By Luke Klink
After leading Ladysmith for more than three decades as city administrator, Al Christianson has retired. His last day was April 3 after 34 years in the position.
Christianson graduated with high honors from UW-Eau Claire in 1977, with a concentration in urban and regional planning. After brief stints with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin Department of Transportation, WDLAD, of which Northwest Regional Planning Commission was initially a part, the latter became autonomous and he worked there until starting solely with the city on Jan. 1, 1986.
Christianson was a “circuit rider” with NWRPC, assisting communities in Price, Rusk and Taylor counties with local planning matters. He helped set up industrial facilities in Medford and Park Falls, and TIF districts and a park expansion in Medford. He also spent time on efforts in places like Prentice, Phillips and Gilman.
“Ladysmith wanted to buy more and more of my time until the city proposed to hire me full-time, which happened,” Christianson said.
Praised by peers
Bob Parmley, CEO and principal engineer at the Ladysmith consulting engineering firm Morgan & Parmley, praised Christianson for bringing grants and financial awards to the city. He cited the city’s use of Community Development Block Grants and use of CDBG funding on municipal projects.
“Financially, that has certainly helped the city with funding,” Parmley said. “He developed into a pretty good municipal consultant.”
Parmley credited Christianson for being instrumental on numerous municipal projects over the years. These include development of the city’s industrial park and its buildings, roads and sewer and water main extensions.
“He has done a yeoman’s job with the Industrial Development Corporation over the years. That has been a plus,” Parmley said.
Parmley called being city administrator a difficult job.
“You are out there doing things where people can see you, and there are always going to be people who are against you. I compliment Al on his tough hide. The average citizen doesn’t realize the value he has given the city over the years,” Parmley said.
Projects that a city administrator has been involved in sometimes are quickly forgotten, according to Parmley. He described Christianson as multi-talented and multi-skilled.
“Al is an unsung hero,” Parmley said. “I think his heart was in the right place. He has been a pretty good acquaintance, and he has always cooperated well with us at Morgan & Parmley. It was a tough job, and he deserves to have some kudos on his retirement.”
Parmley added sometime leaving a long career as Christianson is doing can be difficult.
“You work your whole life at something that intense, you get geared for it and that is who you are. To step out of it is tough,” Parmley said. “In my opinion he has done an incredible and professional job.”
Don Rubow, who served on the city council during the 1970s and was involved in the Ladysmith Industrial Development Corporation since 1995, said community residents may never understand all the contributions Christianson has made to the area. He cited Christianson’s involvement in past Tax Incremental District planning for sewer and water improvements to Tee-Away Golf & Steakhouse and nearby residential development and also TID and federal grant planning for the city’s Northridge development.
Rubow also praised Christianson and past Mayor Marty Reynolds for their role in keeping the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources offices in Ladysmith, repurposing former facilities at the Flambeau Mine site. He recalled working with Christianson on the IDC to keep Conwed in the city.
“The IDC with Al leading the way convinced Conwed to build that building,” Rubow said.
Rubow also noted Christianson’s work with Rockwell Automation, a major employer in the city’s industrial park for many years.
“All of the grants he has written over the years I couldn’t even start to itemize from water and sewer plants to getting playground equipment down at the old elementary school. There have been innumerable numbers of grants he has written over the years,” Rubow said.
“Nobody will ever really understand the contributions he has made to the city over the years in regards to grants and leadership, giving direction to the council and the IDC,” Rubow said. “I have tremendous admiration for what he has done. He has always put the interests of the city above his own interests. There is no question about that.”
Rockwell Automation Global Warehouse Manager Teri Blumenthal called Christianson a consistent partner to the company.
“It is because of him and his ability and willingness to work with us and think outside the box that Rockwell has grown so much in this community,” Blumenthal said
In 2008 when other smaller facilities were closing, Christianson was extremely helpful in getting additions and assisting the company not only stay in Ladysmith, but also tripling its size. The plant has become the Molding Center of Excellence for Rockwell Automation.
“People may not realize how much Al works with the businesses in town to keep them here,” Blumenthal said. “He is dedicated to this community and the people within it. Al even worked on getting a grant to help pay for an addition at our facility and to get the road repaired. It is because of things like this that our leadership at Rockwell believe that the Ladysmith facility is one of the best.”
Blumenthal added, “I honestly don’t know how I would have done it without Al. He was easy to work with, efficient and understands business. I will miss him.”
Christianson believed it takes an optimist to do the type of work he did.
“I believe that, as we as a society become more aware of the need for long term sustainability, new and interesting uses will be found for our timber surplus and our agricultural output,” Christianson said. “Also, that more clearly safe ways will be found to mine and process minerals. I believe that, taken together, these advances will pave the way for renewed economic prosperity across northern Wisconsin, all the while retaining the beauty that keeps us living here.
Christianson called the city fortunate to have a core of dedicated and very competent employees to do its work. He added there will be challenges.
“Our employees tend to be older such that my retirement is likely to be followed by several more in upcoming years. So many that getting replacements hired and trained up in the relatively short time available will be key,” Christianson said.
Another challenge the city faces will be to make and implement good public policy for changing times in view of the volume of misinformation on social media.
“And, as we have seen at all levels of government, the changes brought by elections are not always for the better. Some things never change, though we wish they would. The freeze thaw cycle that limits the useful lives of our streets is one of those. A never-ending issue here and elsewhere in our climate.
“As a general observation, however, I believe the city is in good shape and well positioned to move forward,” Christianson said. “Our employees are committed but need to be supported, not undercut by elected officials who are often far less knowledgeable about the subject matter, at least initially. Some folks who seek office are well-intentioned and good people, but don’t know how things work. And by how things work what I mean is that local governments operate under strict rules set by the State.
While candidates may feel it should be done this way or that, and while employees may even agree with them, city leaders are bound to follow the law and urge legislators to modify laws if necessary, according to Christianson.
“Again, the misinformation that floats around out there is worse than ever as social media gives rise to its spread,” Christianson said. “The need to counter misinformation takes productive time away from needed efforts. If there is waste that is where it is.”
Industrial development involves a lot of work, according to Rubow.
“There is a lot of negotiations, and a lot of luck,” Rubow said. “You never know what someone who is wanting to put up an industry, what their real motives are and what they are really looking for. You have to do a lot of guessing, and he did a lot of that over the years.”
Rubow said Christianson will be missed.
“It is going to be hard to replace him. He grew up here, and he has so much history in his head it will be impossible to replace him,” Rubow said.