by Bob Grawey
After 31 years and merging twice, Kathleen Poate announced she is retiring from the I-94 West Chamber of Commerce.
Poate says she has enjoyed going to work every day and has great satisfaction in her work at the chamber, but adds with a smile, “It’s time for my flowers and my granddaughters.”
When she started with the chamber in 1990, it was just 18 months old and known as the Rogers Chamber of Commerce. It only had 60 members.
Back then Rogers residents were numbered by the hundreds and businesses were few. Poate’s new position required just 20 hours a week.
Interstate 94 was just being built and Highway 101 was a two-lane ribbon of country road that was dark at night and a nightmare for motorists heading north to their cabins.
According to Poate, growth did not happen overnight. Rogers was stymied by Met Council restrictions that would not allow development. Cities outside the Met Council’s reach, however, began to grow quickly and that development brought increasing traffic through Rogers, as residents in St. Michael, Albertville, Otsego and Elk River needed to commute to metro jobs.
The chamber grew, too, merging in 1999 with the chamber in St. Michael and Albertville. After that it was known as I-94 West Chamber of Commerce. Otsego and Hanover joined the chamber membership following that merger.
Two years ago the chamber merged again, this time with the Northwest Chamber of Commerce to add Corcoran and Medina to its member footprint.
The chamber grew in other ways as well.
When the chamber started out in 1988, the focus was on community events. In the early 2000s, though, the focus changed, as Poate began watching issues in the Legislature that had an impact on communities and businesses in the chamber membership.
Lobbying trips to St. Paul and Washington, D.C. became more frequent, too.
“It was making members aware of what was happening in and to their city,” Poate says.
She says streets, traffic patterns and even sign ordinance changes began affecting area businesses more. The chamber became a focal point of disseminating information to cities and businesses and between them as well.
A big part of that effort is seen in the annual chamber-sponsored State of the Cities in which each member city and town meets to give a synopsis of how their city or town is doing and what development has taken place. They also give a forecast of expected development taking place in the coming year.
Aside from the growth of the chamber and its member communities over the past 31 years, Poate says she is quite proud of her work to help get a high school and junior high located in Rogers.
“To me that was a tremendous thing to have happen,” Poate says. “It took years to happen and it’s probably the biggest change we have had to our communities south of the (Crow) river.”
Poate says the Elk River School District originally planned for one central high school in Elk River.
“It was very important to spread schools around the district, which is one of the largest in the state,” Poate says. “It brought parents easier access.”
Highway 101 is another milestone for the retiring chamber president. Poate recalls working to make that project a reality when it was still a two-lane road.
A big challenge came after the Met Council gave Rogers the go-ahead for major development, long before the high school and 101 were built.With an influx of new business interests and residential development, came growing pains and more traffic. Poate says it was an interesting dynamic that proved challenging.
Though traffic congestion and a lack of metro services was a reality in Rogers, the Met Council simply looked at other metro cities with more traffic congestion and those with a greater need for metro services.
On the other hand, communities outside the Met Council domain, like Otsego, St. Michael and Albertville made up Wright County’s largest population center. To Wright County and these cities, the transportation was a priority.
Getting all parties to work together was challenging for Poate, but she managed to create a coalition of cities for issues such as adding lanes to I-94. This s one project she continues to lobby for..
One of the biggest dilemmas Poate says she has had to face is finding a balance between new residents who seek country living, yet want big city amenities.
People move out to places like Rogers and Hassan, Poate says, because they want to be in the “country.” However, they still want the amenities they grew to depend on.
They do not want long-time residents to sell their land to developers because they want to see that cornfield near to where they live. Old timers, on the other hand, want to sell it off since that is their retirement.
Finding solutions everyone can live with is sometimes a hard task.
An even bigger challenge, though, is to recover from the economic downturn that has hurt many businesses. Present chamber membership is between 500 and 550.
That is down, however, due to many in the construction business who became victims to a poor economy.
Poate says once the economy rebounds, it will be important to guide development so residents will not have to commute long distances for their employment.
These challenges will be left for Poate’s successor, though.
Applicants for the position have been secured and interviews are scheduled to begin in August. Poate plans to remain long enough to train someone new to the position.
Her only regret after more than three decades with the chamber will now be addressed.
“With my husband being retired,” Poate explains, “and now that I have two granddaughters, it’s just time to go out and play in the flower garden.”