White Bear Lake Mayor Jo Emerson keeps a notepad and pen in her car. When she’s driving to and from city council meetings, she takes a different route each time and looks around for “things that need to be fixed”—sidewalks or streets in need of repair, burned-out streetlights or other flaws.
It’s a habit she learned from Mark Sather, who retired as White Bear Lake city manager in December after more than 31 years in the position. “I learned a heck of a lot from him, [including] when you work for your community you want to make it better, and you do it, even when some people might yell at you,” Emerson says. “He really cares about his city.”
At his final council meeting December 8, the council surprised him by renaming Lake Avenue Trail as Mark Sather Trail. “We slipped that one in on him,” Emerson says.
The 65-year-old Sather came to White Bear in 1984, after stints as an assistant city manager in St. Louis Park, and city manager in Waseca. During his tenure in White Bear Lake, Sather has worked with seven mayors and more than 25 council members.
When he arrived, the city was in a period of transition. “Going into the early 1980s, the city discovered the disadvantage of having a tax base that was not diversified,” Sather says. “There was distinct lack of commercial and industrial businesses, so homeowners were carrying most of the burden of the cost of government.”
With limited opportunity to grow through annexation, city officials “realized we had to diversify the tax base quickly.” Developing several small business incubators and attracting some retailers and light manufacturing businesses (Trane was one example) proved to be a successful strategy.
Then, as the city and its residents continued to age, the next big challenge was coming up with a plan to fund infrastructure updates that were needed after 40 years, Sather says. “It was a difficult time for the council to assess the cost of some of those improvements. But we were able to come up with a plan to finance them that worked really well.”
One of the accomplishments from his tenure Sather is proudest of has been the city government’s success at keeping property taxes low, relative to cities of similar size. Among Minnesota cities in the 18,000 to 30,000 population category, “we’ve been the lowest in taxes, just about every year. We’re very frugal,” he says. “But, the idea isn’t to have the lowest taxes, it’s to provide high-quality services, at the lowest cost.”
What are Sather’s plans for retirement? He and his wife, Maureen, plan to spend time visiting their two children and their families more often (both live in San Francisco), and other relatives who live around the country. They also hope to travel to Ireland, where Sather and his wife both have roots, and do some sailing, possibly in the Caribbean. He’s also thinking about going back to school to study constitutional law, “which I was involved with in my job; it would be fun to know more about those things.”
Over the past 20 years or so, Sather says, the city’s sense of community has been strengthened by efforts to address certain challenges, including the revitalization of the downtown in the early ’90s. “If we had just stood back and watched, downtown might have been lost,” he says. “But people really came together.”
Community-wide, “pull-together” efforts like those are part of what makes White Bear special, Sather believes. Coming up with solutions to challenges was one of the most satisfying parts of his job. “But the real satisfaction is not the government doing it, but helping the community do it for itself.”