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Continued: A strong breeze of change in Shakopee

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: December 27, 2011 - 2:21 PM

Not long after he was elected mayor of Shakopee, Brad Tabke decided it was time to begin to heal the city's relationship with the wealthy Native American tribe that has been exasperating his predecessors for years.

"I simply called and said, 'Let's talk,'" he recalls. "They couldn't have been more welcoming. Whatever time, day or evening, suited me was fine with them."

Swiftly -- and for quite a long time -- he found himself before the inner circle of tribal leaders of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.

It has "been awhile," they told him -- meaning, apparently, quite a long while -- since that has happened with any Shakopee mayor.

When Dave Unmacht resigned as Scott County administrator a couple of years ago after decades of civic leadership in the county, one of his parting thoughts was this: It will be exceedingly interesting when the new people begin take the reins.

Shakopee has roughly quadrupled in size since 1990, from a little more than 10,000 people to nearly 40,000. And not everyone who was there 20 years ago is still around.

When would the balance finally shift? When would it cease to be every candidate's supreme boast that he or she was born and raised in town, with family ties extending back to the homesteaders of the 19th century?

"I've lived in Shakopee 18 years and I'm still considered the out-of-towner," council member-elect Jay Whiting declared during a candidate forum last fall. "And that's good. I'm goin' with that. I think we need a fresh look at things."

Exemplifying the other side of the equation, incumbent Matt Lehman declared that, not only was he born in town, he was even born in the old St. Francis hospital, not the new one across the highway. Challenger Mike Luce said that, having "lived here all my life," he could vouch for both council incumbents because "I know them. I don't know the rest of these people very well."

Shakopee, he added, is a "totally different animal now" from "the old town I grew up in."

The tension seems to exist in every city with an older core and a newer sprinkling of suburban subdivisions. But there's an edginess to it in Shakopee that seems stronger than in some places -- notably neighboring Savage.

Candidates at that city's forum managed to combine a fondness for the past with a differing vibe about the present.

"I'm born and raised here, seen all the changes, and I can't think of any negative changes," said Savage Council Member Al McColl. "There was a favorite time in my life when we were 3,000 people and you knew everybody." That's far from true now, but still, "people do know their neighbors and what cars belong on that street, and that's what keeps us thriving."

Mayor Janet Williams agreed. "I'm the oldest one on the dais, I've seen the most changes; I can go back to where we were 200 people, and now it's up to 26,000. I'm pleased the way it's developed."

Different backgrounds

Kathleen Klehr, director of the Scott County Historical Society -- and a relative newcomer -- said she explains the difference in demographic terms.

"Shakopee has a bigger demographic mix," she said. Its racial and ethnic identity is changing faster, and it has a greater income mix. "Shakopee sees itself as more of a melting pot-mixing pot. But when you have that, there's more potential for conflict, too."

There's a difference in history as well. Shakopee has a much more robust historic core. In 1950, Shakopee was a good-sized town -- 3,200 people -- while Savage was just a hamlet of fewer than 400.

Whatever the reason for the differences, the 32-year-old Tabke knew exactly what he faced in trying to oust a genial incumbent as mayor.

"I did a lot of videos so people could get to know who I am and get a feel for my personality. The trust factor was huge. It took a leap of faith for people to vote for me. I needed them to know I wasn't crazy, I wouldn't do things that were off the wall. They were used to John [Schmitt, a decades-long resident], they were comfortable with him, they knew what they were getting with John. With me, for the vast majority of town, I was a completely unknown entity."

Now, having harnessed the voting power of his fellow newcomers, he faces the task of trying to melt barriers.

"It's not new vs. old," he said. "it's new and old. We'll get more done working together than focusing on how we're different."

But he is placing a lot of emphasis on inclusion.

He's moving to reach out to the many Latinos in Shakopee -- something his old-school predecessor acknowledged had been a shortcoming but had blamed on a lack of any real formal leadership structure to work with.

Tabke, who became friends with a number of Latino immigrants when he worked in the lawn-care industry, is just winging it.

"I'm having breakfast with a few folks," he said the other day. "I'm being taken to breakfast at someone's house and I guess a bunch of people are coming over. Evidently. I don't know -- I'm just coming along for the ride. We'll see."

Building connections

Tabke also wants to follow St. Louis Park's lead in generating public involvement by creating neighborhood organizations, finding people who can serve as points of contact for both citizens and city hall when issues arise.

St. Louis Park -- there's more information at www.stlouispark.org/neighborhood-information.html -- has 35 neighborhood groups, some just a few blocks in size, in hopes of galvanizing folks who truly feel part of a small pocket of neighbors.

Another priority, Tabke says, is to be much more aggressive in pushing out to people what's happening -- busting up the impression at least of an old boy's network.

"Recently there was a council work session on fire department issues that was talking about really important things, and a lot of the firefighters didn't even know it was going on! I don't know where the responsibility lies, but it needs to be easier to get at that information."

In sum, said the historical society's Klehr:

"There's been a shake-up. There's been a change. We're all looking to see what the future brings now."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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