After negotiating development deals in Anoka for three decades, Bob Kirchner may have a more lasting impact on the old river town than any other city employee, some colleagues say.
Kirchner, 66, was toasted and teased last week when the community development director and assistant city manager retired. He had a 35-year, at times turbulent, run with the city where he graduated from high school and has lived most of his life.
Kirchner’s patience served him well as his signature project took him 23 years to finish: the RiversPointe townhouses along the Rum River. Kirchner said the city bought and cleared 44 old homes in a flood-prone downtown neighborhood and trucked in 4,000 big truckloads of clean fill to raise 12 acres by about six feet. Then Rottlund Homes built 58 townhouses to meet a city need for upscale housing, said Merrywayne Elvig, who has served on the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Board throughout Kirchner’s career. The project was finished in 2003.
“Bob gets it done; properly, thoroughly and you know when he’s done there is nothing to come back and bite you,” said Elvig, 82. “Without a doubt, he is the employee who has contributed the most to the city of Anoka in all the years.”
Kirchner also oversaw the development of the 300-acre Anoka Enterprise Park on Hwy. 10. The park attracted about 65 businesses, 44 new buildings and 2,000 jobs to the northwest corner of town, most in the 1990s. The project generated major tax revenues, about $5.7 million of which was used to buy homes and develop RiversPointe.
Although Kirchner won development awards for Enterprise Park, it also attracted criticism from a study done in 2000 by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a Washington, D.C., think tank. The study found that Anoka contributed to suburban sprawl by using $7.5 million in tax-subsidized, free land to lure dozens of companies, nearly all from Minneapolis and northern suburbs. The report said the park created no net regional economic gain, but did help Anoka improve its poor tax base and reclaim 300 vacant and partially contaminated acres.
City Manager Tim Cruikshank, who came to Anoka in 2001, said the industrial park “was critical to the tax base and job base of our community.”
He said Kirchner “is a community builder with a very high profile and a profound impact on the community. … Bob was the key player on many projects that are visible today.”
Kirchner is known for his patience, persistence, and unruffled demeanor, qualities that served him well in the mid-2000s, when a council majority led by young Mayor Bjorn Skogquist was at odds with him.
Kirchner said the majority, which had issues with the costly RiversPointe project, removed planning and zoning staff from his economic development division in 2005. A year later the council relieved him of the HRA executive directorship he had held since 1991.
The staff changes occurred because most of the council was not happy with Kirchner’s performance, said Skogquist, mayor from 2000 to 2008. “We asked for certain things to be done and brought forth,” he recalled. “Bob had an agenda that he wanted to see happen rather than what council members asked for.”
Mark Freeburg, a council member since 1996, recalled those tense years, marked by marathon council meetings and efforts to dump Kirchner, who “outlasted them.” Freeburg described the man as humble, methodical, patient and responsible. He said Kirchner was trustworthy and “a good public servant.”
Freeburg found it remarkable that Kirchner never needed to use condemnation on the homes the city bought and replaced with townhouses.
“I was worried about getting fired for a few years,” Kirchner said recently, sitting beneath plaques on his office wall honoring his service. He said he refocused on his remaining duties and personal interests, including history and theology. He joined a study group of city executives, led by Don Salverda, that became a therapy group or sorts.
“Two things pulled me through: my faith and my friends … They said they would back me up all the way,” said Kirchner, who is married with no children. At one low point “I asked God: ‘Am I really supposed to stay here?’ And I never got the OK to go,” he said. “I now see it redirected me to do the things I have done. It was a blessing in disguise.”
Among those things is a 66-foot-long chart of Anoka leaders and events from 1850 to the present that is taped to the wall of a lower-level room in City Hall. It took two years to research and create.
Mayor Phil Rice, a council member since 2004, said some people were critical of how long it took the meticulous Kirchner to finish RiversPointe. He worked on the project, which began in 1966, from 1980 to 2003. Rice said RiversPointe is an example of a costly project that only a city could undertake.
“Before, the houses flooded every 10 years or so,” Rice said. “It makes sense for a community because it adds quality housing.”
Kirchner “made tremendous contributions to the community,” Rice said. “His handprints will be left on Anoka for many years in terms of tax base and quality developments.”
Before a goodbye gathering last week, Cruikshank shared one of Kirchner’s favorite lines:
“He always said he wanted to have his belt on and his suspenders, too, for this or that project,” Cruikshank said. “He always had a backup plan in place to be sure the city is going to be safe and on solid footing … He had an incredible knack for paying attention to details. That detail has really provided security for the city.”