In 1968, when Luke Melchert took a job as Chaska's city attorney, the city was a flood-prone, far-flung backwater with a population of about 4,000.
He stayed in that position more than half a century, a key figure in projects expanding the city that today has nearly 28,000 residents.
Last month, at age 82, Melchert announced his retirement.
"He's got the context and perspective on community development that are really rare to find," said City Administrator Matt Podhradsky. Melchert understands "how it all fits together," he said.
Bob Roepke, who was Chaska mayor from 1984 to 2002, called Melchert "the resident active historian of city development."
Known for never missing a City Council meeting, Melchert could have retired in the early 2000s. But he had no interest in stepping down at 65.
"You're a young person at that age," he said. "To be part of watching a city grow, at a job I liked — why retire?"
Chaska has grown in more than population; it offers more than 10 times as many local jobs as it did in 1970, according to the Metropolitan Council. It also — again, thanks in part to Melchert's efforts — is much easier to travel to or from. His efforts in negotiations for federal funding and land acquisition helped launch the long-awaited construction of Hwy. 212 as a four-lane freeway to Chaska and sped residents' commutes to Minneapolis and other parts of the metro.
"He was able to get things done, and people respected him because he looked for solutions rather than ways to cause conflict," said Dave Pokorney, Chaska's city administrator from 1984 to 2008. "I think that allows him to get things resolved. Nobody dislikes Luke Melchert."
When Melchert first took the city attorney job after working at a St. Paul municipal banking firm, he became involved in efforts already underway to develop a novel, ambitious planned community called Jonathan.
The dream of former state Sen. Henry T. McKnight, Jonathan was to be a city within a city, sharing Chaska's government and services but acting as a defined, dense, mixed-use, "walkable community" — a type that's become more popular and familiar today than it was in the 1960s and '70s, when auto-dependent suburbia ruled.
Jonathan did get partly constructed — it hosted the first Renaissance Festival — but the full concept never came to fruition due to financial problems and McKnight's death. It is now a large neighborhood in Chaska.
But in the course of getting it built, Melchert helped raise funds to extend sewer and water service into the area. The city was able to use those utilities, Podhradsky said, as an incentive to lure industrial development — and thousands of jobs — that other communities couldn't match.
The development expanded the tax base, enabling the city, with Melchert's involvement, to acquire land for a public golf course and other amenities. He worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to get a $42 million dike built on the Minnesota River, thereby protecting a swath of the city that had previously been stuck in a flood plain. That area included downtown Chaska. With flooding danger eliminated, the city was able to pursue improvement projects previously impossible.
"That's probably the best thing that ever happened to Chaska," Melchert said. "Otherwise our downtown would not be anything like it is now."
Melchert is also known for his after-hours work on the city's behalf. Among other things, he led the move by the Lions Club to start a pulltab legalized gambling program that has raised millions of dollars for local schools and social services. He shows up every year for Christmas in May — a day when volunteers fix up homes for low-income residents — always wearing the same paint-splattered T-shirt.
"Chaska is his life … he walks the walk," Podhradsky said. "He looked at everything he worked on as something that would have a positive impact on his family."
As Melchert put it with his typical understated humor, "I had a client I liked, and apparently they were OK with me."
Katy Read • 612-673-4583