Heidi Nelson has been successful at something we’d all probably like to achieve: a shorter commute. Nelson took over as Maple Grove city administrator in late 2015 and reduced her drive to work by half on most days.
She has lived with her family in St. Michael since 1999 while holding administrator positions in the cities of Ramsey, Blaine and Wayzata. And, while a shorter commute may be a great benefit, knowing that it’s the right job at the right time is of more importance to Nelson.
Timing was important to Nelson during her early years as well. She happened to have attended the same small-town high school as her husband Rob,—“Our families knew one another,” she says—but it wasn’t until they met again, eight years after graduation, that a relationship began. Now their family of daughters, aged 8, 10 and 16, are active in soccer, golf, band, hockey and gymnastics. Rob also coaches sports.
Nelson explains that using the amenities in the area—medical services, restaurants—means that Maple Grove has always been a part of her family’s everyday experience. “I really try to make the city a part of my life,” she says. This was also the case in Wayzata, where she brought her family to the many festivals in town. However, there was an unexpected result: “My kids see the events and have an idea that I’m a sort of party planner,” she says.
Being a part of the community helps Nelson integrate family and work, but finding the right work was a journey all its own. After finishing her undergraduate degree in community health education, with a focus on hospital administration, she worked for many years at the Department of Veteran Affairs. She remarks that she was ultimately “not a good match for a federal system” that makes changes slowly. “It was hard to get resources to the people using them,” she says.
Applying her skills in a different arena, she enrolled at Hamline University in public administration. She also took courses through the National Development Council in planning and economic development as well as gaining a finance certification and knowledge in real estate. She’ll say she landed in her career field, but it’s clear that her personal strengths and keen eye for seeing the big picture has “landed” her in a career in which those she works to support are the fortunate recipients of a practiced hand. “It’s the work I like,” Nelson says, “but it’s not just economic development and real estate, it’s ‘how do you build a community around that that is sustainable and safe?’”
The move from Wayzata to Maple Grove seems merely a process of scaling up for Nelson. “The city of Wayzata only has 4,000 people, but it has a sophisticated business environment so the population doubles when people come there to work,” she explains. Maple Grove’s population is pushing 67,000 and while it has the advantage of nearly every amenity one might need, it can surely glean much from Wayzata’s history of successfully luring industry, along with hosting the workforce that follows such expansion.
Nelson sees opportunity here. “Maple Grove is watched by other cities because of its planned growth,” she says. “Gravel mining [in the downtown area] provides ‘patient real estate’ and 20 years of development.” She describes the city as still having small-town attributes, and great access. “It’s a key to success,” she says.
Her success in this position may also be accelerated by the relative health of the city upon her arrival. “There was not a mandate when I walked in, and everyone has the long view in mind,” she explains. “Maple Grove is a well oiled machine.” The high bar of city amenities and willingness to find the resources necessary for growth have always been vital strengths of Maple Grove city leaders, and Nelson seems to be of the same mindset. And, with recent growth in the northern part of the city along Hwy. 610, a focus on expanded housing options, job creation, and natural amenities—all residents to be within walking distance (½ mile) of a neighborhood park—Nelson’s past experience will be put to good use.
When the Maple Grove administrator position was posted, Nelson thought it would be a “really great opportunity, if everything were to fall into the right place at the right time.” And it has.