After six years, Sarah Strommen left the Ramsey City Council to devote more time to her young son. Now she's back to offer the perspective of both an outsider and an insider.
Sarah Strommen was a Fulbright Scholar in Costa Rica, studying bird conservation. She needed to go back into the mountains for research and was told she might be able to stay with a family.
The problem was getting there.
Her Spanish was "pretty good," but with no phone service, she knew she was taking a chance.
She took a bus, hiked down a valley, asked for the woman who would be her contact. When she finally found her, Strommen explained who she was and what she was doing there.
"Suddenly, I had this whole thing arranged," Strommen recalled. "It gave me the confidence to deal with challenges.
"If I can do it there, I can do it here."
Today, Strommen, 39, has new mountains to scale. The challenges Strommen faces following her special election to the Ramsey City Council may not seem as glamorous, but they are no less daunting.
The one-time council member, who gave up that role to spend more time with her young son, returned to politics when she ran for the seat vacated by David Jeffrey, who is battling pancreatic cancer. Strommen previously served two terms for a total of six years, from 2002 to 2008.
She returns to a council still struggling to find ways to develop the often criticized COR project -- 400 mostly vacant acres accented by a vast parking ramp the city can only dream of filling.
And she returns to making decisions for a city about to be awarded an oft-debated Northstar commuter-rail station projected to cost at least $13.2 million.
Building the community
Strommen, the only woman on the seven-member council, sees only the positive.
"What I liked about the original Town Center [project], and what I like about the COR, is having some places where you can go and meet friends, have a cup of coffee," Strommen said. "That's part of what builds the community."
And Strommen is an unabashed cheerleader for the community. She is the associate director of the Minnesota Land Trust, a nonprofit that strives to protect Minnesota's natural and scenic heritage. She is about to leave the Friends of the Mississippi River board, to enable her to devote more time to her family, her council post and her job. But living in Ramsey, she's convinced she has the best of all worlds.
The daughter of Macalester College professors, Strommen grew up in St. Paul, wanting to attend a school similar to the one where her parents worked. She chose to study biology at Grinnell College in Iowa and then went to graduate school at Duke, where she taught second-graders about rainforests. The schools had little in common. She loved both.
She and her husband, Jon, married when she completed graduate school and ultimately moved to Ramsey 10 years ago. Their son, William, is now 5.
"When I decided not to run again, my son had just been born and I wanted to devote as much time as possible to his early years," Strommen said. "Leaving the City Council was a hard decision, but looking at another four-year term, I just decided I needed the time away.
"But I always hoped that, in the future, there would be a fit for me and the city."
Her current term runs only until the end of next year. Sixteen-plus months doesn't seem like a lot of time, but Strommen said she's approaching her council job as if she's "here for the long haul."
"I have to be realistic and not say, 'I'm here till the end of next year and have to cram everything in.'"
But aside from being a woman and one of the few council members under age 40, Strommen also brings a fresh outsider's perspective.
"I have a proactive attitude and want to involve the residents and get them to participate, to take pride in this city," she said.
"We have safe neighborhoods, accessibility to a number of parks and trails. My son can look at minnows in the water."
She says she hopes to integrate discussions about the COR into discussions about the entire city.
"I'm only one of seven, but that's the perspective I'm bringing," she said. "We'll find a way to work together. We share something in common: We all chose to live here."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419