round 1: Salem, MA vs. Yellow Springs, OH

STC+4

Entry submitted by: Brian Housh, Josue Salmeron, Erica Thomas, Johnnie Burns, Denise Swinger, Marianne MacQueen, Lisa Kreeger, Kevin Stokes, Carmen Brown, Matt Dillon, Judy Kintner, Phillip O’Rourke.

What is your favorite thing about your town?

Yellow Springs has been coined “Everyone’s Favorite Place” and is often ranked as a Top 10 Coolest Town or Most Beautiful Place, but the tagline that resonates with me the most is “Be Yourself Here,” emphasizing that our village walks the talk in terms of delivering on our commitment to “[b]e a welcoming community of opportunity for all persons regardless of race, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, economic status, mental/physical ability or religious affiliation.”

This is highlighted by our town of 3,700 hosting one of the four signature Pride events across Ohio, continuing the strong history of the Village of Yellow Springs in providing a friendly place for people of color to live and thrive since the 1800s. Our creative culture is fueled by a diversity of artists, academics, entrepreneurs and Antiochians—the impact of Antioch College’s recognition that “authentic social and community engagement is vital for those who strive to win victories for humanity” is palpable when you reside in or visit our community.

The fact that our Village sustains more than 80 nonprofits underscores the openness and acceptance of our community ethic, resulting in a vitality that few cities can match as expressed through authentic cultural events, passionate community conversations, and fun engagements that bring everyone together such as our neighborhood block parties. Yellow Springs continues to innovate with policies that promote equity and inclusion, recently codifying protections for economically disadvantaged renters and to mitigate gentrification via restrictions on short-term lodging.

What is the biggest challenge your town faces, and what are you doing to address it?

Affordability, as with many communities, is the biggest challenge that our town faces. With our schools of excellence, thriving downtown, liberal vibe and access to various recreational amenities, Yellow Springs has attracted new residents with significant wealth while market pressures make it harder and harder for long-time Villagers to afford to stay. Village Council has prioritized affordability in its annual goals for the last five years, and several meaningful policies have resulted such as heavily restricting nonowner-occupied transient guest lodging with an affordability mitigation fee for the few that do operate as well as a utility round-up program. 

Given the critical aspect of housing when addressing affordability, local government has facilitated the building of pocket neighborhoods with permanently affordable housing units, and taken bolder actions such as purchasing an apartment building—being marketed to convert to high-end condos—so that we could maintain 16 affordable rentals. These impactful activities have been directed by the 2018 Bowen Housing Assessment, which led to the Villager Manager’s Housing Advisory Board that guided intentional planning efforts to start making a real difference regarding affordability; several grants have been secured due to our deliberate planning. A broader collaboration among Village government, local nonprofits—including YS Home, Inc. (community land trust) and The 365 Project (anti-racism organization)—businesses, and other key stakeholders, has resulted in the creation of Inclusive & Resilient Yellow Springs, which is looking at other strategies to make our Village more affordable so that we can continue to be a diverse and healthy community.

What transportation options exist in your town for people of varying ages, abilities, and means? How easy is it to live in your town without regular access to a car? What transportation investments has your town recently made or is it in the process of making?

The Village of Yellow Springs is an ideal community to age in place, given the walkability and bikeability of our town. Yellow Springs is a Bike Friendly Community and a Buckeye Trail Town. The Village was among the first in Ohio to adopt a local Complete Streets policy, based on the award-winning plan of our MPO, but customized to our Village so that we actively recognize all ages and abilities in our decisions, which included adding mobility devices. Yellow Springs is fortunate to be part of the “nation’s largest paved trail network,” and we have leveraged this AT infrastructure as a positive economic, health and environmental driver. 

A citizen-led active transportation committee helped the Village develop a state-funded YS AT Plan in 2019, leading to a second SRTS grant, a $2-million bike-ped focused STP grant, and CDBG grants to promote accessibility. These projects are building more sidewalks and improving the connectivity and safety of our pedestrian network. YS has a downtown with grocery, hardware and drug stores, laundromat and bank, so regular access to a car is not required for many. There is reliable public transit that gets folks to larger municipalities with more options for food, healthcare, and education. Besides securing significant grant dollars with local match, local government invests annually in sidewalk maintenance—often grinding sidewalk to do more—and has also committed funds that support collaborative trails projects with nonprofits and surrounding jurisdictions that are greatly expanding accessibility to recreational amenities for all ages and abilities.

Tell us about your community’s local economy. Who are the key players, big and small, and how do they help your town to be financially strong and resilient? What local businesses are you most proud of?

Yellow Springs had several large employers in town prior to 2000, providing significant revenue for the Village, particularly given that many of our residents were able to work locally. With the loss of all but one of these major companies, YS pivoted to focus on its long history as a destination town, which began with the coveted healing powers of the former hot springs located in what is now Glen Helen Nature Preserve. Our 70+ shops, restaurants, and wellness businesses attract many visitors from the region and around the state, and new investments in entertainment venues will further drive our local economy—on a nice day, it is common for our community of 3,700 to expand to 10,000, and our annual Street Fairs bring over 25,000 people to town for the day. 

Notably, our nonprofits are key players in the local economy, not only because they employ many community members, but also because their activities generate local spending and investment. It has been inspiring to directly experience the resilience of our businesses, most of which have been quite successful during the pandemic. Sunrise Café, for example, has begun delivering food, helping to keep the operation thriving. Also, downtown shops such as Urban Handmade and Greene Canteen embraced the local mask mandate—YS was the first Ohio municipality to legislate this policy—and many customers specifically came to our Village because they knew they would be safe. The Downtown Business Association has formed to harness the collaborative energy among local businesses.

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