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Grabow says goodbye: Longtime city administrator had big impact on growth of Detroit Lakes

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Detroit Lakes, 56501

Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

For the last 30 years, Detroit Lakes has seen some major growth and one man has been in the corner office, seeing those changes through.

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City Administrator Rich Grabow is retiring the end of September after 32 years with the city.

"It's been fun, but a lot of work," he said.

After high school, Grabow left Detroit Lakes in 1964 to attend college. From there, he served in the military and landed in Fargo working in accounting for a couple companies. When the city finance officer position in Detroit Lakes opened up, he applied and moved back to the area.

"Thinking back, everything was adding machines, no computers," he said.

After nine years as finance officer, Grabow was offered the job of city administrator. It wasn't like the recent city administrator hire where there was a day filled with interviews. Instead, Grabow said, they came into his office one day and said he was being hired for the position.

"I started out as a number cruncher. I really enjoyed that job. A lot," he said. "I was in the air (as administrator) for a couple years."

Sometimes, he admits, he longed to be back at his finance position.

But that has changed with time.

"The longer in it, the more I enjoy it."

Over the years, there have been several large projects in the city. Grabow listed the library addition, Washington Square Mall and additions to the city facilities as some of the bigger ones. In 1977, city offices moved into the existing facility, and over the years others have added on everything from the ice arena to the fire hall.

"The community center is of course a huge, huge project," he added.

A project 15 years in the making.

A community center was planned for the Holmes school site for years. The Senior Center was moved into the building, but a fire destroyed much of it. Years after the fire, people continued to push for a community center, and Midwest Minnesota Community Development Corporation stepped up as developer.

The overall growth of the city in the last 30 years is the largest in the city's history, Grabow said. When he came to town, the city was still selling lots in the original industrial park. Now the second, North Industrial Park, is almost full.

In a 1970 census, Detroit Lakes' population was listed at 5,797. Today it's 8,004.

The expansion began in the 1970s with water being served to those around Little Detroit Lake.

The city has seen "phenomenal" growth of borders as well as population. Grabow's not certain of miles the city has grown, but annexations have been overwhelming, 99 percent of them being resident- or developer-driven.

The growth of the city can be attributed to two main things, he said -- being the county seat and being a resort area.

"People are always looking for ways to do business in Detroit Lakes."

And regardless of the project, it seems controversy surrounds it -- mainly because of the fact that it means change.

Grabow said, with a laugh, he's known people who quit when offices went from typewriters to computers because of the change factor.

But despite any controversy, it seems those changes benefit Detroit Lakes when it came to growth.

One change that hasn't occurred much in Detroit Lakes is administrator turnover.

Grabow is one of only four to hold the city administrator position in Detroit Lakes. Before those four men, the position was elected, back in village times.

Along with the minimal turnover in city administrators, Grabow said there has been a similar minimal turnover on the council. He said it's rare to have as many newer members as there are now.

Grabow counts himself lucky to have worked with great mayors and council members. Mayor Kent Freeman was a great promoter of the city and mayor, he said. And Mayor Larry Buboltz is the "ultimate in promoters."

Throughout his time with the city, Grabow has been a part of every committee. Through those meetings and issues they bring, Grabow has gotten to meet a lot of people in the public.

He said he'll miss "reacting with the people of the community" and being able to fix the problems they may have.

Grabow has gotten to be a part of many city projects, but there are a few he'll miss as well. The Highway 10 realignment for one, stormwater retention for another.

After the Highway 10 water and sewer project and beautification project, Grabow said the big thing is going to be redevelopment of the 10 acres of vacated property that will be turned back to the city.

Stormwater will also be a big upcoming project for the city. Detroit Lakes has been designated as an MS4 City by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Since Detroit Lakes is on a trout waters list, they "pay a lot more attention to what happens to stormwater" in this area versus other cities of Detroit Lakes' size.

The economic growth of the city has been substantial.

Grabow said Detroit Lakes has the highest commercial tax base in the state for cities of its size.

"It was a real small town 30 years ago. Now we deal with things we never had to before," he said.

Because of the growth, yet budget restraints, departments such as police and public works have had to deal with employee shortages, even as the town grows around them.

As much of a strain as budgeting is, Grabow won't have to deal with it much longer.

Once autumn hits and Grabow's time with the city is finished, he plans to sit back for a while, do some traveling, and of course, hunting.

"I have a month of hunting right off the bat," he said.

After about a year, though, he said he sees himself doing some kind of work.

"I'm going to miss (this job) a lot," he said. "It's been a very, very rewarding experience working in Detroit Lakes."

A retirement party for Grabow is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 21. A reception from 4 to 5:30 p.m. will be in council chambers at city hall. That evening at the Detroit Country Club, dinner is from 6 to 7, followed by a program at 8. The public is invited to attend.

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