Jack Carney, Aim Hometown Innovations Contributor
Looking for a quick way to galvanize an Indiana community? Just put the town’s name in a tournament bracket during the month of March and watch what unfolds.
That’s exactly what happened in Jasper last month as the southwestern Indiana town of 16,703 residents propelled their community through four rounds of online voting to win the 2022 Strongest Town contest.
Jasper was the seventh winner of this annual competition that is conducted by Strong Towns, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the development of dense towns and the restructuring of suburbia through media efforts, education and various events.
As of late February, the vast majority of Jasper residents, including Mayor Dean Vonderheide, were unaware their town was in the running for this award, but once the Strongest Town Sweet 16 was announced, the competitive juices started flowing in Jasper.
“March Madness is an Indiana thing, right?” Mayor Vonderheide joked. “It fit in with our mentality at that point in time. We don’t like to lose. We’re very competitive, and I just believe we put our best foot forward.”
Mark Nowotarski, an active Jasper resident and also a Strong Towns member, completed a Strongest Town application on behalf of Jasper without Vonderheide’s knowledge.
The mayor learned about the competition and Strong Towns as an organization after Jasper was announced as a Sweet 16 finalist. He was pleased to learn that his town’s values matched with Strong Towns’ mission – valuing efficiency and resilience, pursuing fiscally responsible projects and embracing continuous adaptation.
The people of Jasper saw an opportunity to compete with other communities around the country and advance in a bracket-format competition. Jasper defeated Brighton, Michigan in the first round, Champaign, Illinois in the second round and then Yellow Springs, Ohio in the semifinals before meeting Norwood, Ohio in the contest’s championship round.
Each round of the tournament included a task for the competing communities – written responses to prompts on a range of topics, a photo tour and then a podcast – followed by voting that was weighted 50-50 between Strong Town members and the general public.
For the championship round, Mayor Vonderheide and Alisha Loch, a representative from Norwood, met virtually along with Jay Stange, content manager at Strong Towns, to record a webcast in which the finalists described the strengths of their respective communities.
Final voting opened after the webcast aired, and Jasper prevailed by a margin of 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent of the voting.
The mayor credits Jasper’s large network of friends and supporters for helping secure the needed votes.
“We’re a smaller community, but we have a great reach,” Vonderheide said. “Friends of Jasper all over the world were contacted, and (they) voted. We had people from New Zealand and Germany that supported us. That’s kind of the nature of our community. It’s a very competitive community, and when you stack us up against someone else, we do not like to lose. We do what it takes. We work at it. And hats off to the community for doing that.”
Mayor Vonderheide, of course, also credits the many great projects and initiatives that are happening in Jasper that made the town an attractive candidate and nominee for this award in the first place.
Many of these projects are led by groups like the Heart of Jasper, the community’s Main Street America organization, and Redevelop Old Jasper Action Coalition (ROJAC). Both of these groups have been working to revitalize Jasper’s historic downtown areas.
Notably, in the past few years, the Heart of Jasper group has installed a façade grant program and other business incentives to encourage downtown property owners and companies to upgrade and renovate buildings and structures.
Vonderheide also noted the new bicycle and pedestrian paths that have been installed all over the community, including the Jasper Riverwalk which follows the Pakota River through the town.
“We’ve had 11.2 percent growth since the previous census,” Vonderheide explained during the final round webcast. “So, we were one of the small towns that did flourish during this time compared to many others that struggled with population moving into the urban areas. We’ve got a strong economy. We have a great emphasis on education. Our value system is one that we’re very proud of. When people come to Jasper, they always comment about how clean the community is. I think that’s built off our values with regards to religious practices, work ethic and competition. That’s one of the things we hang our hat on – we’re a very competitive community, and we really just try to do the right things.”
These community efforts, shared values and collective competitive spirit led to Jasper being named the 2022 Strongest Town. Strong Towns’ founder and president, Charles Marohn, will be visiting Jasper in person in the coming months to present the Strongest Town 2022 Championship Award in person.