Commissioner Rollie Nissen says goodbye to the Kandiyohi County Board after two terms
After serving two terms on the Kandiyohi County Board, Commissioner Rollie Nissen is moving on to the next chapter of his life.
WILLMAR — Kandiyohi County Commissioner Rollie Nissen understands that sometimes life can make unexpected twists and turns. His entire life in Willmar was the effect of one of those turns. Now the decision to step away from the County Board after two terms came from yet another unexpected twist.
"I have loved the job. I had a really hard time deciding not to continue," Nissen said in an interview last week with the West Central Tribune, but family health issues were the driving force behind the decision. "Some things in life change and you have to run with the punches."
Love, shoes and politics
Originally from Cyrus, Nissen came to Willmar to attend Willmar Community College, now Ridgewater College. He wasn't going to stay, having plans to become an ag scientist or teacher. When Tradehome Shoes opened its doors in the spring of 1966, Nissen got a part-time job at the store, though he had already enrolled and planned to attend the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in the fall.
"They promoted me to assistant manager," Nissen said. "Even though they knew I was leaving in August."
Around the same time, Nissen met his future wife. Instead of moving to the big city, Nissen decided to stay in Willmar, marry Glenda and become the manager of the Tradehome Shoes store. It was a position he would hold for 30 years.
"You wonder how you get places," Nissen said. "My plans completely changed, for the better I think. Willmar has been good to me and my family and continues to be."
After three decades in the shoe business, Nissen retired from Tradehome and went into the insurance business. He worked for two companies, Principal Financial Group and Corneil-Elkjer for several years. It was during this time Nissen become more active on the political stage. He ended up serving as chairman of the Kandiyohi County Republican Party.
"I grew up a Democrat," Nissen said. "It got more liberal than I was comfortable with."
In 2013, Nissen decided to run for the District 3 seat on the Kandiyohi County Board. It was a very close election, with Nissen winning by only 42 votes against incumbent Dean Shuck. Nissen won his second term in 2018 by a wider margin, that time against Bruce Shuck. Nissen put partisan politics to the side once he became a county commissioner, resigning from his position with the local Republican Party.
"I am very happy with the nonpartisan parts of the County Board," Nissen said, adding the commissioners are mostly administrators for the tax revenue that comes to the county from property taxes. "It is our job to see that it is properly spent and try to not burden the local taxpayers more than we absolutely have to."
Two terms of serving Kandiyohi County
While Nissen had no previous experience as an elected official, once he was sworn in on the Kandiyohi County Board, he wasn't without important skills.
"I go back to my roots at Tradehome. Their motto was 'Where customer service is a step ahead,'" Nissen said. "I have always felt my job was to be a good public servant to the public, to provide the kind of service they would like to have."
Over his eight years on the County Board, Nissen has seen some major highlights, challenges and disappointments. The Willmar Connector and Industrial Access project, better known as the Willmar Wye, was one of the biggest projects with which Nissen was involved. The project was finally completed in October, something Nissen was happy to see finished. He believes the Willmar Wye will become an economic boon for the county as businesses start to look at the Willmar Industrial Park as a good spot for expansion.
"I signed a lot of papers that had something to do with the Willmar Wye. Mel Odens (Public Works director) had me in his office every other day it seemed," Nissen said.
He is also proud of the additions in both land and facilities made to Games Lake County Park and the completion of both the parks and facility master plans. He said the plans have made it possible for the county to look ahead at major purchases without having to raise the tax levy by huge amounts. Nissen said he is pleased how the County Board, administration and staff have been able to keep the levy increases under 4% for most of Nissen's tenure.
"We knew looking forward that we would need to spend money on down the line. That saves money for the taxpayers," Nissen said.
Lately, he has enjoyed seeing the movement on broadband, especially the recent announcement that the county received a $4.9 million state grant for a project that will bring high-speed fiber broadband to hundreds of properties across five townships. Nissen has long been a champion for expanded broadband into the rural areas of the county. He believes the pandemic put a spotlight on the need for broadband so people can work, learn and play online, no matter where they live.
"It was important to me to get broadband to those who wanted it," Nissen said.
When looking back on the pandemic, Nissen said the county administration and staff, especially at Public Health, did a great job reacting to an ever-changing environment.
"We have good people doing the work," Nissen said. "The pandemic was certainly something we were able to get mobilized, get people shots and keep people informed. That all happened because people were good at their jobs."
A project Nissen had hoped to get completed during his two terms was improvements on Ditch 27, which runs into Norway Lake. Nissen said the ditch has contributed to the decline in the water quality of the lake and improvements are needed so other connected lakes don't also become impaired.
"I wish we could have gotten across the finish line," Nissen said. "I've brought it up a few times."
A job well-loved
Despite the challenges, Nissen said he has enjoyed the job completely. Nissen said he loved serving the public, even when they didn't like to hear what he had to say. He always tried to read up on the issues being put in front of him, so he could make informed and intelligent votes. He also had kind words to say about the staff and county administrator Larry Kleindl, who is retiring in February.
"They do their jobs and they do them well," Nissen said. "Hats off to all the employees of the county, happy to have worked with all of them."
At the conclusion of the Dec. 20 Kandiyohi County Board meeting, Nissen's last, his fellow commissioners thanked Nissen for his years of service and dedication to the county and said they will miss working with Nissen on the board.
"I have so enjoyed your company and your council," said Commissioner Steve Gardner on Tuesday. "The example you give me and everybody else is of service and pragmatism."
Kleindl presented Nissen with a plaque Tuesday recognizing his time on the board.
"Probably the biggest thing Rollie has brought to the county and taught our staff is customer service," Kleindl said.
Nissen's plans for the future include spending more time with family, doing a bit of traveling and to enjoy a few more rounds of golf. He will continue to drive a school bus transporting students with special needs, which he finds fulfilling and views as another way to give back to his community. He also hopes to serve on the county Planning Commission, if the County Board appoints him.
"I need something to get me out of the bed in the morning," Nissen told the West Central Tribune last week.
Even though his days on the board are coming to a close, Nissen is satisfied with what he has achieved and looking forward to the next chapter.
"Sometimes it is good to say 'that was fun, I am going to do something else,'" Nissen said. "I'll be around."