City lands manager to retire

Gilbertson will leave after 32 years of service

Posted: Thursday, March 09, 2006

After nearly 33 years of serving Juneau, Lands and Resources Manager Steve Gilbertson has decided to step down and enjoy the area he helped build.

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On March 31 the 57-year-old walks out the city doors one last time. Only Bob Millard in the Engineering Department has a longer tenure, and only by two months, according to the city manager's office.

Whether you take a hike to the beach, go shopping, ski or walk along a greenbelt, it seems Gilbertson has been involved. For the last 23 years he has held the title of Juneau Lands and Resources manager, a job he lauded as the best in the city.

In 1973 the 24-year-old Minnesotan began his call to duty as a Juneau city planner.

"After all the years of working and raising a family, it is time to get out and enjoy the paradise we have here," Gilbertson said. "When I walk out the doors at the end of the month I will be saying goodbye and starting a new chapter in my life."

Gilbertson is an outdoor enthusiast who wears many hats; he is a hunter, archer, pilot, skier, kayaker, scuba diver, boater. He also is a man proud of his Norwegian heritage, said Cynthia Johnson, deputy manager of the Lands and Resources Department.

"His love of the land is based upon his Norwegian upbringing in northern Minnesota," Johnson said. "We have worked together 22 years and the biggest issue we ever had with one another was whether the office was messy."

Johnson described Gilbertson as a great mentor and the "finest negotiator" she ever encountered.

Gilbertson's wife and son still live in Juneau, while his daughter attends the University of Oregon. Brother Jerry Gilbertson is meat manager for Juneau's Alaskan & Proud market.

Gilbertson remembers when downtown was the center of everything in Juneau, when the population was 15,000 rather than 31,000, and when the Mendenhall Valley and Lemon Creek were dotted with dairy and fox farms.

By far Gilbertson's biggest challenge has been managing growth, he said.

"Change is inevitable and many people are resistant to change, which is just human nature," Gilbertson said. "Juneau has basically grown up from a small town to a regional destination."

Gilbertson's work as a land manager has included negotiating leases, agreements and other vital city functions, Juneau Assembly member Merrill Sanford said.

"He's worked so long with different private, city, state, Native corporations over the last 30 years that many of us have relied on him for information," Sanford said. "He is just an honest person who is trusted."

As a project planner Gilbertson helped develop Eaglecrest Ski Area when there was no road to the top, requiring staffers to take a helicopter on visits developing a master plan, he said. He later worked with potential developers to build subdivisions, which he said often ran into "NIMBY" (not in my backyard) opposition, particularly in Lena Point, where he once lived.

"It is tough because you can sometimes lose friends in a small town when you are making decisions that may affect people you know," Gilbertson said. "That was the hardest part of the job. You cannot take it personally or it will eat you up."

Gilbertson was involved in the development of both the Nugget and Mendenhall malls. He also has worked with mining companies, helped establish 40 beach-access trails and the Mendenhall River greenbelt. He helped acquire privately owned land on the waterfront in the 1980s for potential cruise ship docks, he said.

"In the '70s there was really no cruise ships, just a few Canadian steam ships that plied through the Inside Passage," Gilbertson said. "What would have happened if we hadn't purchased the waterfront property?"

Heather Marlow, a planner for Klamath County, Ore., who previously worked six years with the Juneau Community Development Department, will replace Gilbertson.

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