Shakopee has rehired a familiar mayor to lead a city that looks a lot different these days.
The south metro city’s population of almost 40,000 has nearly doubled since 2000, bringing in new businesses and a demand for housing options other than single-family homes.
A new community center, which stirred controversy after its approval under the previous mayor, is back on track and set for an April groundbreaking.
Mayor Bill Mars took office in January, the city’s first leader to serve two nonconsecutive terms after his last stint ended in the early 2000s. Mars, 57, won in November in a landslide, after promising fiscal restraint and more consensus-building at City Hall.
“I’m going to continue trying to make Shakopee great,” said Mars, a lifelong Minnesotan who spent most of his career in public utilities. On the City Council, he added, “you’re seeing a slower, methodical pace.”
That approach was evident in the city’s plans to build a new, $8.5 million City Hall — approved 5-0 by the City Council this month, and without, Mars noted, any increase in residents’ taxes.
Mars succeeded Brad Tabke, a social-media-savvy leader in his mid-30s whose four-year tenure ushered in 26 new businesses. Tabke shepherded the community center project, with its $30.4 million price tag. Shakopee residents were divided when the City Council approved the center without a referendum at the tail end of Tabke’s term.
Tabke chose not to run again last year. He endorsed City Council Member Kathi Mocol to succeed him, but she lost to Mars.
Mars must minimize the financial burden of the community center and appease some taxpayers who feel jilted. He said he hopes the center, which will include spaces for seniors and teens, fitness centers and ice rinks, will become a destination.
“This building will be done right,” he said, citing the city’s history of paying for public buildings in cash. “If Chaska can sell curling, why can’t we?”
Consensus and harmony on the City Council, which had been split over most decisions, especially on spending, is another of Mars’ priorities.
“I saw friction on the council, and I’ve been around long enough,” Mars said.
In a 5-0 council vote in March, Mars won approval an “inclusive playground” at Lions Park on Adams Street to better serve children with disabilities, and features he says will appeal to the elderly.
Businesses in bloom
Accompanied by his wife, Corky, the blue-jean-clad mayor chatted with residents and business owners who attended a February ribbon-cutting at a Warners’ Stellian appliance store. The family-owned, Twin Cities chain’s ninth location is next door to a Goodwill and not far from the Renaissance Festival grounds.
Meanwhile, Amazon is finishing a new fulfillment center that will create more than 1,000 jobs this spring.
Across town, Shakopee’s Main Street is home to a yoga studio, coffee shop and biker’s apparel store. Among other businesses, these give downtown a cozier appeal, according to Laura Pecaut, Main Street coordinator.
“This is nothing new,” Mars said of the city’s Main Street efforts, whose origins date to the 1970s. “Does it seem like it has more success right now? Maybe. But maybe 20 years ago, it had some success. It’s about the sustainability.”
The city hopes to find a balance between big employers such as Amazon, and retail and restaurants.
“We want people to live here, to work here, and also have a hometown district,” Pecaut said.
The Main Street program recently hosted its first InstaMeet, a social-media meet-and-greet where about 60 people equipped with smartphones traversed — and promoted — the city, stopping by old staples like Bill’s Toggery, the local bakery and displays of recently painted street art.
One of the winning shots featured a cheery shot of a few buildings, including the bubblegum-pink Tipico’s restaurant.
In its own repost, Main Street’s Instagram said: “the building on the left has space for lease if you’re an entrepreneur looking for a downtown spot ;)”
As the city continues to grow, planners seek to cater to newcomers who will want variety, from social outlets to family outings and dining spots.
On a Tuesday afternoon, a cluster of men and women sat along the bar at O’Brien’s Public House, whose large open windows overlook the Minnesota River. The Irish pub may have just opened, but it’s owned by a family whose history in town dates back three generations. Seeking a shorter commute and suburban comforts, the Irish pub’s head chef, Christine Castro, from Chicago, and her husband, Angelino, a sous-chef from Ecuador, moved to Shakopee after they were hired.
“This is kind of the pace of life we were looking for, ready to slow down, talk about starting a family and whatnot,” Christine said. They’re both in their mid-30s.
Mars’ business outlook relies on staying power — plus the “wow factor,” as he calls it.
O’Brien’s is one of a small pool of dining options downtown, which include a few taco joints as well as Dangerfield’s and mainstay Turtle’s, which opened 26 years ago.
“I’ve been going there for 100 years,” Mars said of Turtle’s.
A new business “really has to stand the test of time,” Mars said. “That’s how I gauge things.”
He’s hoping to focus on rezoning areas of town and filling leadership vacancies, including the assistant city administrator and director of planning and development positions. He suggested the possibility of turning the old City Hall site into a housing complex.
“We need to get more people downtown,” he said. “Maybe even have more people there to begin with.” Last time, the city “had big, huge plots,” he said. “Now we have none.”
“I think we sit in a great era,” Mars added. “I think we’re a little behind the curve in preparation for the next round of growth, but we’ll catch up.”