For many in Woodbury, Dwight Picha's name is synonymous with someone who's been there before.
Picha retired as the city's community development director Jan. 31 after 43 years in the position. Not only has he seen Woodbury grow from 8,000 to about 72,000 residents — he orchestrated it.
"You can go back to 1977, 10 years after the city was founded, and he was there," said assistant community development director Janelle Schmitz, a colleague of Picha's for nearly 24 years. "He remembers it, he was somehow involved, especially in the early days — the staff was smaller, so you were involved in pretty much everything. To have that historical, institutional memory here on staff, that's going to be sorely missed because that context provides so much."
Former council member and Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens even coined the term "Picha-pedia" to describe the longtime department leader's institutional knowledge.
"Picha was my go-to guy," Stephens said. "Whenever I wanted to know anything about Woodbury or the history of an issue or how a development came about or people involved, I would go to him."
At a Jan. 22 City Council meeting, Picha was presented with a proclamation from the city and Washington County that recognized his service and announced the renaming of the Eagle Valley Golf Course banquet room to the "Picha Banquet Room."
Picha, a golf lover, helped design Eagle Valley Golf Course, as well as Bielenberg Sports Center, the predecessor of HealthEast Sports Center. He is credited with creating the city's extensive parks and trails system and, according to the proclamation, more than 25,000 households and 10 million square-feet of commercial development were added during his time in Woodbury.
"Simply put, the city of Woodbury would not be regularly identified as a great place to live and a great place to do business without the care, professionalism and vision of Dwight Picha," said city planner Eric Searles, who worked with Picha for 18 years.
Four decades of development
Originally from Eden Prairie, Picha became interested in city planning when he served as a student planning commission member for two years in high school. (Woodbury's Planning Commission has the same opportunity for high schoolers today.) He then studied city planning in college and worked for Eden Prairie's planning department every summer while in school. After graduating, he took a year-long internship with the city of Bloomington.
"I had significant experience, even though I was pretty young, in how suburbs were developing, so I saw the job ad for Woodbury and I thought, wow, that might be a fabulous opportunity for me if I could get the job," Picha said.
Despite being the youngest candidate by 20 years, he was hired. Picha began his career in Woodbury in 1977 under Orville Bielenberg, the young city's first mayor. He went on to work with four other mayors, three city administrators and about 30 council members.
Picha attributed his longevity at least partially to the city's political leadership and a consistent vision for development.
"There's really no reason to leave when you have an ideal situation and you're doing what you love to do," he said.
In 2013, Picha was named "Citizen of the Year" by the Woodbury Area Chamber of Commerce, nominated by Schmitz during his 35th year in the job.
One example of Picha's outsized influence on the city is the redevelopment of the State Farm building, which Stephens described as "the most fun project" they did together. In 2010, Stephens made redevelopment of the property a top priority, city administrator Clint Gridley said. Sitting on a 100-acre site, the building had been vacant since 2006.
After years of struggling to determine the future of the property, a Florida-based real estate investment group Elion Partners came to Woodbury in 2014 after signing a purchase agreement, Gridley said. He and Stephens were initially skeptical, but Picha was able to convince them to work with the developer after background research and several meetings with Elion.
"That accurate guidance by Dwight was the endorsement that gave all of us greater confidence to work hard on the various possibilities with Elion that turned out fantastic for both sides," Gridley said.
The site became CityPlace, a shopping center anchored by a Whole Foods and featuring restaurants, a bank and other retail, as well as land for medical and other offices and multi-family housing.
"Dwight and community leaders' genius was to extensively use the comprehensive planning process and land phasing to best manage growth in an orderly and high-quality manner," Gridley said. "Not only did Dwight facilitate citizen task forces that recommended strong comp plan documents, but, (just) as importantly, followed them."
Indeed, Picha called "the planning process" the biggest accomplishment of his career, rather than a singular project.
Picha has been involved with all four 20-year Comprehensive Plans the city has created. Mayor Anne Burt, who was part of the 2040 Comprehensive Plan task force before she entered public office in 2018, praised Picha for his foresight in aspects of city planning, including making public access to lakes through walking trails a priority.
"I have found Dwight to be very dedicated, committed, he's professional, he's ethical, he's trustworthy, he's strategic, and his whole focus for all these years has been to have a well-planned and strategically-developed community," Burt said. "Things don't happen by happenstance — they're all well-planned and well thought out, very strategic."
There are also some projects Picha is happy didn't pan out, including a couple of plans by developers to build a regional indoor shopping mall, a business model that has proved shaky decades later.
One of the biggest struggles he faced during his tenure was a perception of Woodbury as being "far east," Picha said, adding that it had been more challenging for the city to attract high-quality development than many of the Twin Cities' western and southern suburbs.
"If you look at the western suburbs, there's probably 10 to 15 suburbs that are similar to Woodbury all together, and we're kind of out here in an island," he said.
A quiet leader
Stephens described Picha as humble, honest and sometimes tough.
"Dwight was kind of quiet, he didn't speak a lot — but when he did, you paid attention," she said. "Sometimes he would be strong, but I appreciated that he listened to me, and if he respectfully disagreed, he let me know. But he championed the things I was passionate about in policy and projects, and I appreciated him for that."
Gridley said Picha's example helped him become more measured and disciplined in his public speaking.
"Like many people who come from a farming background, Dwight’s words were few and well-timed," Gridley said. "I could see that when he spoke, his words had impact. I tend to be more spontaneous and verbal, and through my observations of Dwight, I have learned to better-temper my interactiveness."
Schmitz suggested that Picha's effectiveness as a leader came from years of listening and empathizing with the concerns of whoever he was speaking with, "and being very thoughtful and deliberate about a response."
Searles and Schmitz also expressed gratitude to Picha for years of strong mentorship and guidance.
"Dwight has been instrumental in my career in learning the right way to build a community and, frankly, has been instrumental in my professional life as well," Searles said. "He's been a supporter on all fronts and really a full mentor."
When it comes to the future of Woodbury, Picha casts any potential challenges in an optimistic light.
"I'd rather classify that maybe as 'opportunities,' rather than issues," he said.
There are plans to develop a large area in the northeast corner of the city — on the south side of Interstate 94 from half a mile west of Woodbury Drive out to Manning Drive — as a business park. There will also be the task of beginning to redevelop older parts of the city, like those built in the 1950s, before the city was incorporated. And, like so many other communities, an increasingly aging population will present the challenge of building additional housing for this specific demographic, he said.
For Picha personally, he said he doesn't have any big plans yet and will "play the first year by ear." He and his wife, Kathy, will stay in the community and spend time with their grandchild. And there will be some time spent golfing, of course.
When presented Jan. 22 with the city and county proclamation honoring him, Picha wrapped up his parting message to the community with words of thanks for those he worked with over more than four decades.
"It's been a great opportunity for me," he said. "I've met so many wonderful people in this community over the years that have been so supportive of the planning program that we've developed, and I'm just very thankful for that, appreciative for that."