Harry's Gang: Former mayor reflects on his legacy
April 23, 2021
Bruce Ahlgren is a pretty well-known guy around these parts, having served the community for decades: first on the Cloquet school board for 12 years, then as mayor for about 16 years. Meanwhile, he ran the courts as court administrator, which is how I first got to know him.
I've admired the man since I first got to town, and even though we've had our skirmishes and disagreements over the years, I think he's a pretty good example of a local politician with the best interests of his community at heart.
It takes a certain dedication to serve in local offices. There's a time commitment most people don't realize, to not only attending meetings, but to making yourself available just about any time a constituent wants to reach out to you. The job can be tough.
"Being able to live with your decisions is probably the hardest part of serving on the school board and as mayor," Ahlgren told me the other day. "I could be certain I made a right decision, confident I had done the right thing and that people would be happy with how I voted. But there are always people who disagree with you, and that can be tough.
"I remember when we built Churchill school. We had an architect's plans that everyone on the board was happy with. But the neighbors complained about it, because it would have affected their views and sunrises and was just too obtrusive to them, the way it was designed. We had to take a step back and listen to them. And I'm glad we did. The final design kept the neighbors happy and served the school's needs," he told me.
He's right: elected officials serve the people, but too often the people's needs get in the way. A good politician listens, and acts. Some may call it pandering, but I think that's how politicians should be.
Ahlgren wouldn't take credit for some things I think he should take credit for. For example, when Walmart wanted to tear down their original store and build a superstore, the mayor led the charge to enforce the city's design standards, which would cost Walmart more than the basic cinderblock building they proposed. "We knew Walmart was willing to build a nicer store, but word got out that we were jeopardizing the expansion altogether. And the public was upset - I nearly got voted out of office over it," he said. But he stuck to his guns, and that's why the store we have now looks so good, with a nicer façade and a parking lot with trees and curbs.
Ahlgren gave Deb Hill, a councilor at the time, most of the credit.
"She and I were negotiating, and she convinced them that Cloquet deserved a nicer-looking store. Fortunately, they finally agreed with us." Bruce also got Walmart to make a donation to the parks department as a concession.
One issue I strongly disagreed with Bruce on was the city's decision to sell the old Solum hotel building to an outside restaurateur, who wanted to open a new restaurant downtown but wanted the building cheap. I was opposed; I have seen too many businesses come in for the "free" benefits, then move on once they got what they could out of the government. But Bruce turned out to be right: that business is now Pedro's, which revitalized downtown and has been a good community asset for almost 20 years now.
He also spent years lobbying the state legislature to allow Cloquet to vote on a half-cent sales tax, which - when it was finally voted on - passed decisively. "That sale tax money has done great things for our city," he said. But he didn't mention that it was his relationships with state leaders that finally got the tax passed, until I reminded him. "It was Michael Paymar that got it through. We're lucky he saw our side of the issue," he said of the former state rep.
Our conversation closed the way many do with politicians: with a prediction of good things for the future.
"USG is doing good; Sappi retooled; retail is strong," he said. "But I'd like to see Highway 33 North, up by the business park, as the new area for development. It's nice access, there's room for growth, and our community is changing. The more variety we have in town, the more choices people have. We'll keep drawing in people from Moose Lake and McGregor, and other towns in the region."
But I had to ask him about the biggest controversy facing our community today: roundabouts.
"I love them," he said. "Once people get used to them, they'll realize how great they are. Sure, it takes little getting used to, but I think there should be more of them." I wonder if his phone will start ringing after this gets out?
Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News and an attorney in Esko. His opinions are his own. Contact him at Pete. [email protected]