Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Tuesday, Nov. 8, was a big night for Shelly Aasen Carlson.
Not only was the former city council member running for her first elected term as her city’s mayor; she was also anticipating the outcome of the campaign to build a new community center and regional library — the centerpiece and anchor of a new, revitalized downtown. It was her first major initiative, one that has spanned the 22 months she had occupied that office.
As election returns filtered into the election night party at the Village Inn, the mood turned quickly from anxious to exultant. As attendees snacked on cakes frosted with the “Yes 56560” motto of the center campaign, they watched the numbers climb on TVs mounted around the restaurant.
The climax: Two big wins. While Carlson’s victory (with 83% of votes cast) had been considered nearly certain, the volunteers who had worked for months building support for the community center were hopeful but less sure. The result, though, couldn’t have been better: The city sales tax that will fund construction passed in every one of the city’s 13 precincts, winning by a nearly two-to-one margin.
Voters resoundingly approved the temporary half-cent city sales tax that’s projected to raise $33 million over the next 22 years. Until then, the need for the new facility was widely recognized, but its funding remained up in the air. Now, serious planning and negotiations can begin.
And now the mayor, who was originally appointed by her peers on the City Council, has a mandate from Moorhead voters to move forward. “There’s a difference between being appointed mayor and having your community elect you,” she explains. “Being appointed was almost like being a long-term sub. I do feel a little different now that I have the voters behind me.”
But Carlson was passionate about the need for a community center and a replacement for the city’s aging, problem-plagued library well before her appointment. After being elected to represent Ward 2 in 2018, she began attending Lake Agassiz Regional Library meetings as part of her portfolio. “I was shocked to learn how the building was literally falling apart,” she says.
Meanwhile, city council members were considering how to build a much-needed community center. They discussed the possibility of a city sales tax. But Moorhead would need the Legislature’s permission to pursue such a tax; to achieve that, the project would have to have “regional significance.”
That’s when the puzzle pieces came together, Carlson recalls. “A new library and home for LARL, which serves a multi-county region, fit in perfectly,” she says. Mayor Judd first testified on the project in St. Paul in 2020; she took the same route in 2021. And on Feb. 8, 2021, shortly after her appointment to the top job, the city got word that legislators had approved their moving forward with the finance measure.
With no seed money from the city, the campaign for passage became a true grassroots movement. Carlson appointed a task force last September, chaired by James Hand and Lisa Borgen, to begin outreach. Its 11 members set out to spread the word — not with a well-financed campaign, but by word of mouth, counting on the energy of Hand, Borgen and dozens of volunteers to carry the message of both the need and possibilities to residents. Among them were members of the City Council, Friends of the Library and the Retired Teachers Association, who Carlson says talked to “everybody we could reach, everywhere that someone would listen” — service clubs, school events, open houses, and even hockey registration and Junkyard Brewing.
Carlson’s calendar, already studded with requests for mayoral participation, included a good share of those occasions. She has juggled her job with the Minnesota Elder Justice Center and time with her family with public service. “Being mayor typically takes at least 20 hours a week,” she notes, “and sometimes more. One thing that surprised me at the beginning was the sheer volume of requests. I knew J.J. (Judd) was busy, but I had no idea how busy.”
Along with the community center/library outreach, that left little time to campaign for office. “My family did help when they could,” she says. She and husband Ron have two children, Jordan, 20, and McKinnon, 23, both college students. “But it came down to figuring out where to put most of my time and effort. What would have the most lasting effect? Mayors come and go, but the community center/library is a legacy project.”
Being thrust into the mayor’s role, too, has taken time, energy and patience. “I couldn’t ease into it. It was like drinking water out of a fire hose,” she laughs. In addition to chairing council meetings twice a month and all the mayoral duties in between, she assumed the chairmanship of the Metro Diversion Task Force in Judd’s stead, a responsibility that revolves between the mayors of Fargo and Moorhead and a representative of the Cass County Commission.
The community was still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic when she accepted the gavel. But the biggest challenge of her first years, she says, was the dismantling of the mutual aid pact between Minnesota law enforcement and their North Dakota counterparts. “That was a really scary time,” she says. After almost a year, the partnership was resumed in May.
Carlson sums up the past two years in phases. “The first year was all about learning the responsibilities of being mayor and Diversion chair,” she says. “This year, I’ve focused on the steps to build the community center and all that has involved.”
And what of years to come? “I want to work more on economic development, specifically downtown,” she muses. “I want to focus on the affordable housing issue and on workforce challenges, especially in law enforcement. We need to maintain our infrastructure and insure that the state’s border cities legislation remains in place.”
Today, though, the satisfied glow of the strong city sales tax “yes” vote lingers. “There are so many people I want to thank. (Council member) Laura Caroon was incredible. All the council members were great. Our volunteers — John Rowell, Evan Belko, Justin Monroe and others — did so much to get it passed. Rob Remark and JLG Architects produced all the renderings of our vision pro bono. The Friends of the Library, the retired teachers…. And, of course, our wonderful legislative delegation got the first box checked by helping get the tax measure through the Capitol.
“Thanks to all of them, we’re finally ready to move on to the next stages. We’ll have serious conversations with the private entities interested in collaborating with us, and we’ll have to figure out how and when to start collecting the sales tax and doing the bonding.
“Until now, all our talk has been speculation,” Carlson concludes. “Now, at last, it’s real.”