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Clark brings experience, liveliness to local government

City Administrator Craig Clark sits at his desk at Worthington City Hall. (BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE)1 / 2
Craig Clark poses in the council chambers of City Hall in Worthington. When Clark isn't at work, he finds time for fun at home with his wife and three young children. (BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE)2 / 2

WORTHINGTON -- Craig Clark had a calling. If it wasn't from a higher power, than at least it was to work for a higher power.

That calling came in 1996, shortly after working at the Minnesota House of Representatives during the 1996 legislative session. The higher power: National government.

Upon finishing the 1996 session, Clark began working with Rep. Gil Gutknecht. With a mere two weeks notice, he and wife Anita uprooted their life in Minnesota and moved to Washington to work in the halls of Congress. From there, Clark took a position with newly elected Rep. Kenny Hulshof, of Columbia, Mo. and rounded out his D.C. experience as a senior legislative assistant and a total of four years in the nation's Capitol.

But that was enough for Clark.

"The story was if you stay in D.C. more than five years, you end up staying there the rest of your life," Clark said.

A big city boasting enough nightlife and entertainment to keep any socialite busy, Washington, D.C. was both an expensive and demanding dwelling place.

"Living there is a much different grind than visiting for a week vacation," Clark said. "My day would start at 9 a.m., and I'd often get home at 1 in the morning while working for the congressman."

His workspace limited and the offices more tight quarters than spacious layout, Clark grew weary of the D.C. grind.

"The congressional offices are packed in these little rooms and it's not as glamorous as people think it is," Clark said. "But it was a fabulous experience, and a life-changing event."

With another life-changing event in mind, the Clarks had a different kind of dream that drew them back to the Midwest.

"We knew we wanted to start having a family," Clark said.

Craig and Anita moved back to the Midwest and decided whoever landed the first job would determine where they moved.

"Anita was more successful at that than I was," Clark said.

So the couple moved to Minneapolis, where Anita had gotten a job in an advertising and marketing agency. Shortly after, Craig took a job with the Minnesota House.

"When I worked at the congressional level, I knew I wanted more of a local connection," Clark said. "Working with nation leaders, it was really neat to be able to have an impact on people across the nation, but it's really hard to say 'if not for my actions, the country wouldn't have seen this great thing happen.' So you don't really see your tangible works at play there."

Furthering his desire for public service, Clark obtained his master's degree in public administration while working at the legislature. Having this under his belt, Clark took a position in eastern Wisconsin for the Town of Clayton.

While in Clayton, and through Dist. 22B Rep. Elaine Harder of Jackson, Clark became familiar with the southwest Minnesota region and developed an interest in the area. When the city administrator position opened up in 2008, Clark applied, was interviewed by the recruiter and upon meeting with the council was offered the position.

By the time the Clarks moved to Worthington, their family had expanded to five with three small children rounding out the brood. The whole family relocated to Worthington to start a new chapter in life in a bigger town full of opportunity.

"I really like rural communities," Clark said. "That's what I grew up in. People are hard-working and I try to do the same. Yet Worthington is bigger in population and the community is significantly more diverse in both city services and cultural varieties."

The diversity of Worthington was not the only characteristic that drew Clark to the city.

"One of the biggest reasons I decided to take the job was Worthington had a proactive council that wanted to take some significant steps forward," Clark said. "For example, the sale of the hospital and the proceeds of that will lead to some tangible projects for the community. To be able to be involved in those is great."

Clark joined a workplace at City Hall that came fully stocked with a knowledgeable, resourceful staff with a lot of experience -- even willing to help and teach Clark.

"It's been nice working with a staff that has a lot of experience and knowledge -- being able to learn from them -- but at the same time asking questions, seeing how they might be able to do things differently, shift directions in order to move forward a little bit," Clark said.

Since first taking office Dec. 1, 2008, Clark has seen the city make improvements on existing projects as well as dream up new plans and organize further developments. Once he was accustomed to his new position, Clark took notice of the council's biggest goals.

"The first year is a lot of learning the operations and learning the different interests and goals of the council, where they want to take the community," he said.

While Clark explained that it's is tough to please each constituent, he is always open to hearing any input or suggestions. Where one person may oppose the cessation of the Main Street floral pots, another may question the building of the Aquatic Center or the proposed fire station, he said. Clark said the biggest project recently completed is the strategic planning process.

"The strategic planning process was really an effort to try and focus more on doing fewer things well than try and do a little bit on everything," Clark explained.

His mindset is always that of a team player, focusing on "prioritizing where we're going as a community" while trying to get things accomplished amidst varying opinions and priorities.

Overall, Clark is pleased with his first year as city administrator and implementing the strategic plan.

"I'm thankful we've been able to adopt the strategic plan and now hopefully we can put the plan in action," he said.

As year two brings new projects into action, the focus remains on the strategic plan.

"I really have a strong fidelity to taking my marching orders from council and the direction they give," Clark said.

And those orders aren't taken lightly.

"I've talked about how elected officials get the title of Honorable, and I think they deserve that because they've stood for election and they've earned that respect."

While Craig has an appointed position at a local level, he continues to try to work with the state in an ongoing effort to repair a somewhat rocky relationship between state government and local government.

"One of the biggest challenges I would say is our counterparts at the state and federal level making it difficult for the government in general because of the cynicism people feel from the government's actions," Clark said. "I'm hoping to see a better balance with the state, as the premise of local government aid is to ensure that basic core services can be delivered. We're going to have added challenges to provide some equality of services for our constituents, so that's going to be a difficult thing over the foreseeable future if that broken relationship continues with the state."

The broken relationship doesn't discourage Clark, but affirms his strong beliefs in local government power.

"People support local government officials well beyond state and federal officials," Clark said. "I think that's because we are very accountable. People quickly find out if you are working on their best interests, because they see it right outside their back door."

Clark intends to continue working in his constituents' favor, focusing on balancing needs and wants.

"That will just mean asking how we can do more with less and what we can do without," he said. "I do try to stay somewhat positive in the fact that we still are going to spend or utilize our tax resources from our constituents for core services."

The position of City Administrator may sound daunting to some, but to Clark it's a passion.

"I love to digest challenging questions and look at them in a philosophical way to produce tangible results for the city," Clark said. "I don't think I'll be able to get that out of my system any time soon."

Clark forecasts a long future in politics, as it's a position he finds challenging and rewarding at the same time.

"I invest a lot of myself personally," he said. "I definitely don't see this as a job; I commit myself to this on a personal level. When I leave for the day, I don't punch a time clock where I can disconnect myself when I walk out the door."

Although he may not be able to completely detach himself from the job upon leaving the office, he has three little constituents of his own at home to focus on. When Clark talks about his three young children -- Garrett, 6; Peyton, 3; and Emma, 18 months -- a smile creeps across his face.

"Things are going well," Clark said with a grin. "Garrett is in kindergarten trying to learn how to sit still on those bouncy balls. Peyton is at Sunny Days Preschool and doing well."

As for his baby girl, "She is so cute, starting to do a lot of talking," Clark said. "She's such a honey."

Like many area residents, the Clark family is getting restless indoors as cabin fever is setting in. The kids are antsy to play outside, and Craig continues to find time at his favorite job -- dad. Though his time with the kids is sometimes limited, the little ones have plenty of time with Mom, Anita, as she stays home with the kids while Craig is in the office.

"Sometimes time with the kids is difficult to find as I'm busy with work, but we're thankful Mom is able to be there helping them grow," he said.

For some, this life may sound exhausting. But to Clark, it's nothing but invigorating.

"It's exciting. Every day is a new day. You never know what it's going to bring, and there's no shortage of challenges. I've really enjoyed it," Clark said.

And that perfectly sums up the two biggest roles Craig Clark plays in the Worthington community -- city administrator and father of three.