Larry Lee still remembers the conversation that helped bring the Mall of America to Bloomington.
It was early 1985, and the city had recently purchased the site of Metropolitan Stadium, former home of the Twins and Vikings. Lee, who at the time was the city’s assistant manager, walked into Mayor Jim Lindau’s office and urged him to reach out to the Ghermezian family, who made up the Triple Five Group mall development company.
“I was convinced that this was something we should do,” Lee remembered. “All I needed to do was say, ‘This is important.’ ”
Lindau took his advice. The Ghermezians soon visited Bloomington, and their proposal for the shopping behemoth was selected later that year.
For Lee, 69, it was one of the most memorable moments of a long career in city government that culminated with his job as community development director. He retired Thursday after working for Bloomington for almost 40 years.
Mayor Gene Winstead declared Lee’s last day as “Larry Lee Day” during a City Council meeting Monday.
“Larry has been a forward-thinking leader who was instrumental in changing the landscape of Bloomington,” the city proclamation read.
Lee was hired by the city as an associate planner in 1978 to work on its first comprehensive plan. The Vikings and Twins still played at the Met, and much of the city’s South Loop district was still farmland.
He became assistant city manager shortly after and began working as community development director in 1987, where he has served ever since.
In that position, Lee supervised the planning and development of Bloomington’s biggest projects, including MOA. His involvement in its creation, as he put it, was “more by accident than by design,” since the city already had been looking at other possibilities for the site.
“I literally walked into that one the first day I showed up at work,” he said.
Winstead, who has worked with Lee since the 1980s, said he had the planning skills to make “things all fit together.”
Lee was instrumental in the growth of the South Loop, home to MOA, several hotel chains and other major employers. He partnered with Artistry, a Bloomington nonprofit arts organization, to develop strategies in creative place-making — the idea of finding an area’s identity through arts and culture. Artistry named Lee their “Volunteer of the Year” in July.
“He certainly did not need to zero in on ... the whole topic of how art and artists can be a catalyst for development,” said Andrea Specht, the executive director of Artistry. “But he really did embrace that developing practice.”
The murals, sculptures and other art installations in the South Loop wouldn’t be there without him, Specht said. His impact was profound, bridging the gap between city government and artists.
“Larry is a creative guy,” Specht said. “To an unusual degree, he is a creative and innovative thinker.”
Lee said it’s in his nature to look toward the future and never quite be satisfied with things as they currently stand.
“My wife complains it drives her crazy sometimes, that I can’t be present in the present,” he said. “I was very lucky that Bloomington needed somebody with that nature.”
He called himself an “ideator,” someone always coming up with new concepts and ideas.
“I’ll probably be in my assisted-living facility and saying, ‘You know, if you could just make these changes ...’ ” he said.
Lee is one of several Bloomington city employees who retired this summer, taking advantage of an incentivized program targeted toward senior staffers to help reduce the 2018 budget, he said.
“When you’re leaving something that has been a big part of your life, you have a trepidation about it,” he said. “I’m not trying to overthink it right now.”
The city has not chosen anyone yet to replace him, Winstead said.
Lee’s wife, Betsy, retired from her position as president of nonprofit Prayer Ventures on the same day he did. They plan to travel around the country and go on biking trails, hitting old favorites such as the Root River trail in Lanesboro, Minn.
It will be difficult, he said, to no longer be involved in projects defining the future of Bloomington.
“It’s a Karen Carpenter lyric: ‘We’ve only just begun,’ ” he said. “We’ve done one or two things, but man, you can’t see the vision yet.”