Sometimes it’s the job you don’t get that turns out to be the best career decision.
Larry Lee, Bloomington’s longtime community development director, retired last week after nearly 40 years of employment with the city. He was hired by the city in April 1978 to help develop the city’s first Comprehensive Plan, a mandate of the Metropolitan Council. He was among three planners hired by the city, and it was a career stepping stone, although not in the way he envisioned.
Both Lee and longtime city planner Bob Sharlin were hired to work on that original Comprehensive Plan, and they both expected they’d be moving on to something bigger and better within five years. It didn’t work out that way, much to their surprise, and that wasn’t a bad thing.
“Bloomington gave us all the challenges we needed,” Lee said. “We didn’t have to move.”
Lee came to Bloomington by way of England. He had received a master’s degree from the University of Sheffield, thanks to a scholarship, and stayed in England to work in community development, helping spread the country’s economic and population base to the country’s rural villages in an effort to minimize its political vulnerabilities, he explained.
After three years of helping Milton Keynes grow from a rural village to what is now a city of more than 250,000, Lee was ready to return to the United States. He looked for job opportunities where he and his wife Betsy would want to raise a family. The Twin Cities was among those choices, and Bloomington was the winner when Lee was offered a job by the city, he noted.
Lee didn’t have a specific career trajectory planned, but found new opportunities within the city. After finishing the Comprehensive Plan and continuing to work in planning, Lee was offered the role of assistant city manager by City Manager John Pidgeon. Within a few years, Lee was offered the community development director’s job, a job that provided plenty of responsibility, and at an exciting time in the city. Mall of America’s development was on the horizon. “It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down,” he said.
The job that would wind up as the hallmark of Lee’s career was one he was willing to give up in the early 1990s. When Pidgeon retired, Lee applied for the city manager’s position. That job went instead to Mark Bernhardson, who would serve as city manager for 23 years. By the time Bernhardson retired at the end of 2014, Lee was in the twilight of his career, as well.
Being passed over for the city manager’s job in the 1990s was probably the best thing to happen to Lee, he said. There’s tremendous freedom being a No. 2 person in an organization, a sentiment others in similar positions agree with. “You don’t have to take the ultimate heat for controversial things,” he said.
As community development director, Lee has worked on a variety of important projects. He was heavily involved in the development of Mall of America, a property the city ultimately owned in order to facilitate development of the former home of Minnesota’s professional sports teams. The city sought proposals for the site, but it was a consultant that suggested the city look north to Canada, where the Triple Five Group had developed the West Edmonton Mall, a prototype of sorts for the Mall of America. Lee helped facilitate discussions between Triple Five and the city, discussions that would result in the mall’s construction, he recalled.
Lee served as the interim city manager when Bernhardson retired, and was open to the idea of retirement when Jamie Verbrugge took over as manager.
Lee aided in Verbrugge’s transition period and worked well with the city manager. He was open to retirement two summers ago, but still enjoyed his job. Verbrugge appreciated Lee’s work and encouraged him to stick around.
“He extended my career by two years,” Lee said.
Lee wasn’t in a hurry to retire. He has long believed he has many years left to pursue retirement activities, pointing to his father to prove his point, as his father will turn 100 at Thanksgiving, Lee explained.
He enjoyed coming to work every day at Bloomington Civic Plaza, a building he helped create, and he enjoyed the people he worked with. Government employees often are looked down upon by residents because of a bad experience with one employee or one department, but 99 percent of his co-workers were hard workers who did their job every day, with honor, he said.
The timing of Lee’s retirement coincided with his wife’s retirement. After raising their children, Betsy founded a nonprofit Prayer Ventures, and organization provides teaching, training and resources to help people discover the life-changing power of Christ through prayer.
As Betsy began to contemplate retirement, the organization considered its future, and whether it would proceed without her. Its leadership sought to continue, and after a transition period, her retirement from the organization she founded was set for Aug. 31. Lee set his retirement for the same day, weeks shy of his 70th birthday, he noted.
Retirement doesn’t mean packing up and moving to a southern climate. The Lees plan to continue living in Bloomington, but do plan to travel, both near and far. They enjoy bicycling, will make time for regular exploration of their favorite trails in Minnesota and Wisconsin and plan to find new trails near and far in retirement, Lee said.
Mayor Gene Winstead, whose relationship with Lee goes back to the 1980s, said the city was fortunate to have Lee as an employee for four decades. That kind of loyalty is rare, and Winstead believes that Lee could have easily found a manager’s job with another city had he chose to leave Bloomington.
“Larry could have been a city manager anywhere,” Winstead said.
He’ll be missed in part because of the institutional knowledge he has, knowledge that includes the history of projects Lee had a hand in. “What he envisioned for the future now has happened,” Winstead noted.
Follow Bloomington community editor Mike Hanks on Twitter at @suncurrent and on Facebook at suncurrentcentral.