What can Rochester expect from Mayor Norton?
For the first time in 16 years, Rochester has a new leader.
Kim Norton was sworn in Monday as Rochester’s 45th mayor — making her the first woman in the city’s 165-year history to hold the position.
“While I did not set out to be part of a movement — I just wanted to provide leadership here in the community — I recognize that this is a special moment in time and I feel quite privileged to be a part of it,” Norton told a crowd of about 400 gathered at the Mayo Civic Center.
Norton takes over the position from longtime Mayor Ardell Brede, who retired at the end of 2018. In her inaugural address, Norton thanked the community for the honor to serve and laid out a handful of policy goals for development, sustainability and community engagement.
“We must provide a more transparent, inclusive and cohesive city government,” Norton told the crowd.
Norton’s entry to the office of mayor is the most symbolic event in a wave of change making its way through City Hall. Over the past year, a new city administration has begun rethinking decades-old practices. And on Monday, the balance of the city council shifted as two new members were sworn in.
Still, Norton plans to be more than a symbolic figure. A seasoned state legislator who recently completed a Bush Fellowship in leadership, Norton intends to apply her years of political experience to city government.
That means while Mayor Norton still plans to assume the role of city ambassador — and attend as many community events as possible — she also plans to expand upon on how her predecessors have exercised the position by getting more involved in policy discussions.
“I have more interest in policy [than Brede]”, Norton said in an interview with Med City Beat prior to her inauguration. “That’s my background on the School Board and in the Legislature. And so, I think I’m going to bring more of that to the table … certainly working with administration and offering policy advice. I would not say day-to-day because I don’t want to micromanage, but working with them regularly on a shared vision.”
Blunt, but not abrasive
As she was moving into the mayor’s office, Norton found a letter left on her desk. It was from Brede, who offered some straightforward advice.
“He said, ‘lead with your heart and listen to the people,’” Norton told us.
To that end, Norton believes one of her top responsibilities coming into office is to be a bridge-builder. She noted that while conversations on the city level can sometimes be contentious — from her perspective, the people involved are generally aligned in the direction they want the city to go in.
“We need to build an atmosphere so that it isn’t one person saying red and the other person saying blue,” said Norton. “It’s one person saying red, and somebody else saying, ‘if we add white, we’ll get pink.’”
That is not to say Norton will shy away from disagreement. As mayor, she acknowledges there will likely be times when her views will differ from her colleagues. But Norton said she subscribes to the school of thought that one’s thinking is better when their thoughts are challenged.
“I can be blunt, but I hope not to be abrasive,” she said. “I can share an opinion, but know I will lose some battles. But hopefully through building relationships and honoring other people’s visions, we can come to a compromise.”
The evolution of DMC
One of Norton’s most visible roles as mayor will be serving as a city representative on the board overseeing Destination Medical Center.
Of course, Norton is no stranger to the $5.6 billion economic development project. During her time as a DFL lawmaker, she co-authored legislation that led to more than $400 million in state funds being directed toward the initiative.
Since that time, though, she said much has changed. Downtown is now booming with new construction and issues like affordable housing — which was never mentioned in the legislation — have become key concerns.
Norton said despite a few early missteps — such as the Holiday Inn debacle on Second Street and the backlash around moving the Peace Plaza fountain (it’s staying put) — she thinks DMC is moving in the right direction.
However, she added that the heavy lifting is still to come — and there are some pieces of the project she would like to see move a little faster.
“It’s exciting to see a new building be built,” Norton said in our interview. “It will be more exciting to see who will move into that building and what it will do for our economy. That’s what the project was for.”
Specifically, Norton said she would like to see DMC efforts focus on taking advantage of creative partnerships in the community, building an education hub, and creating a more vibrant and walkable downtown.
“DMC growth must provide for the people who work and visit downtown, but it must also meet the needs of those who live here,” Norton said in her address on Monday.
Building a livable community
While downtown is important, Norton noted that when too much focus is put on it, “it gives people concern that the community has been forgotten.”
As a counterbalance to DMC, Norton said she plans to work with the police department and council to ramp up community engagement in neighborhoods across the city. She also wants to create a city department focused exclusively on strengthening neighborhood involvement.
“Rochester is much more than a downtown,” she said, “and we must balance our focus across every sector of our city — creating strong, safe neighborhoods for all of us.”
The attention to neighborhoods is part of a larger strategy by Norton to create a safer, healthier and more sustainable community.
Already, she has signed the city on to the “We Are Still In” climate change initiative and pledged to honor Brede’s goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2031. Initiatives like these, Norton said, demonstrate that Rochester can take the lead in creating a resilient and livable city.
“I want to have a community that is preparing itself if things aren’t going well at the state level, or the national level, that our community will thrive and grow and be able to stand on its own,” said Norton.
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Cover photo by William Forsman