Anoka County’s Jon Olson retiring after 29 years

Jon Olson retired Dec. 13 after a 29-year career with Anoka County

Olson joined the county highway department in June 1984 as chief project supervisor of construction, then was an assistant county engineer and deputy county engineer before being appointed county highway engineer by the Anoka County Board in August 1994.

Jon Olson retired Dec. 13 after 29 years with Anoka County, including county highway engineer and then division manager for public services.
Jon Olson retired Dec. 13 after 29 years with Anoka County, including county highway engineer and then division manager for public services.

On his retirement, Olson was division manager for public services, a position to which he was appointed by the county board in August 2001.

As division manager, Olson oversaw not only the highway department, but also parks, transit, GIS, county surveyor, license centers and integrated waste management, county ditches and the Anoka County Airport.

“It has been a very enjoyable career,” Olson said. “It has been very productive with projects to benefit Anoka County citzens.

“I like to think I have helped to make life better for the citizens of Anoka County.”

“There has not always been agreement on projects that impact people, but overall things were done in a respectful and courteous manner with as much consideration of their views as possible.”

A celebration of Olson’s career and retirement took place at the Anoka County Government Center Dec. 12.

According to Olson, it has been a pleasure to work with many professionals that know how to attend to business, get things done and have a little fun in doing so.

“I would especially like to thank those who have been willing and able to give their time and talents to lead the many alliances, boards, organizations, committees and task forces which I have been a part of,” Olson wrote in the invitation to the reception.

“We have not always agreed on everything, which I think is good in moving the causes we care about forward. But we, together, have accomplished a lot over these many years.”

Born in Willmar, Olson grew up on the family dairy farm in Bird Island, graduated from Bird Island-Lake Lillian High School and went to college at North Dakota State University in Fargo, from where he graduated with a civil engineering degree.

According to Olson, his path to a civil engineering career was encouraged by his high school math teacher Bill Rice and guidance counselor because of the skills he showed in math in high school and also by his future father-in-law, who was then the county highway engineer in Mille Lacs County, and a friend, Louie Erickson, who was an engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

While at North Dakota State University, he interned with Moore Engineering in West Fargo and was involved in a study of waste disposal in West Fargo, Olson said.

And after graduating from the university, he stayed on at Moore Engineering on a full-time basis.

“I guess I was in the right place at the right time,” Olson said.

He spent seven years at Moore Engineering before moving on to Ricke, Carroll and Meuller, which had offices in several Minnesota locations.

Olson was based in Gaylord for three years, then in St. Cloud for another three years, doing a lot of construction engineering on a consulting basis for cities, he said.

“That was where I got my start in the ditch business,” Olson said.

Olson is known as an expert on ditches and their maintenance.

But ditches are regulated by an old state law, which works well in rural areas of the state, but not in urban counties, like Anoka County, according to Olson.

Under state law, no county tax dollars can be spent on ditch projects; the cost has to be spread to property owners impacted through assessments, Olson said.

“Ditches are a complicated issue,” he said.

In 1984 family reasons had Olson looking for a job in the Twin Cities area.

In November 1980, his first wife of 10 years, Susan Anderson Olson, died, leaving him with a four-year-old daughter, according to Olson.

But in 1981 when he went to a national Anderson family reunion, he met his future second wife, Carolyn, who had two children and lived in Brooklyn Park, and they were married that same year, Olson said.

They decided to live in Brooklyn Park, but Olson found that commuting back and forth to work in St. Cloud left him little time to spend with his wife and children, he said.

“Working at RCM was a fine job with a lot of responsibility,” Olson said.

But when Olson was approached by Anoka County Highway Engineer Paul Ruud and Bud Redepenning, assistant county engineer, about taking the chief project supervisor of construction job after a previous hire did not work out, he was happy to accept because it was a lot closer to home, he said.

It’s a decision he has never regretted for a moment, Olson said.

The county highway system has changed a lot in the time Olson has worked for the county.

He remembers paving the last sand road in the county system in Linwood Township. “It was like a logging trail,” Olson said.

“I believe that Coon Rapids Boulevard and East River Road were our only four-lane routes,” he said.

Olson reeled off a list of roads that did not exist in the mid-1980s. They  included Hanson Boulevard, north of Bunker Lake Boulevard; Coon Creek Drive from Main Street to Bunker Lake Boulevard; 109th Avenue from Highway 65 to Lexington Avenue; Bunker Lake Boulevard river crossing over the Rum River; Bunker Lake Boulevard from CSAH 56 to CSAH 83; and Radisson Road round the east end of the Anoka County Airport.

According to Olson, well over 100 traffic signals have been added, mile on mile of roads have been rebuilt, two rail crossings on Main Street have been built and several interchanges have been constructed.

In the years that Olson was county engineer, the highway department functions were consolidated into one building on Bunker Lake Boulevard, which was built in 1988 for $4.6 million with no bonding.

When he came to the county, the highway department office was in the east wing of the Anoka County Courthouse, the signal and sign shop was located in an old corrugated building at the Anoka County Fairgrounds and the maintenance building was also at the fairgrounds, Olson said.

Olson’s job became much broader based when he was appointed public services director in 2001.

He took on the role of spearheading special projects while leaving his department heads to run the day-to-day operations of their departments, according to Olson.

“They are very competent and run their departments well,” Olson said.

“If they had a question, they could always call me, but I got out of their way because they did not need overmanaging.”

The special projects in which he has been involved include the Anoka County Airport expansion; the effort to bring the new Minnesota Vikings stadium to Anoka County, specifically Blaine; the Northstar Commuter Rail project; and the Northern Lights Express passenger rail project, Olson said.

As a civil engineer, Olson said he likes to “see things built,” he said.

But over the years getting a project in the ground has taken a lot longer with environmental and other issues that have to be studied, according to Olson.

In the past, project planning, design and engineering would be done over the winter months and construction would take place over the summer, Olson said.

Now, it can be two, three, four, even 10 years to get some projects built, he said.

Olson listed some accomplishments of which he is proud – construction of the bridge over the Rum River on Bunker Lake Boulevard; the improvements at the Anoka County Airport in Blaine, which he said had had a positive impact on business in the county; the Main Street reconstruction projects; and upgrading county highways with the cooperation of the impacted cities.

Olson is also proud of improvements that have been made in highway maintenance, he said.

“I believe we are among the top counties in the state in the maintenance of our system and surely the top in snow and ice control,” Olson said.

The snow and ice control system was put in place 20 years ago and “still works very well,” he said.

The fleet management system has also been streamlined and made cost effective over the years with all maintenance and repairs done in-house without the need to contract out the work, Olson said.

It was Olson, who turns 65 next year, that proposed that his position be eliminated on his retirement, particularly with the county no longer involved in special projects, he said.

“It’s time for a change in my life,” Olson said. “It’s been a good ride.”

He went to County Administrator Jerry Soma earlier this year with a plan that would do away with his position and create two new division managers with Doug Fischer, county highway engineer, and John VonDeLinde, parks and recreation director, taking on the roles.

They would retain their highway and parks director positions, while taking on additional responsibilities by splitting the other functions of the public services division, Olson said.

Soma and the county board both accepted Olson’s proposal, which went into effect Sept. 1 to ensure a smooth transition process.

“Doug and John are both younger men who deserve the chance to grow their careers in their new positions,” Olson said.

Olson’s plan for retirement is simple. “It’s not to come to work,” he said.

But Olson said he has plenty to do at the home in Otsego that he and his wife moved to 10 years ago.

For one thing, there are three wagons and two buggies waiting to be refurbished in his barn and another in a museum in Forest City, he said.

In 2007 as part of the Anoka County Sesquicentennial celebration, Olson led a wagon train and he did the same thing a year later for the state’s 150th anniversary recognition.

But he has not led any wagon trains since and does not do much horseback riding anymore, Olson said.

However, Olson has a new project planned in retirement – learning chuck wagon cooking over a campfire and taking part in competitions, he said.

There are two competitions he has in mind – one in South Dakota and another in Wisconsin.

Olson and his wife Carolyn have three grown children and six grandchildren.

Peter Bodley is at [email protected]