Street superintendent’s career reaches end of the road

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

Thirty years after going to work for the City of Elk River as street and park superintendent, Phil Hals has retired.

Phil Hals with some of the city’s fleet of street department vehicles.
Phil Hals with some of the city’s fleet of street department vehicles.

He’s leaving with mixed emotions.

“I’ve always liked this job and I liked coming to work and I liked the people I work with,” Hals said.

He and his crew have plowed snow, maintained Elk River’s 155 miles of streets, built park trails, assembled playgrounds, constructed athletic fields and worked on numerous projects over the years. They even blocked off streets to keep people back when President George W. Bush came through Elk River on a bus in 2004.

At a council meeting last month where Hals was honored, Mayor John Dietz said Hals cares about the city, his employees and doing a good job.

“He was always so conscientious with every nickel the city ever gave him. He treated that money as though it was his own,” Dietz said.

Interim Street Superintendent Mark Thompson said looking back at everything Hals has accomplished over the past 30 years, it’s clear he was the right man for the job. “Phil’s understanding of road maintenance, his can-do spirit and his creative construction skills made him an excellent choice for this leadership role,” Thompson said.

The Elk River City Council proclaimed Jan. 3 Phil Hals Day in Elk River.

Family business

A native of North Branch, Hals got his start working in a family business run by his dad and two uncles. Initially it involved excavating and sand and gravel before expanding into asphalt.

From there, Hals went on to work for two other contractors before coming to the City of Elk River.

Hals said working for the city was a good change.

He has worked for six mayors and said they, the city councils, and the city administrators have all been good to work with.

He also has high praise for the employees in his department.

“I looked at myself as more of a coach than a supervisor,” Hals explained. “Anybody that follows sporting events knows that a coach can really look good if he has a good team behind him. I’ve always felt that I had an excellent team. My workers were super and I just can’t say enough about them.”

As an example, he remembers attending one seminar where the speaker from another state proudly stated that 85 percent of his crew showed up when called out for things like snowplowing.

Hals found that odd, as 100 percent of his crew responds when called out to plow snow.

“I can’t remember ever calling somebody and they said, ‘Sorry I can’t come in,’” Hals said.

One man even reported for duty after having surgery. The surgery was so recent he plowed snow in a sweat suit because more constrictive clothing irritated his incision, Hals said.

Plowing snow makes up about a fifth of the street department’s work in a given year. Street maintenance takes up half their time, with roadside maintenance (summer mowing and winter tree and brush trimming), storm water maintenance and miscellaneous tasks rounding out the work load.

‘I’m kind of a dirt guy’

One of the things Hals has enjoyed most is working on the city’s parks, explaining with a laugh: “I’m kind of a dirt guy.

Some of the projects were unusual, like the time they built the roads in Lions Park. It was particularly challenging because the park is located on a peat bog.

“It’s like nothing you’ve ever dealt with. We had equipment stuck out there but we finally got a system and we were able to build the roads,” Hals said.

Thompson indicated that Hals often came up with creative ideas to solve problems. He recalled when they built the sliding hill at Lions Park in the 1980s.

Highway 10 was undergoing reconstruction at the time and the city used highway demo debris as the base material for the sliding hill. Material that was being removed from a pond in the park was used to cover that concrete debris, Thompson said.

But the high peat content of the soil created challenges because the trucks didn’t have firm ground to drive over.

“Phil had staff plow the snow from the pond to the hill, allowing the peat soil to freeze. The frozen peat-laden soil was used as a road to haul excavated material from the pond to the sliding hill,” Thompson said.

Another major park project was building trails at Woodland Trails Park. Thompson said Hals directed staff as trails were laid out with ribbons and flags, trees and stumps were removed and the trails were created.

Some building construction was also all in a day’s work.

During a winter with little snow in the mid-’80s, Hals said they did a lot of work on a new street department being built at 19000 Proctor  Rd.

Thompson said street and park employees dug building footings, poured concrete floors, erected stud walls, hung and taped Sheetrock, tiled floors, built and installed cabinets, installed suspended ceilings, and built and installed metal stairways and railings.

When it was done, they had a parade of equipment from their old quarters in the creamery building at Main and Highway 10 to the new building. Even council members and the mayor, Estelle Gunkel, drove equipment.

“She had a loader I think,” Hals recalled.

It was one of the many ways they attempted to inject a little fun into the job.

Hals also tried to get the most bang for the city’s buck.

He remembers one time he got a truck load of used pipe that a company was giving away. Using a rented pipe bender, his crew fashioned the pipe into legs for picnic tables.

Changes over time

There have been many changes over the last 30 years, not the least of which is equipment.

Hals said when he started the best snowplow truck the city owned was a gasoline-powered, 150-horsepower model. One of the first purchases he made was a diesel-powered, 210-horsepower snowplow truck.

“Boy, we thought we had the world by the tail,” he said.

Now the city’s snowplow trucks are 435 horsepower.

The department has also expanded its capabilities in many ways. Two areas Hals is particularly proud of are fleet maintenance and the sign department.

Fleet maintenance includes three city mechanics who maintain everything from the fire department’s ladder truck down to the police department’s four wheelers — more than 100 vehicles in all.

“Outside of warranty work, I think we do everything,” Hals said.

The street department also makes street signs. Hals said that started out as a way to trim turnaround time, as it can take a vendor a month to six weeks to fill a sign order.

There are nearly 3,000 signs in Elk River. City employees make a variety of signs, except those that are more cheaply mass produced like stop signs and yield signs. The department also makes banners, posters and other things that appear in city buildings like the ice arena and the library.

Man of many hobbies

Hals was the street and park superintendent until several years ago, when the city hired its first park and recreation director and Hals’ title changed to street superintendent. He continued in that role until January 2011, when he began working half-time.

In retirement, Hals will continue to enjoy time with his wife, Nola, and their four daughters and four grandchildren. He and his wife also plan to spend some time in the southwestern part of the United States. He also enjoys woodworking, gardening and other hobbies.

“I have more hobbies than anybody is entitled to,” he said.