AUSTIN, Minn. — Some mayors are elected to keep the status quo. If that was Austin Mayor Tom Stiehm’s goal for 2014, he has failed miserably.
First, Stiehm has lost about 100 pounds in the last year, shedding blood pressure medication and large-waistband jeans along the way.
Second, Stiehm’s house is a total loss after a fire in July in which he and his wife, Sarah, lost most of their possessions and, more important, their dog, Annie.
Third – and this is what Stiehm really wants to talk about – Austin is undergoing a rebirth of its own. A massive flood-abatement project is showing results. The city’s long-term improvement plan is in full swing. The Hormel Institute, located just off Interstate 90 east of downtown, broke ground several months ago on an expansion that will double the size of its facility and add 120 new jobs for doctors, scientists and researchers.
“This is a great time to be in Austin,” the slim Stiehm said while sitting in the kitchen of his rental house.
‘I just changed the way I live’
“I was always a chubby kid,” Stiehm says. He was born in Minneapolis in 1952 but grew up in West Allis, Wisconsin. When he volunteered for the Marine Corps in 1970, he was a whisker under 5-foot-9 and weighed 205 pounds. When his tour was done in 1973 – he was a rifleman and served on a ship in Vietnam but never saw ground action – he weighed 169 pounds.
Stiehm knocked around after his tour, entering and then dropping out of college then working for UPS, a moving company and the U.S. Postal Service before becoming a deputy at the Milwaukee County Jail in 1974. He found working in the jail to be dull and depressing, so he followed the advice of a cousin who was a sergeant in the Austin Police Department and was hired as a patrol officer in 1976. He made detective in 1989 and in 1990 was attached to the Southeast Minnesota Narcotics Task Force.
He weighed around 200 pounds just before his divorce in 1989. Not one year later he weighed less than 160. He remarried in 1993 and kept his fairly weight steady, adding a few pounds here and there. He weighed 212 pounds when he retired from the force in August 2006, and was elected mayor the following November.
Being mayor is a bit more sedentary than being a police detective. Stiehm’s moment of truth came in August 2013, when he participated in a dunk tank for a fundraiser and could barely get out of the tank. His daughter had a picture taken with him and when Stiehm saw his wet, 270-pound figure, he saw it was time to take action.
He knew that dieting wouldn’t work so he never even tried a formal diet plan. “Basically, I just changed the way I lived,” he said. He didn’t cut out sweets and carbs but limited them drastically and counted his calories, keeping them between 1,500 and 2,000 per day. “I just didn’t eat all the time,” he said.
He kept daily track of his weight on a calendar on the kitchen wall, stopped eating fatty foods and watched his bread intake. After last winter’s deep freeze, he began daily walks with his dogs Annie, an 8-year-old lab, and Harper, a 2-year-old Dalmatian-lab mix. He walked about three or four miles each day.
Now he’s down to about 170 pounds. When he started to lose weight, he was taking four medications for high blood pressure. With his doctor’s approval, he tossed them out one by one as his weight dropped. He never threw away a pair of jeans so as his waistline thinned, he switched from his 44-inch jeans to his 42-inch jeans and so on. Now he wears 32-inch jeans.
“You just gotta quit dieting and change what you’re doing,” Stiehm said. “It’s all about confidence. You can do whatever you want and you don’t have to listen to other people. When I was down to 190, people said I wouldn’t lose any more. When I was at 180, people said I had lost enough. I just went on losing about seven pounds a month, and that’s about right.”
A total loss
Stiehm’s weight wasn’t the only thing to change in 2014. In the morning of Friday, July 18, fire gutted the house he had lived in since 1993. Stiehm said firefighters believe the fire was electrical and started in a downstairs room they used as a bedroom for their 15-year-old grandson who visited occasionally. Although his grandson wasn’t in the home when the fire broke out, Stiehm’s dog, Annie, was sleeping in her usual spot on the boy’s bed.
Stiehm said he awoke at about 7:30 a.m. when he heard what he thought was neighbor kids playing on his deck. When he opened the bedroom door, smoke billowed into the room from the living room. He wakened Sarah and they got out of the house without injury.
Stiehm said he and Sarah called out for Harper and Annie. After several long minutes, Harper bolted through a side door, foaming at the mouth and disoriented. Firefighters later found Annie’s body just behind the door of the guest room.
Harper is fine now but suffered from nightmares for a week, yelping in her sleep, Stiehm said.
The detached garage was undamaged but the house is a total loss. The couple lost nearly everything. “I was able to get this, though,” Stiehm said, tossing a sooty, metal Austin Police Department badge onto the kitchen table of their rental.
The Stiehms will tear down the house and rebuild on the unpretentious lot in the city’s southwest side. “We could build somewhere else but then what would you do with that lot?” he said. Besides, they like the neighborhood and the fact that it’s diversifying – a Karen family has moved in next door and a Hispanic family lives down the street.
Stiehm isn’t all that happy talking about his weight and he dislikes talking about the fire, but like most mayors, he lights up when he’s talking about his city.
Stiehm won the nonpartisan mayoral election in 2006 by 207 votes. His opponent asked for a recount and the election stood. He was re-elected three times; in 2012 the city changed mayoral elections to every four years instead of two.
In 2012, he said he wouldn’t run for re-election in 2016, “but the reality is that with my weight and my health, I couldn’t have run in 2016. Now that I’m healthy, I’d like to run again,” he said.
The main reason: He’d like another term is to see Austin achieve its ambitious Vision2020 Austin goals.
Austin is the global corporate headquarters of Hormel Foods, which in itself would make most cities happy. But it’s also the beneficiary of the Hormel Foundation, whose grants, along with money from a variety of other sources, is funding Vision2020 Austin.
The organization has 10 goals. Some goals are typical of such projects, such as creating a bike/walk trail system and beautifying waterways and shorelines. Some goals have reasonably achievable elements, such as creating a better business climate by helping “trailing spouses” find work, or increasing community spirit by identifying eyesore properties and organizing volunteers to clean them up.
But some goals are very much in line with bringing communities into the 21st century, such as providing high-speed Internet to every home and business via fiber-optic cable or wireless connection, and providing “cradle to career” education for all residents.
Other goals are impressively direct:
- Build a year-round community recreation center “of architectural significance” that includes fitness facilities, a family aquatic center, practice facilities and healthy living programs. Austin already provides membership to the YMCA for students in grades 2-12 for $1 a year, Stiehm said.
- Build a “creative and iconic Gateway to Austin” attraction just off Interstate 90 that will host unique retail establishments and draw visitors downtown.
- Rebuild the huge Austin Utilities building into the anchor of “Austin’s Art Row” by making it into a multi-use structure. Austin Utilities has plans to move all of its offices out of the complex, which has also had preliminary approval from federal and state agencies to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Revitalize downtown. The Spam Museum will be moving from its home next to corporate headquarters to a downtown lot where a restaurant burned down several years ago. Aluminum building facades have been removed to expose the brick underneath. Empty second floors of retail buildings will be renovated into apartments to help solve the demand for housing.
Stiehm also is satisfied with Austin’s response to chronic flooding along the Cedar River.
“In July of ’78, we had our first 100-year flood. Then we had another 100-year flood about a month later, and we’ve been having 100-year floods about every four years since,” Stiehm says.
It was the record flood of 2004 in which the Cedar reached 25.4 feet that spurred voters into action. In 2006 the city voted in a 0.5-cent local option sales tax dedicated to flood abatement. That money has bought houses and property in the flood plain and built a flood wall along Main Street and berms along the river.
The tax will sunset after 20 years and the project is ahead of schedule, Stiehm said.
Stiehm is excited about the expansion of the Hormel Institute. The Institute was originally a collaboration between Hormel and the University of Minnesota to find uses for byproducts of Hormel’s meatpacking business. However, the Institute now is a collaboration between the Hormel Foundation, the U of M and the Mayo Clinic and it has one task: Find ways to prevent and control cancer.
The Hormel Institute has about 100 employees, most of whom are scientists and researchers. They recently broke ground on an addition that will add 20 research laboratories and 120 scientific research jobs. In 2012, the Institute announced a partnership with South Central University in Changsha, Hunan Province, China.
As Stiehm drives through town, the voice that once drolly discussed his weight loss and sadly recounted the loss of his house and pet rises with enthusiasm as he ticks off the various projects of a city that is looking forward and not back.
In that way, the city is a lot like its mayor.