WORTHINGTON — After 12 years as Worthington’s mayor and four years on the Worthington City Council, Alan Oberloh is ready to relax a bit.
While he wouldn’t rule out a return to public service in a few years — “if I’m 75 years old and still in good health, maybe,” he said — the 66-year-old Oberloh is now ready to enjoy a little more free time.
“I am of the belief that if you’re elected to a position, that should be your first and foremost thing,” Oberloh said during a Wednesday interview in his Pigtown Motors shop on Nobles County 5. “You should make every effort to be in attendance. To make time for extended things … that’s not right for a person of elected office.”
Oberloh now hopes to do such “extended things” with his wife, Janice, but he’s unsure when they’ll be able to get away.
“Right now we want to travel and see some things, but COVID has put a stop to that,” he said. “Janice and I, we thought we’d like to drive out to the east coast, drive all the way to Florida and spend some time there. We’d like to drive out to Washington state and go all the way down the coast. We won’t have a commitment to come back for.”
Oberloh has certainly kept plenty of commitments in Worthington during five decades of work and community leadership.
Oberloh grew up in Reading, graduated from high school in 1972 and then attended auto body school in Jackson for two years. He has been in Worthington full-time, he said, since 1975.
In 1983, Oberloh opened Quality Auto Body, which he operated until selling the business in 2015. It was in the early ’80s that he was nudged to become more involved in the community.
“I was encouraged by Bob Rayl, who was a business owner in town and on the Chamber board, to get involved,” Oberloh recalled. “Another person along that line that did was Jim Wychor.”
Oberloh proceeded to serve on the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, and successfully ran for his first public office in 1996 to fill a seat on the Independent School District 518 Board of Education. He also began serving on the Worthington Planning Commission, and that’s when he remembers he first “got some opinions” about city government.
Expressing those opinions has rarely been difficult for Oberloh, and having them gave him a reason to pursue a new leadership position — mayor.
“Dave Von Holtum and Mark Shepherd are the ones who encouraged me to run for mayor,” Oberloh said. “I think it was from having conversations sitting around the country club and having opinions. I think I offered opinions on different things and it was, ‘Al, why don’t you run for mayor?’ So I filed on the last hour of the last day (of the filing period).”
Three terms — and plenty of projects
Oberloh defeated four challengers to win the Worthington mayoral race in 2002, succeeding longtime mayor Robert J. Demuth.
“Gov. (Tim) Pawleny and I were seated in the same week,” Oberloh remembered. “Within the first two weeks of being mayor, or three weeks maybe, Bob Filson (then Worthington’s city administrator) and I went to the Capitol to talk to Dan McElroy (in economic development) about the possible sale of the big red barn.”
The “big red barn” Oberloh refers to is the former site of Prairie Expo, a tourism center that opened and closed within the period of a mere few months in 2001. When Oberloh became mayor, the property was a possible landing spot for Prairie Holdings Group, a growing bioscience conglomerate in Worthington, but the city had to secure the right to sell the building and get the other counties that had been involved in the facility to sign off on the deal.
“When I told Wayne Freese (of Prairie Holdings) I was going to do this, he thought I was nuts,” Oberloh remembered. “I recall being told at the Capitol, ‘Why would we do that for Worthington when we’ve got other failed projects all across the state?’ I said, ‘Let’s do this one first, and then we’ll help you with the other ones.’”
Prairie Holdings, of course, wound up in the “big red barn" after all.
Another early effort Oberloh was involved in was securing a Downtown Redevelopment Matching Grant to help refurbish downtown storefronts as well as residences in the vicinity of the downtown business district.
There was also one significant site on Second Avenue that needed attention.
“We also had found out there were vagrants sleeping in the Campbell’s Soup building,” Oberloh stated.
That sent him back to the Capitol, and then-interim city administrator Bill Bassett (who served in that capacity after Filson’s death) was an integral part of the effort to clean up the sizable eyesore.
“Bill was a legend as far as administrators go,” Oberloh said of Bassett. “He just had that much clout.”
Oberloh was in his second term as mayor when the then-controversial sale of Worthington Regional Hospital to Sanford Health was ultimately approved.
“I got letters like you wouldn’t believe on that,” Oberloh said.
On the council at the time were current mayor MIke Kuhle, Bob Petrich, Lyle Ten Haken, Mike Woll and Ron Wood. While there were differences of opinion at the time of the 2008 sale, its revenues have gone on to fund multiple community efforts.
Another controversy Oberloh noted was the construction of a new Worthington Area YMCA and aquatics center while he served as mayor.
“When I came into office, the YMCA had been talking about building a new Y and a different pool for about 10 years,” Oberloh said. “I remember talking to Andy (Johnson, then the Y’s executive director) and saying, ‘Well, let’s get this thing done.’
“It took the leadership of that council, and me pushing them, to get to the decision to build that aquatic center in the Y, and that was super controversial. I took a stand against an outdoor pool; Jim Laffrenzen (then the public works director) had studied it, and the average amount of time the old outdoor pool had been open each year was 77 days. If we were going to be building an aquatics center and pool, it was going to be open 364 or 363 days a year.”
Oberloh and his first wife, Joan, enjoyed some traveling together before cancer claimed Joan in June 2002. One place that the family — Alan and Joan, along with children Josh and Annie — went was to Crailsheim, Germany, with which Worthington has enjoyed a multi-decade sister city relationship.
“Bob Demuth was mayor then, and he told them this family was coming,” Oberloh elaborated. “We had a couple of young people in Crailsheim that took my kids around … and a guy from City Hall that showed us some sights around the community. They took care of us like you wouldn’t believe.
“When I became mayor, everybody that was involved with the partnership on the German side — they thought the thing was going to fall apart,” he added, noting Demuth’s longtime tenure as mayor and continued connection to Crailsheim. “I went over there on the 60th anniversary (of the partnership) and made a speech. I said, ‘This relationship is greater than the people representing the communities. This bridge will last forever, regardless of the people that are in office.’ That gave them so much comfort.”
Oberloh and Janice, who married in 2004, have taken five trips together to Crailsheim, he estimated. The last visit was a gift to Janice upon her retirement from her job as Worthington City Clerk, which was in June 2019.
A term on council
Oberloh was defeated in his bid for the Minnesota Senate District 22 seat in 2012, an experience that he recalls as difficult due to “terrible things” that the campaign brought.
“My thoughts of people changed a lot,” he said, adding that the campaign put him in the position in which he would “go around and just get ripped” by those opposing his candidacy.
He was then defeated in the 2014 mayoral election, which Kuhle won, but Oberloh couldn’t stay away from public service for too long.
“I’ll tell you the reason why I ran for council (in 2016) — council had a decision to be made on a place where people could pick up their fruits and vegetables on a Saturday morning, and council talked about it for 45 minutes to an hour and didn't make a decision,” Oberloh recalled.
“The next item on that meeting’s agenda was to authorize spending a little over $1 million on something that the city was looking at doing … and that was done in a matter of a minute. I thought, ‘You spend an hour talking about something that’s a pass-through, then have no discussion on spending more than a million dollars?”’
Oberloh also revealed that he feels an important component of serving on city council involves informing the public as much as possible on city activities.
“I probably know the answer to a lot of questions that I ask, but I feel the public deserves to know,” he said.
Multiple-entity collaborations, such as the city and county each funding the conversion of the old Armory building on Ninth Street into the new home of the Nobles County Historical Society, have been a highlight for Oberloh during his council and mayoral terms. He added that city budgeting remains an important part of being an elected official, citing the caution he felt was required this year in the wake of uncertainty amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Another aspect of being a city councilman, too, is serving on multiple committees, which Oberloh did in addition to his involvements as mayor (he’s a past president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, for one example). Other involvements within the community are numerous, which he said is consistent with a basic philosophy of his.
“I’ve always thought that if you’re willing to complain about something, you should run for public office,” he said, noting that a thick-skinned nature is also critical.
“I’ve said, ‘I will always be the same person that I am now, and I’m not changing because of an office. If you think I’m brazen, perhaps I am, but I’m going to be true to who I am and what I believe.”