Eagan Patch sat down last week with departing Eagan City Administrator Tom Hedges, who plans to retire next February after 36 years in his role. Hedges, whose first experience with the public sector came as a teenager, when his mother worked as a deputy city clerk, had plenty to say about his job, the city's future and being "the godfather" of city administration in Minnesota. This interview has been edited for length.
Patch: Looking back on those 36 years in Eagan, what would you say has been the most fulfilling aspect of your job?
Hedges: The third paragraph of my [retirement] letter talks about bricks and mortar and projects and all those things are fulfilling and great, but it’s the infrastructure of people. Relationships with employees, the community, businesses, service organizations, that's really what has been fulfilling. I like people, I like to meet people, I want to help people, I want to serve people. If you have a problem, I want to get it resolved. The greatest gratification I can have is when that resident walks in and has a complete problem, they’ve expired every avenue, and I can do something to help them. I try to distill that into our culture here, that that’s why we’re here, to really provide that service.
Patch: One of the commenters on our website, it was Tom Egan, actually, labeled you the dean of city adminstrators in Minnesota, across the whole state. I was curious to know what you thought about that comment.
Hedges: I’ve never been an assistant. I’ve always been a city administrator for over 40 years now, and it’s all been in Minnesota. I’ve had all these interns who have come through here for six months to a year, and now they’re all out running cities. I think Tom’s point was as much that there’s been that connection, that web, and there’s been some recognition over the years. The former city adminstrator of Hugo, Mike Ericson, who never interned for me, always called me 'the godfather,' and I’m always embarrassed by it.
Patch: Throughout the 36 years that you’ve worked here, has your vision for the city always been consistent? What is that vision?
Hedges: I know when I came to Eagan in 1976, the recruiter… I remember him saying when he was recruiting me, he said [Eagan] is the diamond in the rough. I’ll never forget that phrase. One of the things I needed to do early on was cause [Eagan elected officials] to look further ahead and say 'We don’t have the interstates today … but they’re going to come in the next five to six years.' And I think it was incumbent on us to really start thinking about the tsunami of growth that was going to occur here in our community.
We knew, to get the heart of the vision, that Eagan was going to be an urbanized community and it was going to grow. We needed to build that infrastructure of employees; we needed to find that city engineer, and that was Tom Colbert, and we needed to find that director of parks and recreation. Part of the vision was just getting Eagan ready for that growth. And once the interstates we built, every developer wanted to build a subdvision. I commend the councils for being able to think aoutside the box and anticipate some of that.
Patch: Looking forward then, what are some of the most significant issues that you believe the city is going to face in the next five to 10 years?
Hedges: We’re almost built out in terms of residential, we’re getting closer to being built out in commercial and industrial. One of the things that we’re seeing is the challenge of redevelopment and infill. Infill meaning that there's some vacant land and it’s surrounded on all sides [by other developments]. That’s harder to develop than what I was referring to, and that’s cornfields on all sides. You’re the farmer, you come in and want to sell 80 acres to Jim over here, and it’s not a big deal, as long as it’s consistent with development. There’s nobody around to complain. Now today, it can be one lot, and all the neigbors around want to make sure there’s a bigger house on the lot than their's. I think redevelopment is going to continue. There’s a lot of interest, if you look at data and projections, that people want to be closer to urban centers. It’s going to get harder to build further out. So I think as that continues to happen, and values are going to keep agoing up in a place like Eagan. I think we’re going to see even greater demands on redevelopment. We have some choice property, and some of it’s being under-utilized, in the way that it’s being zoned and used today.
Patch: Do you ever foresee the kind of high rises and development here that, say, Bloomington has?
Hedges: Yes. I was asked to write a letter as city administrator for a time capsule that we did in the fire station. I put in there just that: I think we’re going to see greater densities probably on the river area. Land, as it gets more and more valuable, I think some of the starter houses will go, and you’ll see some of that kind of pressure.
I also think tax base, and the ability to maintain constant service delivery is always important, I think we’re going to have greater challenges for demographics, what do we do with those people who are retiring and aging in place? The city is going to have that aging-in-place population that will have certain needs and expectations. At the same time, we have you and your wife coming in and wanting to raise that family. You’re going to see a greater intergenerational community, and city hall has to figure out how we balance those service demands.
Patch: What would you say to your successor? If there are one or two things they should absolutely know about Eagan, what are those things?
Hedges: I think the thing that they need to be cognizant of is that they have a pretty high-energy team here. It’s a team that strives for excellence. We place high expectations on ourselves, and I think the new person would need to be cognizant of that, so they can lead us into the next chapter. I think the other thing is that we’re becoming a leader in technology, with Access Eagan, and doing more fiber to the homes, and the carrier hotel and the colocation facility and all that. Taking this fiber and technology to a greater level than even where we are is going to be important. I think our local industry will need it for retention and expasion. Thomson Reuters has said that 'The more you do to attract fiber to our homes and community, the better off we are, because we’re not interested in bricks and mortar. We want to have an employee of ours work out of his home. We want that kind of flexibility.' That’s [why technology] is going to help us on the economic development front.