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Curt Oakes preparing to leave job as city planner

Curt Oakes did his job so well he no longer has one.

Oakes, the Bemidji city planner, played a key role in the development of the Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board, which has essentially led to the elimination of the city planner position, a job Oakes has held for the last 16 years.

"I've really enjoyed it here," Oakes said. "I wouldn't have stayed here this long if I didn't."

After years of contentious annexations and difficult discussions between the city of Bemidji and Northern and Bemidji townships, city and township officials began talking in 2003 about what would eventually become the JPB.

Once the Joint Powers Agreement was signed and the JPB developed a new set of zoning regulations, it assumed the planning and zoning responsibilities of the city of Bemidji and the two townships.

Oakes didn't know the end result would have him cleaning out his office and turning it over to Mel Milender, the new zoning administrator for the JPB.

But, even if he had, Oakes said he would have done everything again.

"I've been a strong proponent of the whole process all along," Oakes said. "I'm still a strong proponent of the process."

Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann said Oakes handled the situation professionally. No one knew how it would end when JPB planning began, he explained, but once the local governments debated and decided what the JPB would be responsible for, the city of Bemidji needed to examine its own operations and determine its staffing needs.

"I fully respect him for the effort he put into this right up to the end," Lehmann said.

Milender, who previously was the zoning administrator for both townships, was named zoning administrator late last year and moved into Bemidji City Hall into the new JPB offices downstairs. He has since shared Oakes' office.

"We've always worked well together," Oakes said, adding that he has complete confidence in Milender and the JPB in moving forward.

The formation of the JPB was not easy. The Headwaters Regional Development Commission was hired to facilitate the process, and lawyers were involved as the Joint Powers Agreement was debated and eventually signed. Oakes' role throughout the process was to answer questions and assist in annexation and zoning planning.

"Curt helped us tremendously with the growth-management plan," Lehmann said. "He was a huge asset."

Oakes told the JPB last summer or fall that he was not interested in becoming its zoning administrator. He was officially told about six months ago that the city planner position had been eliminated, which meant he no longer had a job.

"Personally, I want to thank Curt for his years of dedication to the city," Lehmann said. "Even at the end, one of the things he has always been able to do is stay focused on his job. He didn't stop."

Fishing for a job

Oakes joined the city of Bemidji in August 1992 after he was hired from a pool of about 50 applicants.

He already owned a place about 30 miles south of town, so he spent the morning of his job interview fishing and then sat down with his prospective employers that afternoon.

"I told them it was a great opportunity," Oakes said. "I could fish and have a job interview all in the same day."

He just didn't know that the three guys he was interviewing for - Jim Heltzer, then the Community Development Director; Phil Shealy, then the city manager; and Cliff Tweedale from the HRDC - were among the few in the area who didn't fish.

Nevertheless, he got the job.

Oakes said it is typical for planners to stay two or three years in one job before moving on to another. He came to Bemidji after working in Lake Minnetonka, Minn., for nine years, and spent the next 16 years here.

He has now been working in the field for close to 30 years.

"Curt is very knowledgeable about the application of our ordinances," Lehmann said, noting that his previous experience served the city of Bemidji well. "He did a very good job with that."

More than the JPB

Oakes said he is proud of the work he has done for Bemidji.

Throughout the early years of his career in Bemidji, the Bemidji Planning Commission did not have women members, and Oakes said he advocated strongly for more female membership.

Today, there are two women on the eight-member JPB and at least six on its Planning Commission.

"That's been good, just to have that gender mix," Oakes said.

Planning-wise, Oakes advocated for the creation and adoption of the city's first Comprehensive Plan.

Coming from the Twin Cities, where suburbs are required to have Comp Plans to comply with the regional Metropolitan Council's requirements, Oakes suggested that the city could benefit from such a planning document. The City Council agreed and the process was started in 1996.

"I think that was really good, to have a plan to help us grow," Oakes said.

He has worked with developers on several projects in the city, one of which was Vista North Townhomes, a housing development at 30th and Anne streets northwest.

He also helped the City Council adopt tree preservation and parkland dedication ordinances, which require trees that are removed for development to be replaced and that developments include a specific percentage of green space.

"I was a big proponent of that," Oakes said. "It improves the appearance of our community."

Also improving the appearance of the city, he said, has been the utilization of the Small Cities Development Program, which offers grants for neighborhood improvement projects. The city contracts with HRDC for their administration.

The grants have resulted in some "really nice changes" in the city, Oakes said.

"That has really contributed to the improvement of some neighborhoods," he said.

Safety-wise, he said the adoption of a rental registration ordinance has resulted in positive changes.

Some landlords were against the ordinance, which requires registration and inspection of rental properties, but there had been a number of fatalities in the past due to fire or other problems, Oakes said.

"We eventually sold (landlords) on the project," Oakes said. "We've now had no fatalities in town - it just improved the overall housing stock in the city."

Lehmann said Oakes' job was to go out in the community and uniformly enforce ordinances, which some people didn't always appreciate.

"I know that sometimes he wasn't very popular," Lehmann said. "But he did a really good job with that - and I respect him for it."

Another coup for Oakes was bringing his fellow planners to Bemidji for a conference in the mid-90s. As the representative for northern Minnesota in the Minnesota Chapter of the American Planning Association, he convinced the group to come to Bemidji for a conference at the Northern Inn.

Everyone had a great time, he said.

"People just love coming to northern Minnesota," he said.

Not yet retiring

Oakes, 57, said he has not yet met the "Rule of 90," which dictates when Minnesota public employees are eligible for retirement (their years of age added to years of service must equal 90).

Still, Oakes said he plans to enjoy some time off before venturing into another job.

The time off will allow him to spend more time with his 90-year-old father, who moved to Bemidji in July following the death of Oakes' mother. A retired mailman, Oakes laughed while talking about him, saying that his father is in better shape than himself. The two often spend time together and spent last weekend ice-fishing.

"I'm going to take some time off, see what happens," said Oakes, who is single.

He may consider going south to the Twin Cities for a few years - but said he plans to return to the area for his retirement.

"Oh, I'm definitely interested in retiring here eventually," he said. Oakes still owns his place about 30 miles south of town, but said he also enjoys his home on Birchmont Drive.

"I just love the area," he said.