Pat Hentges

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Mankato’s Game Plan

For 22 years, city manager Pat Hentges has led Mankato through struggles and success while developing a vision for the future of a thriving regional center.

In the game of football, linebackers are often regarded as a key position in defense. Linebackers are known to be versatile, either providing hard hits on running plays or providing an additional layer of pass protection, whichever the situation calls for. Linebackers are required to use their judgment on every snap, to quickly determine their role after “reading” the offensive play. This snap decision, though, is often made after much study of the other team in the days leading up to the game.

Preparation. Execution. Working as a team. All moving toward a common goal, a strategic plan if you will.

Why the sports primer in a business magazine? Because linebacker is a position that Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges knows well. And it’s a position that parallels, in many ways, his position now. He played linebacker in high school at Bethlehem Academy in Faribault, and later at the collegiate level including junior college and at St. Cloud State University. It was all long ago, long before he even had thoughts of calling the plays for one of Minnesota’s fastest growing economies.

Likely most of you reading this realize, Mankato receives high marks in many areas: highest gross domestic product growth rate in the state (2016), and since 2014 the city has attracted nearly $500 million in capital investments. In addition, the Greater Mankato economy is highly diversified, with approximately 36% Primary Economy, 53% Professional/Service Economy and 11% Retail/Consumer Economy (via Greater Mankato Growth). And in the last ten years the City Center has experienced a revitalization. It’s important for us to look at how we got here. For that we can go back to Hentges’ early “career” on the field:

Preparation. Execution. Working as a team.

That’s how Hentges has led the city for 22 years now…and counting.

“I still find the job very challenging,” he says. “I still enjoy getting up to go to work every day. I think if we were to take a picture of me over the last 20 years, you would see a progression. I’m not getting any younger and I am in the twilight of my career. But it will be hard to give up the reins when the time comes. That time is not now, as Mankato continues to pose a lot of professional challenges for me. It’s a very enjoyable community. From a city leader, a city manager standpoint, overall it’s been a very positive experience.”

Over his more than two decades with Mankato, Hentges has been the play caller, surrounding himself with a strong team.

“I took over for Bill Bassett, who is a legend in my field, so I knew I would be walking into a good situation,” he says.

Still, Hentges did a bit of a rewrite on the playbook. First, captaining his team to create a strategic plan, then leading them in whatever way the situation called for, using keen instincts for success.

“I like to say it’s more luck,” he chuckles. “My success has been more to do with luck than it has ever been to do with my skills. I’m not the smartest guy, I’m not the best-looking guy, not the best command of the English language but I think I have a keen eye for hiring and developing good people. When I came here there was a council that wanted change, it was a community that wanted change. It was a great time to step in.”

But, of course, he didn’t run off the field and right into Mankato City Hall.

“Right out of college, I spent 13 years in the Faribault city administrator’s office, eventually becoming city administrator,” he explains. “Then I was recruited by a local private company here, Met-Con Companies. I was a general manager at Met-Con for about four years in the late ’80s and early ’90s. However, I kind of missed the public sector and the community involvement that you have as a public administrator and public leader. So I went to work for the city of Columbia Heights, Minnesota as their city manager.

“There were some great challenges in Columbia Heights with it being an inner ring suburb. It helped me grow. But I always had a strong interest in development and growth, as well as progressive service delivery. I think because of that interest in development and growth and my experience working in the private sector at Met-Con, Mankato was interested in me.”

Indeed, Mankato did snatch him up. That was in 1996 and Hentges has been at the helm of Mankato’s city operations ever since. Hentges works with the team around him to follow a strategic playbook for the city. Sometimes he has to hit hard and tackle tough issues, other times he sits back to allow a play to unfold before jumping in.

Preparation. Execution. Working as a team.

In this interview, he talks a little bit about the changes he’s seen, but mostly he talks about how well those changes have poised the city for the future.

When you came to Mankato, what challenges did you face at that time?

It’s kind of interesting in that we had a number of challenges and certainly, we had some issues in public safety at the time that came about after a pretty large change in the community in the ‘80s when the city went to a combined police and fire public safety organization. So the city was still dealing with the effects of that. Also at that time, there was a fair amount of what I would call employee-morale issues.

Bill Bassett, who I followed, I think had positioned the city pretty well financially and we were very financially stable at the time. We had good reserves and a very lean budget, but I think there were a lot of concerns about our service efficiency in terms of street repairs, snow plowing, those kinds of bread and butter issues. So there were challenges there.

The other thing that I think the council really wanted to look at was to facilitate a strategic plan or, in other words, set some priorities. We spent a lot of my early years in goal setting and developing a strategy for the future to address a lot of important issues. Three themes were very evident: Improve the efficiency, address the morale issues organizationally, and at the same time look to the future and set some goals that everybody could rally behind.

So we knew we wanted to pursue those three things, but there are a lot of things that came up in the meantime. They hired me one night and they sold city hall the same night, without any idea where they were going to go! So there were also a lot of those kinds of initial challenges.

I think also, and I was a little dumbfounded and taken aback by this, but there was a rather rocky relationship between city hall and the media. There were some challenges, I think, early on in working on that and shouldering a lot of the decision-making, while also being responsive to the public and the media. So we had to learn to ride that balance there, keeping people informed and such.

It’s safe to say, after those early challenges, I found that the community was very open to change and I think wanted it.

Why do you say the city was ready for a change?

I think we, the city, had a little bit of an inferiority complex to some of the other regional centers. Even though others may not have been able to see it, I could recognize the potential of this city and that’s what attracted me to the job.

There was a willingness on the part of the community to be something more than they were at the time.

How did you address some of these challenges?

First, I wanted to get the council to think about longer-range planning and what I’d call strategic planning from the standpoint of really laying out their collective goals, so that we could, as a staff in the organization, get behind and get out in front of those issues. As opposed to council members bringing up very minute issue focused on individual citizens. There was a time when if one citizen had a concern we’d spend the whole council meeting on that particular issue as opposed to working in a work program that had some general priorities to it. With a strategic plan I could get the staff to focus on working on the council priorities as opposed to continually responding to small things that popped up.

As for the challenges on the media relation side of this, we decided to focus a lot of the media inquiries through me. Until then, we had mixed messages depending on which council member, which mayor, what staff member you talked to. Often they would give out their personal opinions rather than the city’s interest. So I spent a lot of time with the media and basically said, “I’m the spokesman for the city and I believe I can pretty well represent the council’s position and at the same time, understand that I represent the city organization’s position.”

I think that helped develop a better relationship. We made ourselves accessible to the press.

How about the morale issues, those are sometimes the toughest to tackle.

Well, I think we continue to struggle with it to a certain extent as does any organization. But we’ve made great strides in the last 10 years as we’ve developed strong senior leadership. So it isn’t always centered around the city manager, but accountability includes all our employees. The key is everyone in the organization recognizes they work for the city of Mankato. They’re not just these independent, separate entities like public works, public safety, administrative services, community development, and so forth. It is recognized that we are one and we have a common goal. Sometimes a service department may be the lead, but they’re very dependent on their colleagues in another department. Having that understanding and appreciation and leadership at all levels has helped us make great strides. But it was a challenge to change that culture. We had a lot of struggles. I used to hear people very commonly say, “I work for the street department so that’s not part of my job” or “I work for the police department so you’ll have to ask someone else” or “I’m with the fire department.” Well really, while not everything will be related to your primary focus you have a responsibility to the residents of this city. So if you drive by something that needs to be addressed, report it to the appropriate department so that they can resolve it. Those types of things we’re making strides in but there’s always a little bit of reinforcing. What we try to get through is one brand, one message, one service. We all work for one team: the city of Mankato.

What would you say has been the biggest difference you’ve made as city manager for the business community?

First of all, we’re very competitive when it comes to taxes here. The reality is our tax rates for a city in a regional center are extremely competitive. The amount of tax base we have per capita helps spread the tax burden more evenly. Also, what we have is a very sustainable community financially. And, I may say also environmentally. Our infrastructure is as modern as you can possibly be for a 150-year-old city. Our buildings are set in a manner that I’m not worried that the end of bonds are paid off and we have to borrow more money than we have. Pretty much our building infrastructure, our sewer waterways systems, our streets, our roads those are all in pretty good condition and at a pretty competitive cost basis for a community of this size in a regional center. It’s a good place to do business.

Second part of that is we have set the table very well for growth and investment. We have one of the finest community development departments for a city under Paul Vogel. It is not just focused on planning, but on the economic security of the city. Hopefully, with some guidance and leadership on my part, we’ve really set a process where it’s a good place to do business, make an outside investment, make an internal investment in growth, as in a new subdivision or a new business. The process of regulations, building permits, and the developments permit is very streamlined. We get great feedback from outside developers when they come in and build a building or locate a business here. Overall they are pleased with our processes.

I think to the business community, the key is that the business climate is very sustainable and economically diverse. Financially, we’re not overburdened to a degree, our tax rates aren’t high, we’ve got a diverse tax base. So if you have a downturn like unfortunately, our Herbergers or a Sears going out, we’re not as reliant on that tax base as maybe someone else would be.

I think there will always be those ebbs and flows in the economy, particularly retail and service economy, but I think we’re well-positioned as a regional center.

Let’s talk about the River Hills Mall. How concerned or involved does the city need to get when you see things like what’s happening at the mall?

Cities traditionally, because of the nature of how retail business is structured, typically are not that actively involved and I can tell you that is the way it is all around the country. Cities may be actively involved in bringing in one large shopping center or mall, but there are very few financial incentives, other than reasonable taxes, that we can use to entice them. Compared to when you talk about job producers, like manufacturing businesses, then we have a variety of financial tools in the tool box available. Including providing good public infrastructure. That allows us to entice business.

That said, I think it is of concern when you have a large investment like River Hills Mall, a building that’s a tenant building, having two large tenants go out and perhaps nationally, another one being on the brink, it can be a concern.

Everywhere is experiencing this though. National retailers are all having similar issues. My generation and probably your generation viewed going shopping and going out with your family to a mall as somewhat of a social event. But for millennials, buying something on Amazon is about as social as they get with shopping. But the General Growth’s (owner of River Hills Mall) of the world know this.

I can tell you that when I came here, we had the old Kmart building and the old Shopko building on the market at that time. And Madison East and the downtown mall were empty. But those locations learned to adapt. Madison East back filled with businesses in the medical industry, so now there is virtually no retail in there. I am hopeful that the General Growths of the world will look at them and say, “How can we change the nature of our business models to keep the core of retail in there?” I went to a shopping center convention, actually 10 years ago, and the General Growth president at the time was talking about how the shopping centers may become more mixed-use centers. In other words they’ll have housing on top of them and there would be other things as well. That’s going to have to be part of a national discussion because these buildings are owned nationally, whether that will work in Mankato versus working in the Chicago suburb, I don’t know. But it’s of concern because it’s one of the top 10 tax payers in Mankato and when they have an empty store, they don’t really pay taxes and they pay taxes at a lower value than if they are filled.

But as I said, 10 years ago or 20 years ago, there were as many alarming empty storefronts as there are today. We’ve managed with our growth here, to fill these centers up over time. But retail has new challenges in the future. The good news is we still draw from a pretty significant area, including a good amount of Northern Iowa. In fact, though we still have a few large vacancies, the vacancy rate today is less than 20 years ago and significantly less than the national average.

I want to talk about the City Center. I think you were instrumental in helping revitalize that.

I give a lot of credit to the fathers and the city mothers that helped with the Civic Center. I think that was a big vision, a big idea. I think the outcome of that has been very positive. It was a bold move for a city of our size. I think that helped set the table and really pushed city leadership to capitalize on it. We could see that there was some hospitality development that’s centered around a Civic Center, but what was missing downtown was a population base. You can’t solely rely on restaurants and bar business at night, you need a working population.

There were two ingredients that we set out very strongly in those initial goals. One was to build a better corporate business environment downtown and the other to make it a good place to have a corporate environment that’s attractive to the modern professional worker. That was important. It started with a lot of the projects that really have come to light in that last decade or so that helped us go beyond the hospitality business such as the Graif building and the US Bank building, also the Landkamer building. All of those were redone. It created what I’ll call a class A office environment for really a lot of the younger professional workers that wanted to be here. If you got a strong commitment from, what I’ll call, the corporate business environment downtown, it will lead and it has led to more hospitality business. It has led to a little more stable retail business along Riverfront. Soon there will be some marketability for service uses downtown. That was one goal that had taken nearly 10 years to realize but it is well on its way.

Now we have shifted to new construction like Tailwind Development and the forthcoming Eide Bailly Tower. These businesses are willing to pay substantially higher rents than they would be in what they call, maybe a suburban freestanding level building, because that’s what the professional, younger, modern worker wants, whether they’d be in accounting, or legal professions, and those types.

The second part of it, which has been a long time coming, is the University having a greater presence downtown beyond just playing hockey in the Verizon Center. We’re seeing more interest in the University opening up facilities and obviously the Hubbard building is first sign of that. I think that could be the future. Unfortunately, we’re moving in the times where brick and mortar is going to be less important but maybe that’s a reason to take advantages of other spaces in the community and make a better connection for the young graduates coming out in their careers. Business wants to see that connection and what better place to do it than the City Center?

Also retail use downtown has picked up. The other thing that really is going to happen, I think, into the future is the millennials wanting to be able to bike to work, run to work, walk to work. So housing is going to be something that I predict probably in the next 10 years that you’ll see higher quality housing, not just affordable housing, but higher quality housing come back to our City Center. Then obviously with that, you’ll see service businesses ramp up because of the same reason, close to work. All these aspects of redevelopment and new investment will create an environment that supports this shift.

You mentioned the Civic Center being bold. Riverfront Park is another great addition to the downtown.

I drove down here in the fall of ‘95 to interview for the job. Coming down from the Twin Cities, it wasn’t the most pleasing drive. The river bottom was significantly farmed off and on, depending on the high-water years.

But now you see a very picturesque valley as you come from Le Sueur off the Green Giant and into the Valley. It’s developed with more natural environment. I think the region has recognized the importance of that. I’ll give the young fellows at Bent River some credit. They helped bring an awareness that the rivers are a significant asset for our community.

Riverfront Park was really not much of a stretch. We just wanted to duplicate what we did at Sibley and Kiwanis Dog Park. We took undevelopable riverfront land where you couldn’t really develop a businesses, so we made it a park and recreation asset. It provided accessibility to the river.

So Riverfront Park is a start, but I think there is a lot more to do. Unfortunately, we can’t take down flood walls but there are some other opportunities out there. The quarries in the future may have some development potential but also some development potential that provide that population accessibility and the community accessibility in the river.

Another testimony to the city and the county using our natural assets, is they purchased the gravel pits by Red Jacket trail in Mankato. Now, they have a significant future potential to be a great park and open space close to the river. We’ll never have that picturesque waterfront that many communities have, but we have pockets where we’re going to be accessible.

Riverfront Park was one of a couple projects that really began that thinking. And it was really something that came out of the strategic planning effort. The public involved in that with their input. We heard that community goals included more accessibility to recreational activities. So that’s what we’ve done.

I think—and I don’t know how to say this without embarrassing you—but you have a great vision. I really do think it was your vision that helped us get to where we are in Mankato with everything that’s been happening.

Well, I think it was at least offering the council the opportunities and then getting the council to develop a consensus on some of the goals. Since then, I’m very proud of how that has evolved from the standpoint that we’ve taken it from those city leaders to more community engagement. We listened to what the community had told us and then we tried to fashion strategies around it. Really, as we look in the future after surveying the community, gathering input, having some listening sessions, and sitting down with the council we’ve really developed three themes.

First of all, affordability. Affordability isn’t just housing, it’s affordability in terms of transportation for people, and other financial challenges for people, like daycare. If you’re going to be a young, vital professional here, you’re going have to be able to cover those basic costs. So we want to make our community affordable for people as they are building their lives. In our strategic plan, we want to make sure that they have accessibility to jobs and services via the transportation system. And that daycare piece is one that continues to be a challenge, but is something we are planning for.

The second area is stewardship and that means not only financial sustainability within your tax base, but also the things we do to operate the city, maintaining our buildings, and it’s also environmental sustainability. I think really we’ve done a great job. We have a state of the art wastewater treatment plant. That’s not a sexy business…Wastewater…but it’s important. We also have a very sustainable water system. Those are two of the largest city assets and investments we have.

One of the things that’s very important to me is that we have to be good stewards of what we have, not only of our financial dollars but also the river water quality we have here. Never in the beginning of my career would I think water quality or quality water sustainability would be the issue that it is. The reality is we all have a responsibility. I think one thing Mankato recognizes is that regardless of our prosperity here locally, it’s underpin from the rural economy around us, like the farm economy and the smaller communities, that come here to shop, do business, buy pickup trucks, buy farm implements, go to the River Hills Mall or Walmart to buy groceries. Maybe we have a bigger role in it in terms of leadership in the city but we all have a responsibility to really have good water quality for a lot of reasons than a supplemental piece.

What’s the third priority?

The final piece really is community building and the livability of the city. That means focusing on recreation, music, the arts. You have to look at all of that, and what are the projects that will best make those things accessible.

We’ve got some very specific strategies centered around those themes. They’re under development right now, so we’re going to come and unveil in the next six months strategy for housing, what we can do in transportation, some things also in sustainability and water quality, they’re all already underway. Some community improvements that I think address some of the recreation concerns, some of the accessibility to the river, kind of good balance and mix continuing some of the great efforts that our community has done with the arts and culture. The plan is designed to evolve through continuous community engagement.

It’s been 22 years. What’s been the best thing that you think you’ve done? What’s your most proud accomplishment?

I think the quality of the city organization we’ve built here. We’ve developed good leaders and that’s what I am most proud of. It doesn’t happen overnight. You’re not going to come in and say, “Okay, I’m going to just change everything and change the culture.” It took time. But we’ve got a good culture, we’ve got leaders at every level. I have confidence that I could be gone tomorrow and I don’t think this city, in terms it’s responsiveness and it’s efficiency with our lean kind of operation, is going to change a bit.

I’m relatively a hard driver. I think initially I was holding on tight to the reins of a team of horses and now I think I’m softly guiding it. We have 300 Spartans here.

These 300 Spartans have a pretty good pace as to how we operate here and I think it’s a difference maker for our community. I’m proud in that of those 300 Spartans, every one of them is critical to our success as a community. It’s not the city manager, it’s all of us. And that’s hard. People don’t realize, it’s hard on families more so than anything else.

Routinely we hear appreciation for how much our employees care about the community. It’s not about being an obvious hero, it’s the day to day service like keeping the streets clean, the water safe, 24-7 no matter the conditions or if it’s a holiday.

Being in public service is less of a job and more of a lifestyle.

What’s been your biggest disappointment?

It took a while for the council to understand the value of some of what I’ll call the community building projects theme. It took some work to convince them that it is just as important to invest in the livability elements like parks, culture and arts as it is things like public safety.

We have managed to develop a good balance there and we’ve developed a funding source to maybe catch up and raise our level of community assets, those livability assets, we mentioned like parks, recreation facilities even places like Franklin Rogers field. It has taken us a while to catch up and recognize the value of that.

That’s probably my only disappointment. We’ve got a little to catch up in that area but we’ve made great progress. I’m an impatient person and I like to see all the work that we’ve put in to the foundation and planning in those areas happen tomorrow and happen on my watch, but it’s not going to because it’s going to be ongoing.

The other thing that I think it’s taken us a while but we’re there, is transportation. We made this community more accessible, the roads are in better condition and very frankly, we’re at the crossroads of really a sharp rise and in our transit, in part because of the support and acknowledgement of funding from University students. Our ridership has tripled. I think it can only go up from there.

Family Manager

Hentges and his wife Becky each brought two kids to the marriage…and each a boy and a girl. The kids are all in their early 30s. So far, no grandchildren.

“My first wife passed away about 15 years ago. When I met Becky it happened to be that our kids were all at West High about the same time, two were in the same class and two were a year apart. They knew of each other.”

With the kids grown up, Hentges and his wife enjoy traveling.

“I have a brother that’s overseas so we spend a lot of time in Italy and the better parts of Europe. I’ve been very fortunate in both work and in my personal time travelling.”

And, while he believes the job of parenting never really ends, he has taken on a new challenge now that they are out of the house.

“I’m just in the process of getting a new puppy and we’ll spend a lot of hobby time, free time training the dog,” he explains. “Hunting and dog training is kind of a passion.”

City of Mankato

Address: 10 Civic Center Plaza, Mankato, Minnesota
Phone: 507-387-8600

Lisa Cownie

Editor of Connect Business Magazine