Building Sustainable Community

Kim Norton discusses her vision at the Mayor’s office in Rochester. (photo by Sarah Whiting)

Kim Norton was accustomed to being the “first” when she was elected in 2018 as the first woman to serve as the mayor of Rochester. She also had been the first woman and the first Democrat to represent District 25B in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Since taking office in January 2019, Norton has been an activist mayor who is attempting to tackle complex social issues with the multi-pronged approaches they require.

Politics was not her first choice of career. As an undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln, Norton studied early childhood special education. Her career consisted of special education, nonprofit work, and volunteering in schools and church. After helping two other people run for school board, she decided that she should run herself.

“I started because I wanted to be more involved in my children’s education, and I wanted to know what was going on. I realized you can’t just complain about things, you have to try to improve them,” Norton says. “I wanted to be a voice for people who didn’t have a voice.”

Norton served on the school board for eight years, followed by the Minnesota House of Representatives for 10 years, which led to her Bush Fellowship from 2016 through 2018. As a fellow, Norton was able to earn a master’s degree at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs, with a focus on leadership and energy policy.

“I had been concerned about climate change for a very long time, but it was always something I didn’t know a lot about,” Norton says. “The Bush Fellowship was an opportunity for  me to educate myself. It challenged me to get the information I needed to understand sustainability.”

When she was elected mayor of Rochester, Norton’s intended focus was sustainability and the climate crisis.However, “homelessness ended up being the issue I focused on for  my first 10 months [in office],” she says. “There’s a great need for housing, and mental health and chemical dependency resources in Rochester and nationwide.”

Accessible transportation, housing, and a green economy are part of a formula for managing Rochester’s growing population and homelessness. Norton has led projects to make the city more walkable and bikeable by adding protected bike lanes throughout  the  community.  A few electric buses were ordered. The city will switch to 100 percent renewable energy in the next decade.

“We will be coal-free for certain by 2030,” she says. “I am hoping we will get high-speed rail between Rochester and the Twin Cities. Whether it be a hyperloop, above ground, or elevated, I hope it’s something we see [developed] in my lifetime.”

“We’re doing work on density with more apartments downtown,” she says. “The elderly population as well as millennials are interested in living downtown. Unfortunately, too much of it is luxury housing and not enough affordable.”

She plans to expand affordable housing projects downtown as well as other areas of Rochester. “We need it all over. People should be able to choose where they want to live, what schools they want to go to. They should be able to afford it.”

Norton feels that the neighborhoods of Rochester need to be developed beyond downtown. By increasing transit options and growing neighborhood businesses, Norton  says it will be easier for people to work, live, and enjoy the amenities of Rochester without needing to leave their neighborhoods.

Another priority is youth involvement, especially around environmental efforts and gun control. “Young people are very engaged and activated,” she says. “We need to listen to them.”

Kim Norton reminds everyone of the importance of voting. She also asks readers to be better, smarter consumers and healthier residents so that communities can be a place of compassion and stability for our next generations.”

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