More than 30 years ago, some builders scoffed at developing in Maple Grove, a small city of about 20,000 residents surrounded by farm fields and gravel mining pits.

“Not much is going to happen here,” they told Al Madsen. But Madsen, then the city’s economic development director, saw potential.

“You have this blank canvas and you could design and shape it,” he said of the large northwest metro suburb. “That’s been the fun part.”

After overseeing the city’s unprecedented explosion in development, first as the city’s economic development director and then in the top spot as city administrator, Madsen is retiring this fall.

And it turns out, he was right years ago. Over his 32 years with Maple Grove, the city has blossomed into a large suburb, with 64,000 residents, 22,000 households and development now filling 75 percent of its 23,000 acres. The most visible transformation may be the 3 million-square-foot hub of restaurants and retail off Interstate 94 — second in concentration of restaurants and retail in the metro to the Mall of America, Madsen said.

“He had a key leadership role in making sure all those projects … were done,” said Mayor Mark Steffenson, who helped select Madsen as city administrator in 1997. “He’s very dedicated to the city.”

The city is accepting applications for the position until July 30. Then the City Council will select a new top leader in September, with Madsen officially retiring Oct. 30 — only the fourth city administrator in Maple Grove’s history.

Development taking off

After a stint at the state level, Madsen joined Maple Grove in 1983 as its economic development director. He was in the spot for 14 years before becoming city administrator.

When he first started out, there wasn’t much in the 36-square-mile city after the freeway went through Maple Grove in 1979.

“All of sudden, people driving to their lake cabins said, ‘Where did that community come from?’ ” Madsen said.

First, residential development took off, with the city getting 2,000 building permits a year in the 1980s. Then, by 1983, residents said in a community survey that they needed more restaurants, a Target and more retail. Even Madsen’s wife complained that there was little in the city.

“Be patient, it will happen,” he said he told her. “I knew there was a potential here because of the freeway and the potential of the gravel mining area [to be developed]. Then developers started to take a more serious look at us.”

A business park went in, followed by restaurants and retail, including that much sought-after Target and, most visibly, the Arbor Lakes area, which had three phases of development starting in 1990.

“There’s been a lot of really good plans and strong leadership [in Maple Grove], and clearly Al has played a role in that,” said Tim Murnane, president and chief executive of Opus Holding LLC, which developed Arbor Lakes and has worked with Madsen for more than 25 years. “Al, in my career, was the best city administrator I’ve worked with because he was really able to balance all the stakeholders’ interests. It’s not easy. You’ve got neighbors, residents, city officials and then you’ve got the market realities.”

Murnane said the city initially had the Arbor Lakes area zoned for office but adjusted its plans for retail and restaurants to meet market demand.

“And that’s something Al played a key role in,” Murnane added.

‘Right place, right time’

As the city grew, its demographics changed. The affluent community still has a median household income of about $92,000, according to census data, but the city is becoming more diverse, with more low-income residents and more nonwhite residents. Population forecasts say Maple Grove will keep growing, reaching 80,000 residents by 2030 and nearly 90,000 by 2040.

“In my mind, we’re a premier city,” Madsen said.

The city’s northwest corner is still largely undeveloped. And there’s the massive gravel mining area, where mounds of gravel tower next to busy roads. After three tries at the State Capitol, Madsen and city leaders got approval to establish a tax-increment financing district to redevelop 600 acres of 1,100 acres of former gravel mining land into offices.

“There’s still a lot of development that can happen,” Madsen said.

But that will be for the next city administrator. Madsen, who turns 74 in October, plans to spend more time with his wife, two kids and two grandchildren, travel and volunteer.

“It will be tough to leave,” he said. “In ’83 when I came here, there wasn’t much. Now, look what we have — it’s mind-boggling. I’ve been here at the right place and the right time.”