From the expansion of the Mall of America to backyard chickens, Bloomington Mayor Gene Winstead has dealt with it all during his 20 years as the city’s leader. Now he’s decided not to seek re-election this fall.
“I go back 35 years with the city,” he said. “When you take a look at it, when is it enough? It has been great, but it’s time.”
No Bloomington mayor — and few if any mayors in the metro area — have served longer than the 68-year-old Winstead, who also spent five years as an at-large City Council member and 10 years on the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority and its Planning Commission.
He said his decision not to run again was made months before the June filing deadline, and it became easier when he knew there was a candidate in the pipeline he wanted to mentor and support.
“He’s a very mellow guy and is very controlled on how he handles things,” said Neil Peterson, a former Bloomington mayor and legislator. “He took on some controversial issues that he could have passed on. Most mayors have a thumbprint on a city, but Gene had big fingerprints.”
Winstead garnered 76% of the vote over former truck driver Frank Lindhold when he was first elected mayor in 1999. At the time, he presided over a city facing major development challenges near the Mall of America and the former Met Center site, as well as traffic issues along Minnesota’s busiest freeways. His salary was $17,600.
His time in office leading the state’s fifth largest city, he said, hasn’t been glamorous. He talked about improving aging housing stock, parks and infrastructure; building a new City Hall, Civic Plaza and Center for the Arts; and renovating the water treatment plant.
He helped close out a 20-year debate when the City Council voted in 2013 to spend $12.9 million to fix the historic Old Cedar Avenue Bridge, a key trail link between Hennepin and Dakota counties. He successfully advocated for an organized garbage collection system, affordable housing and a smoking ban; he even tried to bring the World’s Fair to Bloomington. And he has supported mass transit, helping to bring a light-rail stop to the Mall of America and the bus rapid transit Orange Line to the city.
Winstead noted that Bloomington has been one of 40 cities nationwide with AAA bond ratings from Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch, which play a significant role in the cost of borrowing, financial security and development potential. “We’ve been able to put ourselves in a fine financial position,” he said.
The Mall of America, with its 40 million annual visitors, didn’t hurt. Winstead was chairman of the city’s Planning Commission when the mall opened in 1992. Since then it’s been a significant focus of development, with hotels and plans for a new water park. There also have been failed ideas for the mall, such as a casino.
Bloomington stood in the national spotlight in 2017 after the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center was bombed by members of a white supremacist cell out of Illinois. Winstead called it a “disgraceful act of violence” and said a criminal act committed against anyone in the city “is committed against all of us.”
To be an elected official, Winstead said, “You have to have somewhat of an ego, and be responsible and practical.” But people would be surprised by how little power you actually have as mayor, he added.
Five candidates are running to succeed Winstead, including City Council Member Tim Busse, whom he supports. Winstead said he’s had conversations with Busse for at least a year and “will work to see that he’s successful.”
The other candidates are legal secretary Sharon Christensen; Dan Niziolek, deputy director of St. Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspections; and business owners Rainer Einsmann and Ryan Kulka. The primary is Aug. 13, with the top two moving on to the November election.
Winstead said he won’t drop completely out of the public eye. He wants to participate in the transition and keep tabs on projects still in the works, such as revamping Hyland Greens Golf Course.
There also will be more time for grandchildren and playing golf.
“I want to kick back, but I don’t plan on folding up anytime soon,” he said.