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April 7, 2019
I arrived at dinner to meet my friend and former colleague Mike Cooper recently to find him studying the downtown scene out the window next to him.
Across the Big Sioux River, he watched multiple projects under construction. He’d helped all of them move forward as the city’s director of planning and development services.
The buildings without crews and cranes held meaning, too, I later thought. There was the one he’d helped guide through renovation several years ago. There was the one where a project was announced but never materialized. And there was the one where he, if not many others, knows another project one day likely will begin.
For most people, it would have just been an interesting view out the window. For him, it was a glimpse back at a decades-long career.
Cooper retires Friday as director of planning and development services. We worked together for four years when I was the city’s chief of staff, and while I wanted to write something about this, I struggled a little with the right approach.
Sometimes you don’t realize the full impact a person had until that person is gone. History judges in ways our fast-moving society sometimes misses.
That’s likely going to be the case with Cooper, in large part because he never sought recognition for the work he did guiding the city’s planning and parks departments for more than three decades.
He isn’t the type to shout his vision from the proverbial rooftops. I’d bet a lot that his city government-issued smartphone has never taken a selfie.
He and my former boss, Mayor Dave Munson, are the reason I became so accustomed to saying “we” instead of “I” when I spoke about our organization that I continue the practice today.
If Cooper hadn’t ended up in public service, he probably would tell you he would be a landscape architect. That’s his passion, and it shows in how he has advocated for the beautification of our city throughout his career. But I would argue he would have been an equally good mediator.
When you serve the public, you know you’ll never have a 100 percent job-approval rating. It’s impossible to satisfy the diverse constituencies you serve. But Cooper had a unique knack that has become a rare talent: Helping those who disagree find enough common ground to keep the city moving forward.
In part, it’s because he could be trusted. I talk among my most freely in front of him because I know whatever I share stays there. For citizens, I think that built confidence. And for Cooper, I think it helped build relationships, including many within our business community.
We try to catch up as often as our mutual crazy calendars allow, and when we do, he often brings me things he has read that he thinks would be of interest to me.
But during that dinner a few weeks ago, he produced something that helped me hone in on the message I think is important to deliver as he retires.
It was a one-page sheet of paper with nothing more than a list of names. We later determined he’d written it sometime in the mid-2000s.
They were the names of 10 company presidents and CEOs in Sioux Falls. Our guess is he must have been trying to decide who to invite to some kind of group or meeting.
Then, he produced a more recent list of the current top 10 largest employers in Sioux Falls. Next to each, the top local executive was listed.
“I don’t know these people,” Cooper said, pointing to several of them. “In some cases, I’m just learning their names.”
In many cases, I don’t know them, either.
And between he and I, we know a lot of people.
It’s a telling symbol of how much has changed. There’s no one thing to blame for this. Obviously, relationship building goes both ways. But I can tell you in many cases I have tried, repeatedly, to get connected at some of our larger employers and have struggled with it in recent years.
Many of these organizations also have restructured their Sioux Falls operations over time, bringing more corporate decision-making into their central offices with less responsibility at a local level. The top local executive in Sioux Falls today might be a site leader but might not be part of the same reporting structure as his or her predecessor.
And then there’s community involvement. Our top employers are outstanding corporate citizens in many ways. They give generously to many causes that are important to our community. Their employees are encouraged to volunteer. But we don’t see as much of a presence from the top local leadership of our top employers on community boards and committees as we used to, and that could be what keeps relationships from being formed with leaders at the city, like Cooper, and with journalists like me.
It’s sad to me because while I still don’t feel like I’ve been in this community all that long, it has been long enough to know a different way.
I remember having lunch with Ken Stork when he led Citibank, talking about the company’s direction and the financial services industry in Sioux Falls.
I’ve enjoyed countless conversations with my friends Cathy Clark and Terry Baloun, former top executives at Wells Fargo, and learned a lot from their approach to leadership.
I remember driving around Sioux Falls with Ken Baptist when he led John Morrell because Mayor Munson felt it was important that he see what was happening in the city outside of his business, as we talked about how that major employer was critical to our community.
All those names were on Cooper’s list. He could tell you similar positive memories.
Collectively, I think we need to ensure that we don’t lose sight of that as leaders retire and new names take their place. If anything, we need to broaden our relationships and foster them with our top employers as well as the up-and-coming business leaders who are building companies that could top the list in the future.
Those relationships are how this community became more than a collection of individual businesses and leaders. Remembering that seems appropriate as I wish the best to a man who helped plan for the city’s future and thank him for a lifetime of service.
As the city’s planning leader retires, a message on the value of relationships.