For about 40 percent of the time Woodbury has been a city, Bill Hargis has been its mayor. Now the city is doing something it's only done four times in 43 years -- changing its top leadership post at the end of the year.
The tangible marks he has left on the city are abundant, but it's the intangibles, those who know him say, that will be missed.
Hargis Parkway, which winds around the Bielenberg Sports Center, is already named for him, as is Hargis Park at Bethel University in Roseville, where the Royals play baseball and Hargis has been associate baseball coach for 21 years. Last Monday was "Bill Hargis Day" in Washington County, and about 300 people gathered at East Ridge High School to honor the outgoing mayor.
When Hargis, 61, a native of Manley, Iowa, was appointed to the Woodbury City Council in 1992, he was already well-known and respected for his understanding of the city and the challenges of economic development, said Carl Scheider, former City Council member. "It proved to be a spectacular decision," he said.
Hargis was named mayor the next year after his predecessor, Kenneth Mahle, resigned.
With the city poised for explosive growth, said Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, "he was the right person at the right time. He set Woodbury on a path to success."
In the 17 years since Hargis became mayor, the number of households in the city has grown from 9,400 to near 23,000. When Hargis took office, a mind-boggling 1,600 housing units were being added to Woodbury annually, said Mike Madigan, another former City Council member. One of the first things Hargis did was help create a comprehensive planning process to manage growth that has been emulated by communities nationwide.
Long list of accomplishments
Woodbury's population boom has meant big changes in the once-bucolic rural township. Some of the projects Hargis has been involved in include:
•Construction of the new City Hall, expansion of the Public Safety Building and the addition of three fire stations. The city also added three water towers and eight wells.
•Construction and expansion of Bielenberg Sports Center and Eagle Valley Golf Course, owned by the city.
•Construction of Central Park, an indoor community center designed like a shopping mall anchored by the R.H. Stafford Library, Southeast Area YMCA and a senior housing center. It features an indoor park, amphitheater and Lookout Ridge, a popular indoor playground.
•Expansion of the city's park system from 825 to 3,000 acres, aided by three referendums for funding approved by voters. The city's trail system grew from 31 to 127 miles.
•Construction of interchanges on Interstate 494 at both Lake Road and Tamarack Road, part of the infrastructure needed to support growth.
•The addition of more than 7 million square feet of commercial space (the equivalent of nearly two Mall of America buildings).
Through all that growth and the innumerable decisions those projects involved, it's the Hargis leadership style that has drawn plaudits.
"One of Bill's greatest attributes is that he works through consensus," said Ron Hamilton, former pastor of Woodbury Community Church, of which Hargis is a member. The mayor's deep faith is reflected in how he has conducted himself both personally and publicly, Hamilton said.
Beyond his duties as mayor, he's been deeply involved in youth sports, his church, the YMCA, the Woodbury Chamber of Commerce and the Woodbury Community Foundation.
"This is a guy who kind of lives life all-in," said Mark Porter, superintendent of South Washington County Schools. "... When he decides things are going to happen, they happen."
Porter said he values the close relationship between the city and the school district fostered by Hargis, who he counts as a mentor and friend. "He's able to look at a situation, listen to all concerns and find a solution," Porter said. "He kind of leads by suggestion -- he rarely tells you what to do."
Voters liked him
Woodbury voters have responded to that leadership style four times. The first time Hargis ran for the office in 1994, he collected 80 percent of the vote. He ran unchallenged in 1998 and 2002, and was re-elected in 2006 with 77 percent of the vote.
He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008 and was successfully treated. He has said that wasn't a factor in his decision to step down.
In the face of all the praise, Hargis is quick to credit others, especially Joan, his high school sweetheart and wife of 40 years, and a stable leadership of city staff members.
"When you look back, the time really flew by," Hargis said, and building valued relationships with people made his job easier. "It takes a lot of people to make good things happen."
"I'm proud of Bill and the work he's done," Joan Hargis said. "I know he'll miss being mayor, but I know he'll help when needed."
Jim Anderson • 651-735-0999
Orville Bielenberg, 1967-1982: Woodbury voted to move from a township to a village in 1967, then incorporated as a city. As chairman of the Township Board before that, he was the logical choice to be the first mayor. He started the police department and worked to attract the first development.
Dan Guider, 1982-1990: He helped push the transition from bedroom community to a bustling city with its own business community by spearheading construction of the first City Hall and the first high school. He served on the City Council from 1974-1982.
Kenneth Mahle, 1991-1993: Resigned after pleading guilty to soliciting sex from a boy in south Minneapolis.
Bill Hargis, 1993-2010: Oversaw major decisions on explosive population, housing and business growth. During his tenure, the city grew from about 27,000 people to more than 60,000. He managed that growth responsibly, with a balance of affordable housing, green space, trails and a mix of commercial, residential and rural areas that has been recognized as one of his main legacies.
Mary Giuliani Stephens: After four years on the City Council, the longtime community activist handily defeated five other candidates in the 2010 election. Hargis is a strong supporter.