The city's new administrator is running things for the first time -- after apprenticeships spanning two decades in other Minnesota communities.
Others might have seen a city with a high tax rate and a decrease in property values. But Elk River's new city administrator sees "a jewel."
Elk River is the Sherburne County seat and the second-largest city (after St. Cloud) in what has been Minnesota's fastest-growing county for much of the past decade.
It is a city of possibilities -- from its quaint Main Street and cozy downtown district to the superstores that straddle Hwy. 169. It is the one community within a rural county that has access to several major arteries, with Minneapolis just 30 miles away.
For Portner, it's a dream job. Of course, this is a guy who, years ago, savored spending a day in a small western Minnesota city, observing as officials talked about trying to develop around a post office.
"There was no resolution," Portner recalled. "The city administrator and planner were scratching their heads. And I kept asking questions. I thought it was the neatest thing, seeing first-hand how these issues play out and sometimes get resolved."
He grew up in New Ulm unsure where his future would take him. But he was always observant -- even of things others took for granted.
New Ulm was a city that took care of itself, he recalled. The yards were manicured, the streets clean.
"It was a model of what you want for a city," he said.
He went to the University of Minnesota and landed an internship with then-U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad. Portner had considered a teaching career. Then he began meeting police chiefs, school superintendents and city officials.
"How do I get into public administration?" he began asking.
After earning a master's degree at Hamline University, Portner learned in 1991 that Brooklyn Park was looking for an assistant to its city manager. He spent six years working in what was then Minnesota's fifth-largest city.
He later moved to Plymouth, another large suburb, and served as the city's administrative services director.
"But my ultimate goal was to oversee an entire operation," said Portner.
He felt fulfilled in Plymouth but jumped at the chance to go to Elk River.
The city initially offered the job to Kevin Lahner, city administrator in Burlington, Wis. When Lahner declined, Elk River chose Portner to succeed Lori Johnson, who resigned and is now city administrator in Otsego. There were 71 applicants for the job that Portner ultimately got.
He and his wife, Penny, a Forest Lake teacher, live in Andover, a location that creates a 20-mile commute for each of them. They have two daughters and a son.
"There's not a lot of places where you can go and not have to relocate," Portner said. "This is perfect."
In spite of a 45.7 percent tax rate and a 5.6 percent decrease in property values, Elk River has tremendous potential, he said. With the levy, there's an additional 3 percent tax increase, he said.
But the positives far outweigh the economic climate.
"There's so much positive energy in City Hall," he said.
"This is a standalone community -- meaning people live here and work here," he said. "Like my hometown of New Ulm, this is a model of what a city should be."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419