When controversy brews or obstacles arise in Mitzi Baker’s typically crammed workday, the longtime public servant tasked with guiding Rochester’s growth and development knows where to find inspiration and professional purpose. A favorite quote from Hubert H. Humphrey resonates strongly with Baker, who took over as Director of the Rochester-Olmsted Planning Department in January of 2014:
“The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
“It’s a good reminder for me when I think about ‘why is it that I’m here every day?’” says Baker, who also serves as Executive Director of Rochester Olmsted Council of Governments (ROCOG), a regional transportation policy board. “It’s about the whole community and the common good. Citizens with different needs and from different walks and stages of life need us to think in their best interests.”
From creating a more pedestrian-friendly city that fosters increased physical activity to offering more transportation and housing choices for all income levels and lifestyles, Baker’s city and county planning efforts are guided by a belief in building an inclusive and healthy community.
This vision for an ideal community, as well as Baker’s strong commitment to public service and high level of motivation, were shaped in childhood.
Growing up in South St. Paul in the 1970s and ‘80s—“at the fringe of urban and rural”—Baker and her three older sisters all walked to school, and her parents walked to work. Her mother was a teacher’s assistant who worked with students with special needs; her father was a supervisor for the Dakota County Metropolitan Mosquito Control District.
“I probably developed a civic interest from them and didn’t even realize it,” Baker says.
Baker’s household was full of “smart, creative, and capable women,” and her father was a World War II hero who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Although he was somewhat “old school,” Baker says, “he never led any of his girls to believe they couldn’t do something just because they were female. I distinctly remember him telling us, as little girls, that if we work hard and put our minds to it, we could pursue and succeed in any profession we chose.”
Baker’s mother had immigrated to the United States from Yugoslavia (now Macedonia), and the family spent a few summers there during Baker’s childhood.
“This was a very interesting piece of my childhood that gave me a broader perspective on the world,” Baker says.
During those summers, she was exposed to both the lifestyles of her relatives who lived in a self-sustaining peasant village and the lifestyles of those who lived in denser urban areas. One of her cousins was a city architect, and he showed Baker how he was guiding the transformation of different areas of his city.
“I am very grateful to have had that dynamic opportunity… the cultural experience was so rich,” Baker says.
Besides gaining an awareness of different types of communities around the world, Baker’s time abroad gave her a unique appreciation of what it is like to relocate to a new country, as her mother had done. “It helped give me a perspective on newcomers to Rochester, and an understanding of some of the difficulties in assimilating or getting comfortable with a new culture
The empathy and interest in different cultures that Baker developed as a child in South St. Paul and during visits to Macedonia have stuck with her in adulthood and in her career, according to her oldest sister, Vera Alex Ewing of Inver Grove Heights.
“I’ve noticed that she is very open-minded and accepting of other peoples’ ideas,” says Alex Ewing. Also, “it means a lot to her to make sure the community is connected and is accessible to the young, elderly, and handicapped.”
One other trait Baker acquired in childhood, according to her sister, is a stubborn streak. “She’s not stubborn as in ‘you have to think my way or the highway,’ but stubborn in how hard she works,” Alex Ewing says, noting this stubbornness has helped Baker in
Baker attended college at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. After graduating with an urban and regional studies degree, Baker was hired in 1993 as an intern in the Rochester-Olmsted Planning department she now leads. After the year-long internship, she went to work for a southeast Minnesota consulting firm that specialized in engineering, surveying, and project management. Two and a half years later, the city-county planning department hired Baker back permanently.
Before taking over as director two years ago, Baker had a variety of responsibilities in her department that helped prepare her for a leadership role. During a period of rapid growth in the community, from 1996 to 2006, Baker was in charge of handling proposals for new development. Century Hills, Emerald Hills, and neighborhoods in southwest Rochester near the Willow Creek reservoir and northwest of Walmart North all blossomed during that era.
“What I liked most about that time period was being involved in the little nuances,” she says. “We’d say, ‘Here’s the proposal, but how can we make it better?’ like linking neighborhoods with sidewalks and trails and creating good connectivity for people moving on foot and pushing strollers.”
While planning and development efforts can sometimes be controversial, Baker’s method of dealing with controversy is to draw on her department’s experience and technical expertise to educate the public and city leadership. “Our job is to explain what choices are available and what the consequences of those choices are. We can reduce controversy when we can point to real projected outcomes and real projected solutions. We can reduce controversy by educating people. Ultimately we have to accept that we will never satisfy everyone.”
Baker, who in 2013 earned a master’s degree in public affairs with a concentration in leadership and management from the University of Minnesota, currently manages a staff of 30 during another period of expected rapid growth in the community.
The Destination Medical Community initiative, which is focused on creating a vibrant and active downtown that attracts and retains visitors and patients, is an important component of Baker’s current work. However, Baker and her department have to plan for a broader area than
“We need to take a holistic approach and think about how our whole city can attract and retain talent… Our role is to try to help manage growth in a way that the city can provide services and create a good quality of life and be a place where people want to come and stay,” Baker says.
“I hope we can establish a vision to be a place that competes very strongly with other economic regions around the country. To do that, we might have to become a little more special than we already are,” she says. “I would hope at some point this community will have more neighborhoods where people have the ability to walk or bike to a coffee shop or restaurant, where we will have good transit that provides pretty easy back and forth to downtown, and where we will have nodes [of ‘little village’ style development] that are very diverse and interesting and vibrant.”
Other stakeholders in Rochester’s growth and development appreciate Baker’s ideas and initiative. “Mitzi is a forward thinker and very current on city planning,” notes Lisa Clarke, executive director of the DMC Economic Development Agency, who works closely with Baker in the areas of planning and transportation. Baker’s “knowledge and understanding of what it takes to make cities successful” will be invaluable as Rochester is expanding and changing, Clarke says. In addition, “Mitzi allows many voices to be heard when it comes to the various aspects of planning and does a nice job of including the community in the planning efforts.”
While she is known for being highly collaborative in her work, Baker is also a “problem solver who is not afraid to make decisions,” adds Randy Klement, a zoning enforcement officer for the Rochester-Olmsted Planning Department who has worked directly with Mitzi since 1999. In addition, she “thinks outside the box relating to the dynamics of development, and isn’t satisfied with the status quo,” always looking to find more efficient ways to serve the community.
Two of the planning department’s current projects—DMC and a comprehensive city plan—are huge initiatives that only happen every few decades, says assistant city administrator Gary Neumann, who has worked with Baker for more than 15 years and typically meets with her several times
“They are projects in which a person needs to show leadership and vision, and also practicality. It’s ‘how do you get these major projects initiated and moving along?’ I think Mitzi has done an excellent job,” Neumann says—adding that Baker works well with her own team, the city council, and people from other departments and organizations. “She’s got good leadership skills and good principles, and she’s willing to speak her mind on those respectfully. A person in that position needs to be outspoken on what they think is the right course of action.”
For Baker, a mother of two children in middle school, the right course of action is to design a city that is welcoming and accessible to everyone, from one of her own kids riding a bike, to an elderly person using a mobility aid.
Decisions that most people take for granted—from the size and slope of sidewalks, to the planting of trees for shade where pedestrian movement is heavy, to the timing of traffic signals to allow more time for people to cross the streets—are decisions that can significantly impact quality of life in a community.
Says Baker: “Incrementally these changes really add up over time and make Rochester a great place to live.”