Profiles of Plymouth's Founders

The stories behind the building of our favorite small city.
"I'm extremely proud of what it's become. Everybody helps; nothing gets done by one person." - Jim Willis, Plymouth City Council member and former city manager.

Before there were parks, neighborhoods and outdoor concerts in the city of Plymouth, there was a group of men who shared a vision: to build a city from the ground up that supports successful businesses, safe neighborhoods and an active community.

In the late 1960s, Plymouth had just one stoplight, and lots of dirt roads and open fields. But with its proximity to the Twin Cities, there was potential for growth. Jim Willis, Eric Blank and Virgil Schneider were but a few of the men involved in building of the city of Plymouth throughout the last 40 years, and who understand the collaborative effort and years of work that went into making the city we now call home.

Early Stages

Jim Willis stepped in as city manager in 1971, when Mayor Al Hilde Jr. was searching for someone to develop and implement a city plan. With the help of his team of experts, from financial advisors and public safety workers to parks and recreation specialists, and by collaborating with city council and the planning commission, Willis began working on the basic infrastructure. The first question to consider: Where did people want to live?

Virgil Schneider, who was city mayor in the late 1980s and on the planning commission in the mid-70s, explains their basic thought process: “Those areas alongside major roadways would be for more intense uses, such as commercial or industrial, and those areas removed from major arteries would be residential.”

This seemingly simple process is much more complex—and not as intuitive—as one might think. In fact, only a decade before, industrial properties were built along the shores of Medicine Lake, an area that has since been designated for single-family homes. But that wasn’t a priority back in the 60s, so the new team of city planners had to let those areas be.

From the Ground Up

Thankfully, Plymouth was mostly undeveloped, so neighborhoods were easily erected in open farmland and agricultural areas, with sewer lines, water lines and roads constructed accordingly. Their work designing and implementing the plan was so seamless that “if you were to look at the plan in 1971 at the layouts and the roads … you’d be surprised at how much congruity there is,” says Willis.

Of course, not everything went according to plan. The up-and-coming city of Plymouth grew more rapidly than the team projected. Originally, they had planned on making half-acre lots, but “we had to increase the density to meet the goals set before us,” says Willis. That meant beefing up the sewage and water lines to handle the new demand.

Finding the Funds

One of the issues a city often faces is running out of money. “A plan without resources behind it doesn’t get executed,” says Willis. Thankfully, the crew behind Plymouth’s future developed the plan frugally over a number of years. And they were lucky to be building on valuable land.

By changing developers for fees and special assessment, the city got enough money back to pay for other fees associated with developing, such as roads, more police, fire, sewer and water. Without a huge financial burden, they were able to focus on other things, like maintaining a low tax base. Schneider is proud they had one of the lowest city taxes in the state at the beginning of the project, and were able to maintain low taxes throughout the development.

Schools posed an interesting challenge for the city planners. With four school districts within the boundaries of Plymouth, neighborhoods were split, kids played on opposing teams and the community was divided. Plymouth needed a reason to come together and build a community identity. That’s where Eric Blank stepped in.

Building Community

Blank was hired as the parks director in 1980, with a goal of building a park within a half-mile of every housing development to encourage an active community. Since then, he’s built around 40 parks in order to keep up with the growing population. Blank even expanded his vision to include a recreational trail system that now totals 136 miles of off-road trails. “That’s what we’re known for and what the community focuses on,” says Blank.

But his initiatives don’t stop there. In the mid-70s, mayor Al Hilde Jr. organized Music in Plymouth, a free concert series that is still popular today. “It helps build community identity and establishes a free event that brings families [together],” explains Willis. “Everyone has a tie to their school because of activities related to education, but events like [this] are designed to bridge that.”

Over the years, Music in Plymouth has taken place everywhere, from vacant lots and temporary amphitheaters to the permanent bandshell it calls home today. But as Blank says, none of this would have happened without the city council who believed in planning and setting aside land for parks.

Coming to Fruition

It’s been a long 40 years, but for the movers and shakers who dreamed about the future of one quiet small town, it’s all been worth it. “I love this community,” says Willis. I’ve raised my family here; we’ve put down roots.”

Plymouth even received recognition by Money Magazine in 2008 as the best small city in America, an award Schneider attributes to “those people ahead of me. They won that award because of the plan that was developed years ago.”

But to Willis, the journey has been a team effort from start to finish. “I’m extremely proud of what it’s become,” he says. “Everybody helps; nothing gets done by one person.”