Gerald Urban retires after 45 years of service in Vadnais Heights

Long-time Vadnais Heights City Administrator Gerald Urban is retiring after nearly 45 years of service to the city. A retirement open house will be held in his honor at the Vadnais Heights Commons on Thursday, Jan. 31 from 4 to 6 p.m.

"Gerry is an institution in Vadnais Heights," Vadnais Heights City Council Member Joe Murphy says. "He's been involved with nearly every aspect of our city's development from its rural setting to its urban setting today."

Urban says that his career of service for the city "officially" started in 1968 when he was 18-years-old, but he recalls doing work with his father, Leroy Urban, for the public works department long before that.

His father had a 31-year career working for the city and was a source of inspiration for his son.

He does not recall the year, but says he remembers a bad ice storm on one winter's day when he was a teenager that wreaked havoc on the city. The streets and sidewalks were coated with ice making them impassable.

"I laid out 24 tons of sand and salt out of a loader that day with a round shovel," he says.

A few years later while attending college Urban started working part-time for the public works department under the supervision of his father, who before his son was hired, was the only public works employee in the city. He says that he was paid around $1.50 per hour at that time and also put in considerable time working on the family farm pro bono.

In 1976, after earning his degree, Urban was hired as the city's acting clerk and was appointed to the position of clerk-treasurer the following year, which later became the position of city administrator.

When he took office as Vadnais Height's clerk-treasurer in 1977 the city was just 20-years-old, seven years younger than Urban. What is now Vadnais Heights had been a part of White Bear Township until 1957. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Urban worked with the city to build and expand its municipal water system, sanitary sewers and other basic infrastructure.

"I'm proud of how the utilities came in. We were able to pick up 40 percent of the overall cost of the city's sewer installation, which saved residents significant costs in tax assessments," he says.

At this time the area was developing rapidly -- changing from a mostly rural farm setting to a second ring suburb -- so Urban worked with the city to pave streets and install curbs and gutters to keep up with the housing boom.

The city more than doubled in size from a population of around 4,000 in 1977 to 11,000 by the late 1980s.

Urban says that the goal for the city starting out was for one-third of the area to be wetlands, one-third residential and one-third commercial and industrial development.

"We're not too far from that today," he says.

He says that the goal for development all along has been to maintain balance over the years -- keeping the "charm" of a small community, while offering the modern services and other benefits of a suburban community with close proximity to a large city.

Murphy says that Urban, a life-long Vadnais Heights resident, cares deeply for the community and has helped the city grow responsibly over his tenure.

Today Vadnais Heights has a population of around 12,300 residents and a staff of 24 full-time employees and four part-time employees.

"We have a good mix of housing, well maintained parks and trails, quality, affordable services and 335 businesses here that make up a good tax base. I'm proud to have been a part of that development," the city administrator says.

He says he is also proud of the street improvement policy that he wrote, which the city council adopted over 10 years ago. According to Urban, other, larger cities have used it as a model in recent years for maintaining paved roadways in their communities as well.

The street improvement plan was designed to save money while keeping roadways in good condition. It requires each city street to be seal-coated and have cracks in the pavement sealed at least once every five years. Urban says usually a freshly paved street will only last for about 15 years, but by performing regular maintenance at a much lower cost the pavement lasts longer -- ultimately saving tax dollars used for repaving roadways.

Urban says that his work with the city over the years in creating new parks and improving upon existing parks are another highlight of his career.

"When I started working for the city we only had three parks with about 10 acres. Today we have over 100 acres of active park land in 14 parks and 13 miles of trails," he says.

Urban is quick to point out that a lot of his accomplishments were a collaborative effort and is thankful to have had the opportunity to work with others, including the city council and city staff.

"One person doesn't do it all," he says. "I've been able to work with some long-standing city councils and others who have shared a vision for how they would like to see the city develop and grow ... I've been blessed in that regard," he added.

Urban will retire on Feb. 1 on his 63rd birthday. He says he plans on staying active in the community where he has lived his entire life. He will continue his involvement with the Lions and Rotary clubs, for example, and will be available to help the community in any way he can.

Assistant City Administrator Kathy Keefe has worked with Urban since 1978 and says Urban has always shown that he cares about his community and she has learned quite a bit from him over the years.

"He's been a great person to work with. He's honest, trustworthy and has taught me a lot about city government," Keefe says.

Vadnais Heights has interviewed several applicants for the soon to be vacant position of city administrator, but has not made any final decisions as to who will take over for Urban as of yet.

Urban and his wife Debra will continue operating the family farm where they grow vegetables, herbs and flowers for sale at both the St. Paul and Minneapolis Farmer's Markets.

He is also looking forward to traveling and spending more time with his daughter and two sons who are all in their early-to-mid twenties.

Joshua Nielsen can be reached at jnielsen@lillienews.com or 651-748-7824.