BEMIDJI -- If a project was happening on major highways in northwest Minnesota, chances are Joe McKinnon was involved.

For more than three decades, McKinnon worked in several capacities, but mainly project manager, for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. While his work was spread out across the northwest, labeled by MnDOT as District 2, McKinnon spent a lot of his time in Bemidji, at the agency's regional headquarters.

This week, McKinnon is retiring from the transportation agency, which he has been with since 1989.

Originally from Duluth, McKinnon's first job after graduating from the University of Minnesota was in Bemidji as a civil engineer with MnDOT. The position was just temporary, though, and in the mid-1980s, McKinnon went to Crookston for a permanent job with the Polk County Highway Department.

The First City on the Mississippi came calling when a new job with MnDOT opened.

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"I had always enjoyed working in Bemidji, and when the job opened, my wife and I said 'let's go for it,'" McKinnon said.

At MnDOT, McKinnon spent time working on traffic engineering, right-of-way planning and eventually project management. For McKinnon, the tasks were all a good fit.

"I think I just enjoyed math and science, and I was always intrigued and excited looking at how roads were built," he said. "Civil engineering was a great profession for that."

Memorable moments

During his 31 years with MnDOT, McKinnon was responsible for managing projects across the 1,800 miles of state highways in the northwest region that extends to North Dakota and Canada. McKinnon said one of the most memorable projects he worked on was right at home.

That project was to completely remodel a stretch of Paul Bunyan Drive that is located along the south shore of Lake Bemidji. The work on the roadway went from 2002-2004.

"It was a really big change back then," McKinnon said. "There was a stretch of road along the shore and we were having erosion. We also had a narrow sidewalk and a lot of crashes."

As a result, McKinnon said MnDOT heavily engaged with businesses along the corridor, and the city government was involved in the planning process.

"We started out with project goals, determining how to enhance the shore, allow more pedestrian space, help businesses and get traffic through," McKinnon said. "We looked at it and decided to change it to the split, two one-way pairs. We had the opportunity to do it and it was a big change. I think over the years it's really helped to get the traffic through and businesses are still visible."

Paul Bunyan Drive is a double one-way pairs model of highway. The split road concept was developed and implemented from 2002-2004.  (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Paul Bunyan Drive is a double one-way pairs model of highway. The split road concept was developed and implemented from 2002-2004. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Two other memorable moments with MnDOT were along the state's border, with one happening near North Dakota. In 1997, the Greater Grand Forks area was rocked by the Red River flooding.

"It really impacted East Grand Forks tremendously," McKinnon said. "We had to close bridges that never had to be closed before, and after that, the community really had to consider flood protection."

McKinnon said he was involved with the planning changes in the areas around U.S. Highway 2. As part of the process, McKinnon said the following projects included installing new flood walls and levy systems.

The other major project was a more recent one and it was on an international scale. In 2019, McKinnon said work started on an international bridge over the Rainy River from Baudette to Ontario after four years of planning.

"It was a very unique project and there are only a handful of bridges like this that are public and not private toll bridges," he explained. "There was tremendous cooperation between Minnesota and Ontario officials. We learned a lot and worked well together."

Looking back and moving forward

In a statement to the Pioneer, District 2 Engineer J.T. Anderson said, "when you have someone that has the institutional knowledge, varied background and experience and demeanor of a person like Joe McKinnon, you don't replace that overnight."

The experience Anderson spoke of included a major shift toward digital platforms during McKinnon's career.

"There was no internet and no email at first, and it wasn't until the early 90s that we had a crude version of those," McKinnon said. "So, we really relied on books, manuals and telephone calls. I was doing mechanical drafting by hand and computer designing was just getting started at the time. These days, everything is computer drafting, I don't think we touch a piece of paper anymore."

Anderson said the experience McKinnon brought to the Bemidji office was especially helpful to younger staff who were able to learn.

"Joe's retirement will definitely leave a gap that very few folks will be able to fill," Anderson said. "Joe had the ability to remain calm and stay focused even during the most heated discussions. This is a rare trait in today's world and a trait that only time and experience can foster. MnDOT District 2 is blessed with some extremely talented, young engineers, but Joe leaves some very large shoes to fill."

When talking about the next generation of people working on projects, McKinnon said it's important to be good with math and science, while also developing people skills.

"We're civil engineers, and these projects are for the people," McKinnon said.

In his retirement, McKinnon said he's looking forward to traveling and spending time with his wife Joan, as well as their children and grandchildren. The couple recently sold their home in Bemidji and moved to Park Rapids.