Influence of 35-year career evident in Anoka

On Bob Kirchner’s last day of work at the city of Anoka, he was wearing both a belt and suspenders.

Bob Kirchner retired Thursday after 35 years with the city of Anoka, largely as its community development director. Photo by Mandy Moran Froemming
Bob Kirchner retired Thursday after 35 years with the city of Anoka, largely as its community development director. Photo by Mandy Moran Froemming

While they might have been a comical retirement gift, those accessories were a key part of Kirchner’s successful 35-year career with the city. The longtime community development director retired Thursday.

The “belt and suspenders” approach of making sure even your backup plan has a backup plan when doing development deals was one Kirchner gleaned from Gary Stout, who worked as a consultant for Anoka in the 1980s and 1990s.

It has worked out well for Anoka and for Kirchner.

“That has kept the city out of trouble more than once,” said City Manager Tim Cruikshank.

Impressive numbers

On Kirchner’s careful but creative watch, the city’s market value has doubled from nearly $51 million to over $1 billion since he was hired in 1978.

Likely the most successful in a long line of projects he worked on was the development of the Anoka Enterprise Park.

“I think that really was the peak of my career,” Kirchner said.

He worked with Stout on the project and their relationship left a lasting impression. Kirchner considers him a mentor. Stout died of pancreatic cancer in 1997.

“Gary taught me how to get the deals done,” he said.

While he was the one who fielded a lot of the industrial park inquiries, Stout wouldn’t let those contacts get away.

“With a team like that, I don’t know if anyone else could have done what they did,” said Dr. Gene Dvoracek, who has been a member of the city’s Economic Development Commission for over 30 years.

The Anoka Enterprise Park started with three main businesses and multiple people owning a jigsaw puzzle of properties that covered more than 400 acres. The largest was an asphalt, sand and gravel operation.

With the work of city staff and the addition of an overpass to cross the railroad tracks supported by the Anoka City Council, that park is now home to 65 different companies and has a market value over $100 million.

“That was a huge decision,” Kirchner said of the overpass. “While the council had debated an at-grade crossing, they eventually felt the area was so important it needed an overpass.”

The Enterprise Park development took both foresight and patience as others pushed to rezone and expand new housing in the area, rather than save space for commercial development.

But Stout and Kirchner were able to convince the council and the Planning Commission.

“It was probably one of the most critical decisions they made,” Kirchner said.

And it was another mentor of Kirchner’s, former City Manager Mark Nagel, who set the framework for the city to use tax increment financing to spur both new development and redevelopment.

Nagel came to work for the city’s housing authority in 1984 and eventually served as city manager from 1987 to 2001.

“He knew how to make things happen,” Kirchner said. “I was more of a planner in those days. I was reacting to proposals. Mark was a developer. So I learned my first development skills from him.”

That was when the city established the pre-1990 tax increment districts that are still alive today.

“He laid the foundation really for my career here by way of those tax increment redevelopment plans that we’ve carried forward ever since,” Kirchner said. “The industrial park was a huge success out of that, then the RiversPointe townhouse was the benefactor of the industrial park. That only happened because the council could fund it.”

But Nagel said that relationship went both ways and he learned a lot from Kirchner as well.

“What sets Bob apart is his integrity and his attention to detail,” said Nagel, now a business professor at Normandale Community College. “You could trust him with anything to get it done and get it done well.

“Frankly the city and its development wouldn’t be anything close to what it is today without Bob.”

Almost a lifelong Anokan

Kirchner’s family moved to Anoka in 1955, when he was in third grade. His father had tired of farming in eastern Otter Tail County, near Wadena, and the family made Anoka home.

“That was a traumatic experience for a country boy,” Kirchner said. “I guess that’s why I went into urban planning. I’m still trying to figure out the urban places.”

But it turned out he really liked the library and the community would become a great fit for his keen interest in history.

He has an undergraduate degree from Augsburg College and followed with a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Affairs (now the Humphrey Institute).

He worked at the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority as well as the Anoka County Historical Society, where he met his wife Linea, whom he credits for being the most important source of support throughout his career.

On the street

Nearly every day Kirchner walked or rode his bike to work, a 35-minute commute by foot through the streets of Anoka between City Hall and his home near Mercy Hospital.

The Kirchners moved to the Coon Rapids neighborhood in 1999. It wasn’t far from their old house, just an extra five-minute walk, but it was enough to change their city of residence.

“Losing my Anoka address was a really big deal to me,” he said.

That walk or bike ride has served many purposes over the years. He said it has always been an adjustment time to prepare for the day ahead on the way in and reflect on the way home.

It also meant he crossed paths with a lot of Anoka’s residents and he spent time hearing their concerns.

But building those relationships on the ground level was an important part of accomplishing some of Anoka’s biggest development deals.

That was true of the RiversPointe townhouse development in particular, said Merrywayne Elvig, a longtime member of Anoka’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

The city spent decades acquiring properties in the floodplain along the Rum River, where a development of upscale townhomes would eventually be built.

When those homeowners were ready to sell, they were already comfortable with Kirchner, she said.

“All those years he was so thorough and so understanding – nothing ever came back to slap us in the face,” Elvig said.

In Kirchner’s history with the city, which included the purchase of many properties (on behalf of the city, he bought half the 44 properties for the RiversPointe development alone), none of the purchases were adversarial and only two required eminent domain, he said.

“It was unusual to be able to put that kind of project together and not condemn anyone,” Kirchner said.

The RiversPointe development was pivotal for Anoka.

“It was kind of like open heart surgery for the community, it was a traumatic experience for a lot of people,” Kirchner said.

More than 100,000 cubic yards of material, approaching 5,000 belly dump truck loads, were brought in to reshape the neighborhood and prepare for a high-end townhome development.

This came after 20 years of assembling the property.

“The appearance of Anoka has changed a great deal because of Bob,” Elvig said.

Anoka bucks the trends

Even during the recent economic struggles, Anoka has continued to move ahead with new development and redevelopment.

Kirchner said it has been key to have a big portfolio of projects to work on.

“Time gives you a lot of options,” said Kirchner, who has been known for his patience when it comes to seeing projects come to fruition.

Recent development successes have included the addition of the senior housing community built by the Volunteers of America on Fourth Avenue. It was a project 10 years in the making while Kirchner worked with the nonprofit to find a location to expand.

This fall the new HealthPartners RiverWay Clinic will open on the old Castle Field site off Highway 10, making way for other new development near Anoka’s downtown on Monroe Street as well as a new Castle Field on Seventh Avenue.

That old ballpark was also the site of what Kirchner considered a shortfall in his career for many years.

“We failed twice at doing a hotel in 1987 and then 1997 at the old Castle Field,” Kirchner said. “I felt pretty bad about that.”

That hotel development was one of the last conversations he had with Stout, just days before he died. He feels if Stout had been around, a new hotel likely would have happened. But looking back, he feels lucky that it didn’t.

“One of the benefits of being in the same place a long time is that even your failures turn out to not be failures,” Kirchner said. “They weren’t supposed to happen. You end up with something better.”

Another example of that was a deal the city was working on to bring a Walmart distribution center to the industrial park before any new development had taken place.

Anoka was one of three final sites for the facility that would have been more than a million square feet and had a lot of trucks coming and going.

Anoka was not chosen.

“Although we failed, we’re lucky we did,” Kirchner said. “It would have overwhelmed the park. We wouldn’t have the diversity. We wouldn’t have the job count. It would have been the wrong thing to do.”

Now the city is turning its attention to the area around the Northstar Station, Green Haven Golf Course and South Ferry Street.

Kirchner has been a part of assembling some property in those areas and setting up TIF districts that will fund redevelopment.

Reflecting on a career

Kirchner has had the opportunity to enjoy a phased retirement, working half-time for the past three years. He has spent much of that time passing on his knowledge to his predecessors.

“The longevity of the staff here is a story in itself,” Kirchner said. “There is kind of a changing of the guard going on here.”

Several other staff members logging decades of service have also recently retired from the city.

But his expansive knowledge about the city and its history will be missed. He has long filled the role as an unofficial historian around town.

Looking back, Kirchner has worked for only 22 council members, including seven mayors, during his tenure. The two longest serving were John Mann (23.8 years) and John Weaver (22.7 years).

“I have had the benefit of a really stable political environment,” Kirchner said. “A lot of people in this position don’t have that. It’s uncommon to stay in this position for this long with any city.”

He has also only worked for three city managers: Jerry Dulgar, Nagel and Cruikshank.

And while Kirchner is quick to credit his mentors, his own leadership has been very important to the careers of planners who started their careers in Anoka.

“Working for Bob was such a great opportunity for me,” said Melinda Coleman, city planner from 1987 to 1995.

“Bob has been such a servant of government and has great leadership skills. He taught me just to listen. For a person in Bob’s position, it is an art to get the community and the council to buy in to some of your ideas. Bob had a way of very quietly and methodically getting things done.”

Coleman also acknowledges the influence of Stout on both her and Kirchner’s careers.

“Gary gave Bob and I the confidence to keep pushing ahead and to think outside the box,” she said

Coleman is now the city administrator for North Oaks.

“As I moved on in my career, I wouldn’t be the same community leader that I am without Bob’s guidance,” she said. “He gave me a lot of feedback and a lot of rope. He wanted to see what I was capable of.”

Kirchner’s relationships with the city’s staff have been what have kept him on the job, even through some turbulent times.

“The most satisfying part of the job has been at the staff level, around the table with the input of all the people I have worked with trying to figure out what to do next,” he said.

“My approach has been to bring people in on a team basis and give them an opportunity to do what they do best and not be a command-and-control kind of leader. I have enjoyed that kind of relationship with a lot of people who have gone on to careers as development directors and city managers. I am happy to have been a small part of their growth.”

A man of great faith

Faith and spirituality are an important part of Kirchner’s life, both on and off the job.

At Kirchner’s retirement gathering, he said that many of the people he worked with over the years literally were the answer to his prayers.

He is part of a group that meets weekly to pray for the city’s well-being and there have been difficult times during his career where he felt he has been called on to stay in order to carry out a mission – whether it was to see a project through or help repair a relationship. He said there are still some relationships in the community where reconciliation needs to take place.

“Over the years the things that saw me through were faith and friends,” Kirchner said. “I believe everything happens for a reason and I couldn’t leave. I believe people have a purpose and even institutions and city governments have a purpose. It’s serving the public purpose, and that is a divine mission in itself.”

Kirchner said he has seen the evidence of divine providence in his professional and personal life.

To that end, Kirchner is halfway through the seminary program at Bethel University. He has been completing coursework while working part time in the community development director position. There might be ministry work in his future, but for sure his theological study will fuel future writing, on which he also hopes to focus on local history.

He also plans to do some work as a consultant in the way of drafting business plans.

“I don’t know how all of these things are going to merge together just yet,” Kirchner said. “But it will be interesting to find out.”

Mandy Moran Froemming is at [email protected]