Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Mark Voxland knows Moorhead like he knows the proverbial back of his hand. Born, raised and educated here, he has spent his entire career with the small business founded by his father almost 60 years ago. Most of all, he came to know his city over his years at its helm, completing three terms as mayor after spending 14 as a city council member.
He and his sisters wandered Center Avenue in the 1950s and 1960s. He heard city fathers debating urban renewal as he was graduating from Moorhead High in 1968, then watched the familiar storefronts being razed and the city “malled” as he launched his career as an electrician in 1972. He began 26 years of service as he and wife Donna were raising their sons, elected in 1988 to represent Ward 3 from their then-new neighborhood on what was the extreme southwest edge of the city. And shortly after the new century had begun, he launched the first of three terms at the city’s helm – 12 years that laid the groundwork for much of progress Moorheaders are celebrating today.
“One of my dreams was always getting people back downtown,” he reminisces today, looking back on 26 years of public service in the quest for Moorhead’s success. “I dreamed of more small businesses … more kinds of housing for people at every stage of life … more flood mitigation and better transportation to take away the worries of people who’d want to come here.
“In the years since I retired as mayor, many good people have had all kinds of good ideas, and those dreams are coming true,” he says. “They might be doing this or that a little different than I would have, but I really like it. Things are going very, very well.”
Twenty years have passed since Y2K ushered in a fresh start for the community Mark has always called home. Starting with Memorial Bridge reconstruction and the advent of new and renovated commercial space and housing at Fourth Street and Main Avenue – a project originally led by his predecessor, Mayor Morrie Lanning – city leaders have been chugging away at fulfilling the promise they saw here.
A few months after he took the gavel in 2002, consultants hired by the council unveiled a study of housing needs in the city on the right side of the Red River. “We hired them to answer the question, ‘How come all the building is going on in Fargo and West Fargo?’
“Our housing market was more or less dormant,” he remembers. “The consultants asked people why they were buying and building homes over there rather than here in Moorhead. The answer to their question was kind of simple: Moorhead didn’t have the kind of homes they were looking for.”
The report cataloged a laundry list of purported issues, from too-strict building codes to higher property and income taxes. “We investigated them. Most weren’t true, at least across the board,” he remembers. “We collected and published the numbers. Sometimes Minnesota was a little more. Sometimes it was a little less.” The council began tackling them, softening permit fees and offering incentives.
At the same time, he says, “a lot didn’t even look for homes here because we didn’t have the type of product they wanted. We had tons of single-family homes, but not the kind of housing that attracted empty-esters looking to downsize or young people just starting to put down roots – no townhouses or twin homes, not even the kinds of apartments with parking, laundry appliances and ample space that students and younger adults were interested in.”
City leaders took the study to area builders. “Let’s be honest. They’re all about making money,” Mark laughs. “We could show them that if they built it, not only would tenants and buyers come – they were already here.”
He adds, “Only politicians and bureaucrats really see that river as a boundary. Nobody else really cares. When someone is looking for a home, they have much more concrete amenities in mind.”
And thus began the building boom that pushed construction crews onto the edges of the city. “To be honest, there was a boom all over the metropolitan area,” the former mayor notes. But then, in 2008, the housing bubble burst.
Meanwhile, the city fathers (and mothers) were already looking for ways to revive the flagging downtown district. “We were doing a downtown study back in 1988 when I first joined the council,” he recalls. The consultant laid out a vision of more commercial development. “I wondered, ‘where are the people?’” Mark says. “Shouldn’t there be people downtown, too?” The problem, they learned, was simple enough: There was nowhere to live.
That laid the foundation of the movement that’s finally well underway today. The refurbished historical buildings and new construction at Fourth and Main was the beginning. “We expected it to push east on Main and up to Center Avenue,” he notes wistfully. “But then, again, the Great Recession burst the bubble.” It has taken years of planning and persuasion to revive the energy that ambitious goal requires, now with the rallying cry “500 [housing units] in 5 [years]” – a goal that’s well on the way to completion.
Mark points to other less flashy steps forward that laid the groundwork for progress. Overhead power lines that webbed the sky over First Avenue North were replaced. The street was renovated from what had been the city’s oldest industrial area to a wide open thoroughfare ripe for development. “Nancy Otto was a star on that initiative,” he notes. At the same time, the ever-present train whistles Lanning had battled were finally silenced by the quiet zone, making downtown life more attractive.
“We accomplished so many things that weren’t obvious from the outside,” Mark goes on. He points to the “phenomenal” city reorganization in 2002 after the Legislature drastically cut its aid to local government: “I was really proud of our city staff and workers. They accomplished what was almost impossible.” His list includes the “one-armed bandits” – garbage trucks – that eased the workload and workers compensation complaints of sanitation workers hoisting overfilled garbage cans in all kinds of weather.
Mark didn’t plan to run for reelection in 2010. “I figured enough was enough,” he says. But then came the flood of 2009 followed by repeats in 2010 and 2011. “I already knew the ropes in St. Paul, and we had an unbeatable team in City Hall with Bob Zimmerman, Mike Redlinger and Scott Hutchins.” After several years of planning, Moorhead secured state appropriations of some $110 million to acquire threatened low-lying properties, build levees and harden stormwater management systems to withstand future floods.
As the election approached in 2014, Mark says he figured that now was the time. “We have other good people with other good ideas,” he asserts. “It seemed to be the perfect time for somebody new to bring fresh wisdom.” He adds, “Del Rae Williams was the right person. She really did well, including some things I would have never thought of doing.”
That doesn’t mean his separation from the public-spirited post he loved was painless. “I watched that first Monday council meeting after spending 21 years there for about 10 minutes,” he says. “Then I turned it off, and I’ve never watched again.” He hasn’t visited the third floor of City Hall, where his office was located, even once since he walked out on Dec. 31, 2013.
“Did I miss people? You bet I did,” he says now. “I knew and had worked with people all over the state.” That included colleagues in the Minnesota Mayors Association, which he headed during his final years in office, and countless legislators and staff at the Capitol. “It was bittersweet knowing that I’d never work with them again.”
But he has adjusted well. Now back running Voxland Electric, from which he’d retired for a year or so in 2017, he says, “I feel a great sense of ownership when I look at Moorhead and how far we’ve come.
“I guess it’s a little like launching a toy boat on a windy lake and seeing it making headway,” he muses. “It wobbles a bit from side to side, and may not go in a straight line exactly as you aimed it. But you can take a lot of pride knowing it keeps going in the right direction.”