Kathleen Poate is one of five people being honored Oct. 27 by the Three Rivers Community Foundation. The other honorees are:
by Jim Boyle
When Kathleen Poate first moved to the Rogers area in 1974, the list of conveniences included a 24-hour gas station, an elementary school and a a few churches.
The former head of the I-94 West Chamber of Commerce, who retired this year after 31 years there, will be recognized for her part in helping the community go from its humble beginnings to a dynamic place to raise a family and locate a business.
Poate can point to a robust Chamber of Commerce that merged twice to increase the number of communities it represents, secondary schools in Rogers and an educational foundation to help Rogers High School graduates get off to a good start in college among her accomplishments.
There were only about 500 people living in Rogers when she and her husband, David, bought property in Hassan Township that surrounded Rogers.
They came here because they wanted some land to be able to move around on and a place to raise a family. They struck gold, sort of.
The land offered the couple a place to raise kids and enjoy a hobby or two. Developing a good community to raise a family would take work for Kathleen, who still worked at Honeywell as a technician in the solid state electronics division.
She got introduced to the community when she joined an effort to change the format of kindergarten in the school district and later when she volunteered to assist the Rogers Elementary School PTO to help raise funds for playground equipment.
It was in these processes that she learned of an opening at the Rogers Chamber. It was only part-time, but people suggested she go for it.
She quickly found she loved working at the chamber, and slowly took on more hours until she became full time and president in 1990.
Her only wish is that she could have discovered her interest in a leading a chamber earlier in life. She would have a pursued it as a career right out of high school.
Instead, she simply grew with the job she had. No day was same, and she met a lot of people while always bringing people together, whether it was business persons and lawmakers or community folks and government.
She could relate to people who had a desire for a combination of some country and big city amenities. From her perch at the chamber, on the School Board and simply in the community, Poate helped many things come to fruition.
That includes the formation of the I-94 West Chamber, which pulled together the Rogers Chamber with the communities of St. Michael and Albertville. Otsego and Hanover joined later.
Two years ago, the I-94 West Chamber merged again with the Northwest Chamber of Commerce to add Corcoran and Medina.
Under Poate’s leadership, these communities have banded together to fight for improvements along the I-94 corridor and have taken advantage of strength in numbers.
Poate transitioned the chamber away from community events to one that served as more of a watchdog on local issues.
Instead of establishing the marching band line for the Fun Fest Parade (Now the Rockin’ Rogers Days Parade), the chamber makes lobbying trips to St. Paul and Washington, D.C.
State of the Cities programs have also become a signature of the I-94 West Chamber.
Board tenure helped decentralize district
There have been as many as 650 chamber member businesses. When the economy began to drag several years ago, membership went down. Poate reports it is now rebounding.
The chamber has been there to watch out for members and the business.
Back in the late ’80s and the early ’90s when questions about how the equality of the school system began to emerge, Poate was tapped by her peers to run for School Board.
She and her husband’s two daughters were in a crowded elementary school when she was first elected to the board in 1991, beginning the fight of her life to bring equality to the south. That eventually led to an effort to decentralize the school district.
Poate served two terms on the board and watched as bond referendums for secondary schools struggled. Eventually, a referendum calling for middle schools in the north and south passed and that started the process of decentralization.
It wasn’t Poate’s preferred approach, but she’s grateful for the schools in Rogers and Otsego. She pushed for addressing the most significant senior high space needs, which would have put a middle school and high school in Rogers before a middle school was located in Zimmerman.
Getting there produced some of the most agonizing and difficult times in Poate’s life and in the lives other community leaders in Rogers who were pushing for more equity in school facilities and offerings.
“For all the frustration, the hard work and how tired you got, it was worth every second to be part of the community,” Poate said. “Hopefully, our kids learned the importance of being part of a community, too.”
Poate helped implement other improvements along the way, including a math mentorship program that won a state Chamber of Commerce best practices award. The link between the chamber and the school district also helped foster cooperation in the DECA program. Poate also helped start a principal-for-a-day program and the Education to Employment Partnership.
The fight for senior high facilities in the south continued after Poate was no longer on the School Board. A bond referendum for Rogers High School was approved in 2000 and it opened in the fall of 2003.
Despite being off the board by then, Poate considers the middle school and the high school in Rogers her crowning achievement for the community of Rogers. “Schools and churches are the central points for families,” she said. “The schools (Rogers Middle and High School as well as Hassan and Otsego elementary schools) brought students back to their communities, back to the neighborhoods and off of hour-long bus rides.”
Having schools in Rogers and Otsego also made it possible for parents to get more involved in their children’s schools and the community.
To that end, she also donated her time to Rivers of Hope and helped start two Rotary programs. She served as a Rotary president in St. Michael and then later in Rogers.
“Had I not been in the chamber I probably would have never done those things,” said Poate with a hint of pride as she reflected.
As she wraps up her work at the I-94 West Chamber of Commerce, there are now between 500 and 550 member businesses in the chamber alone.
And as she buzzes to and from to complete errands in the Rogers area, she recognizes how much has changed.
“The community has been great,” she said. “Some (who have not been here as long) don’t realize what they have, how convenient things have gotten.”
Poate plans to spend her days as a retiree being a gardener and grandmother.
She already had a start on her grandchildren’s Halloween costumes one day last week.
Her granddaughters will be Smurfettes. Poate will be Grandma Kathleen.