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From the X and Wild hockey to state budgets, Pam Wheelock excels at challenges — now for the latest.

Pam Wheelock
Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn
Pam Wheelock

Pam Wheelock is running out of sectors.

But her latest move to the Archibald Bush Foundation — which is in the midst of a tectonic change in the way
it funds and approaches regional issues — might be the best fit yet.

Indeed, all sectors will meet at the intersection of Solutions and Wheelock.

At least that’s the very grand plan.

A little background
In the beginning, there was the Minnesota Legislature.

Straight out of the College of St. Catherine, she was a staffer to the Minnesota Senate Finance Committee, vice-chaired by a young, independent-minded state senator from southeastern Minnesota named Tim Penny.

That’s her neck of the woods — or pastures — having grown up on a dairy farm near Waseca. 

Then, it was to Congress, working on Penny’s Washington staff when he represented Minnesota’s 1st District.

Soon, after getting an MBA, she joined the executive branch, working as a “little baby budget officer” when Peter Hutchinson was state finance commissioner.

“I was a baby commissioner, too,” Hutchinson remembers. That was 1990. Wheelock was “an all-star” who didn’t shy from controversy amid tough budgetary times. Hutchinson said. 

Next, city government, under St. Paul mayors Jim Scheibel and Norm Coleman, diving into economic development matters, and, ultimately, as deputy mayor, striking an arena deal that will define a key chunk of her public- and private-sector legacies. 

Later, it was off to the mad, mad world of the governor’s cabinet and state finance commissioner, consulting, day-to-day, side-by-side, with the father of all outsiders, Jesse Ventura, whom she praises lavishly to this day.

Add that all up and what’s that spell?

Hockey.

The next phase
First, for Norm Coleman, Wheelock, 49, helped negotiate the city of St. Paul’s deal for the new Xcel Energy Center arena.

Then — forever unpredictable — she flipped sides in 2002 and went to work for the private company that operates the facility, Minnesota Sports and Entertainment, which also owns and operates the Wild. She was the chief financial officer and top non-sportsy executive.

It’s a job she figured she’d keep for a few more years and wanted to. She likes the Wild’s new owner, Craig Leipold, and she sought to share her institutional memory for franchise business matters, a personal history with the arena and team that no one else possesses.

“I feel a very maternal connection,” she said to the building and the Wild, as she was there at both their births and now has seen both grow to maturity.

But, alas, Wheelock — for now the most powerful woman in Minnesota sports, who some lawmakers called “Governor Wheelock” during the Ventura administration, who recently, as chairwoman of its board, oversaw the rebranding of the College of St. Catherine’s to the St. Catherine University — is leaping to another sector still.

It’s the philanthropic, nonprofit sector, with the critical twist that suits her: a complex policy and problem-solving component.

It called out to her.

“I guess I’ve always thought I’d end up in the philanthropic sector,” she told MinnPost this week while still active in her Wild job until year’s end. “I’m, very comfortable with and identify with the geography and region that Bush is involved in: Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. I’m a Midwestern girl at heart. And I really feel like [the Bush Foundation is] at an exciting place in its history . . . There’s just an energy there and an opportunity there to go make a difference in a community that I love. It was irresistible.”

Random thoughts
During our interview, Wheelock addressed a range of topics:

Pro sports:
“I hope I can talk about this without getting choked up,” she said.

She remembers being in Chisholm, Minn., in a local watering hole during the 2003 Stanley Cup playoffs, her first season with the Wild when the team made a magical post-season run.

“I’ll never forget, there were people there cheering, talking to people they didn’t know, wearing different Wild apparel. And it reminded me that in a society that’s become increasingly isolated — socio-economically, politically, we tend to group ourselves more and more with people who have commonality — it’s one of the great powerful things to bring people together. Sports is a powerful community-builder.

Xcel Energy Center:
“That building is a huge economic development driver for the city of St. Paul and the region. It’s doing what we said it would do … It’s not just about one big event with high visibility. It’s been about creating a different kind of brand identity for the city. And it really is a community gathering place. So, for me to be associated with the outstanding execution of a company and a complex that I only dreamed about in the fall of 1995, well, you don’t often get that chance … It’s been a very uplifting experience.”

The state economy:
“We used to be, in some ways, a little isolated from the depths of pressures outside our borders. Increasingly, that’s not the case. Either the magnitude of the problems are so pervasive that it’s hard to be protected or, increasingly, our economy is such that there’s no way to protect ourselves. We used to have a diverse enough industry base, kind of self-contained. Not anymore.

“I was reading the paper. People were talking about the $700 billion bailout and why give all this money to Wall Street. Well, who is Wall Street? It’s people who invest their resources, it’s pension funds. It touches all of us . . .

“I think there’s a public purpose for doing it [a bailout]. But like the public financing of facilities, you have to be careful about the public versus the private interests, and find the right balance. You have to take corrective action and, even for a Republican administration, be more involved in regulating this industry and get involved in government owenrship in what used to be long-held private companies if you want to try to mitigate or change the course.”

Jesse Ventura:
If he would have been a Republican or Democrat “there would have been a long legacy and a lot out there to try to reiterate what great accomplishments we had under his leadership. For established parties to acknowledge some of the important work that got done would have undermined their longer term interests.”She cites tax reform in 2001, including the state takeover of K-12 education funding and property tax reform.

“You know, people can debate the elements of the policy, but that was real reform and real change in a meaningful way that people had been talking about for a long time … One thing that was really invigorating then was  you had to check your biases and assumptions at the door … To not have the answers driven by party ideology but through really open and honest dialogue was a great part of that [Ventura] experience.”

Peter Hutchinson
Peter Hutchinson

Bush and leadership
In 2007, Hutchinson, the former Independence Party gubernatorial candidate and long-time public sector consultant, was named president of the state’s second-largest foundation, with assets of around $800 million. His task was to steward a redirection of the foundation.

He has refocused the organization on three initiatives, and they are bold.

• Develop Courageous Leaders and Engage Entire Communities in Solving Problems.

• Support the Self-Determination of Native Nations.

• Increase Educational Achievement.

They are public-policy, scratch-your-head, how-can-you-do-things-differently whoppers.

Wheelock is the new Bush vice president heading that leadership focus.

The goal she will seek to achieve, with tons of help is this: By 2018, 75 percent of people in all demographic groups in Minnesota and the Dakotas will say that their community is effective at solving problems and improving their quality of life.

Another whopper. 

By the Bush Foundation’s count, there are 40,000 public and nonprofit leaders in the three-state region.

Welcome to Pam Wheelock’s new world.

How is she going to do it?

“Can I get back to you on that one?” she asked, straight-faced.

But Hutchinson isn’t laughing. He said he’s been wanting to work with Wheelock ever since those Finance Department meetings 18 years ago, when she wowed him. For a task as daunting as the one she faces — as deep and broad — she brings this: “She’s a collaborator and a doer, and it’s hard to find that combination. She has a successful leadership in every sector and across sectors.

“For us to touch 40,000 people and do it effectively, we need partners,” Hutchinson said. “Pam always brings her best game, and for this she’s going to need it.”

Wheelock acknowledges she has been served up “an ambitious goal of engaging people in problem-solving.”

But she figures the idealist in her will drive this enormous and somewhat ambiguous project. She sees freedom in it. The realist will plan the work and work the plan.

One problem: The results will be measured in 2018.

She’s never been able to keep a job that long.

Hutchinson said he expects Wheelock to be in this post until then.

“We’re pretty clear on that,” he said.

Pam Wheelock in one sector for a decade?

Mark your calendars.

Jay Weiner writes about off-the-field sports issues, such as sports business and sports and public policy. He can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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