By Judith Liebaert
Mayor Bruce Hagen Reflects on His Years of Service as He Prepares to Retire
As Mayor Bruce Hagen prepares to retire in April after nearly five terms of office, he took time to look back over his years in office and his vision for building a vibrant community in Superior. And he shared both successes and failures – because, as he noted, there are always both.
Throughout the highlights and personal anecdotes he spoke of while being interviewed, what shone was Hagen’s deep regard for the city he lived in and worked for – and his desire to keep Superior vital, not just here at home, but as part of Wisconsin’s larger picture.
Born and raised in Superior, Hagen said his interest in public service began at his father’s knee. Lawrence Hagen served in the Wisconsin State Assembly from 1952 until 1958 and then as Superior’s mayor from 1959 until 1963.
“I tagged along with my dad when he’d visit people in the coffee shop, grocery store, pharmacy,” Hagen said. “He took me to Madison. I sat in Gov. [Walter] Kohler’s chair when I was a young boy; that’s a memory that’s lasted.”
Those experiences led Hagen to include a political science minor with his double major in history and geography at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He graduated with a bachelor of science degree in 1969, followed by a master’s degree in educational administration in 1972.
“I worked pumping gas at O’Brien Oil Company through high school, college and also during my years in teaching and administration,” he said. “I taught junior high school at Central Junior for three years and then worked three more in administration at Central.”
Hagen also owned and operated apartment buildings in the city for 15 years, was instrumental in developing Girl Scout’s Point along Billings Drive for new housing, and even dabbled in the restaurant business with Scuttlebutt Alley in the Mariner Mall. He is also part owner in Anchor-Hagen Lighting, a small company that provides lighting solutions for high humidity environments such as swimming pools and water parks.
“He always made sure that I knew what the needs of the community were … and he worked to get it.”
– former U.S. Rep. David Obey
Regardless of his own business interests and experiences, the desire to be a public servant always remained. “In 1974, I wanted to run for city council. The school district was fiscally dependent on the City of Superior, so the attorney ruled it would be a conflict of interest. I decided to run for mayor,” he said.
At that time, Mayor Charles Deneweth was the incumbent running for reelection. Hagen was struck by Deneweth’s reluctance to take advantage of federal urban renewal grants available then. “I recall he said something—I read in the newspaper—something like, ‘I don’t trust anyone that is going to give me four dollars for every one I put in,’” he said. “Duluth was doing really well with the grants and I thought we should do that, too.”
Hagen won that election and two more following it, serving a total of 12 consecutive years in office from 1975 to 1987, at which time he was defeated in his reelection bid by Herb Bergson.
The mayor recalled his early days in office. “We became pretty successful back in those days garnering some of that opportunity for growth,” he said. “Things were more conducive, friendly—approachable, you might say. I spent a lot of time in D.C. and Madison; it wasn’t hard to see Senator [William] Proxmire or Congressman [David] Obey, and later, Bob Kastern and Gaylord Nelson. They took an interest, and fortunately, we received the benefit of some good opportunities.”
And elected officials Hagen interacted with noted his tenacity.
“He always made sure that I knew what the needs of the community were and where they could use some help, and he worked to get it,” said former U.S. Rep. David Obey.
“I got to know Bruce during his first campaign when I was working for Congressman Dave Obey,” recalled former Sen. Bob Jauch. “He has an absolute devotion to the city of Superior, to making it better. He doesn’t get nearly enough credit for seeking federal and state dollars that made major projects viable, like Barker’s Island, downtown development, senior housing, expanding and improving Fraser Shipyards, developing the Arrowhead boat landing and fishing pier and much more. Barker’s Island was pivotal for Superior. It helped mobilize community support for economic development in general and reshaped the image of the city.”
“He has good insight. He’s always known where he wanted to take the city of Superior.”
– Retired Douglas County Board Chair Doug Finn
Retired Douglas County Board Chair Doug Finn has known Hagen since before his first term began in 1975. “He has good insight. He’s always known where he wanted to take the city of Superior, and he has great patience and respect working with people,” Finn said. “But the first thing I always think about, working with Bruce, is Barker’s Island.”
Hagen believes the development of Barker’s Island was the greatest success of his first administration. “The thought behind it was that we needed a focal point for the community – 20,000-some cars going down that highway every day, many of which are going someplace else. I thought, we need to have something attractive and that will encourage people to stay,” he said.
Carl Anderson (a trade carpenter and active union member in Superior for more than 60 years and a Superior School District board member for 22 years) also recalled working with Hagen. “He came through the school district. I worked as his campaign manager for that first election. He’s always been a friend to labor, supportive of the trades in Superior and working to attract new development and business,” Anderson said. “Barker’s Island was Bruce’s baby from the beginning.”
Barker’s Island is man-made and first appeared in the late 1800s, nothing more than a pile of sand dredged from the shipping canal. By the mid 1920s, covered in trees and natural vegetation, it became a popular site for swimming, fishing and picnicking. By the 1940s it had fallen out of favor for various reasons, including erosion of the sand bar and better access to Wisconsin Point. It was largely ignored until 1945, when the local chapter of the Audubon Society rescued the little stretch of land and designated it a bird sanctuary to protect the Piping Plovers nesting there.
In the mid 1950s, the city built a new road over to the island and its shores were reinforced against continued erosion, but the island was not open to public access. Then in 1972, the S.S. Meteor was land-berthed at the northwest end of the island, drawing thousands of visitors in its early years as a whaleback ship museum.
Ownership of the property was transferred from Burlington Northern Railroad to the City of Superior in 1974. After his successful election the following year, Hagen’s plan to develop a striking visual attraction along East Second Street started taking shape.
It was no easy sell trying to convince some residents of Superior that erecting a large hotel complex and marina was feasible. “Some detractors even told us the island would sink if we built a hotel on it,” Hagen said. Strong support to preserve the natural habitat of the Piping Plover presented another obstacle, leading the State of Wisconsin to challenge the City of Superior in court. As a compromise, 14 acres on the south end of the island were left undeveloped. “When it was all over, I remember getting a gag gift of a bird cage with a novelty stuffed bird inside,” Hagen said.
“Barker’s Island was Bruce’s baby from the beginning.”
– Carl Anderson, former union member and School District Board member
Anderson also recalled the sometimes-contentious process, as well as mediating a carpenter’s strike during the building of the hotel. “Mike McNamara [the Development Association director at that time] and I were once even accused of going out to the island and drowning the Plovers,” he said. In truth, a later study determined that no Piping Plovers had actually been seen on the island since 1960.
“We put together a proposal to build a marina; our bond issue was around $6 million,” Hagen said. “We applied for a grant from the [U.S.] Economic Development Administration, available for cities with high unemployment. For two or three years, our major effort was with the regional office in Chicago, trying to comply with all the requirements and financial commitments.”
He wasn’t satisfied with the slow progress and decided to up his game: “I told them politely that we were going to try working through Washington, D.C.” After that, Hagen said there were so many meetings with Sen. Nelson and U.S. Rep. Obey – usually on Mondays – that “It caused the senator to once quip, ‘What’s a Monday morning without talking about Superior, Wisconsin?’”
Still, it took a higher connection to seal the deal. It came when then-Vice President Walter Mondale was campaigning across the northern tier of the United States. Hagen was asked to introduce the vice president at both local universities. On the ride from the University of Minnesota Duluth to the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Mondale told a Secret Service agent he had to use the restroom and that he wanted to talk to the mayor alone.
It was the chance Hagen had been waiting for. “I told him, ‘Mr. Vice President, we’ve been working on this for quite awhile and believe it would be a great asset to the community.’ We walked out and he said to expect a call from the secretary of commerce that afternoon.”
Mondale was as good as his word. Secretary of Commerce Jaunita Kreps called that day to tell the mayor the grant would be approved.
“He was right on the doorsteps of our elected officials in Washington, trying to get money for that project,” Finn said. “His greatest contribution has always been bringing everybody together—working together.”
Hagen said it was the same with the replacement of the Arrowhead Bridge. “Pat Lucey [former Wisconsin governor] told me straight out – which I appreciated – that it was not going to happen; it wasn’t on the radar,” he said. “But between Obey, Mondale and a congressional delegation from Minnesota, we got an audience with Sen. Brock [Bill Brock, a senator from Tennessee], the secretary of transportation in Washington. I think it was the fact that we were all together that got us the meeting. It was out of respect for both cities and both states working together that he funded the project out of the secretarial discretionary fund for three years.”
“I told him, ‘Mr. Vice President, we’ve been working on this for quite awhile and believe it would be a great asset to the community.’”
– Mayor Bruce Hagen
Tommy Thompson – former Wisconsin governor and U.S. secretary of health and human services under President George W. Bush – met Hagen while campaigning for the office of governor in 1986. He was immediately impressed with the mayor’s demeanor.
“I liked his calm and common sense approach to problems; nothing rattled him,” Thompson said. “I told him one time I really wanted him to come to Madison with me and he said to me, ‘You need to get elected first.’ Common sense.”
Not long after, Hagen’s first administration ended. He said a big disappointment from that period remains the Mariner Mall. He believes there were three strikes against the mall’s success, the first being location. “The mall is where it is because the developer believed it should be in the center of the city,” he said. “There were two other possibilities: downtown and at the foot of the Blatnik Bridge. Downtown was going to take $8 million.” Hagen then described a plan he preferred that would tie the
complex to existing businesses through a series of skywalks, much like Duluth’s downtown.
The final decision on location was heavily influenced by costs. The 40 acres of land along North 28th Street available from the Catholic Charities Bureau was a better deal. “The rest is history,” Hagen said. “The traffic never materialized.”
Secondly, he believes the increase in sales tax during Mariner Mall’s early years was also detrimental, especially when Twin Ports-area residents could purchase clothing tax free in Duluth. Finally, the arrival of big box stores in both Duluth and Superior changed shopping destinations and spending habits.
In 1987, when the mayor lost his bid for reelection, Gov. Thompson made good on his offer to bring Hagen to Madison, where he first served as the director of intergovernmental relations. Within a year he became the governor’s chief of staff, serving in that position from 1988 to 1990. From 1990 to 1997, he was the Wisconsin unemployment insurance administrator. He subsequently was appointed deputy secretary of the Department of Workforce Development from 1997 to 2000 – and then served for three more years as the unemployment insurance administrator from 2000 to 2003.
“Every time we had a problem and needed a good administrator, we’d look around and ask, ‘Who’s doing the job; who can you rely upon?’ That somebody was Bruce Hagen,” said Thompson.
“Tommy Thompson was a taskmaster, but I learned a lot. He demanded a lot. He was excellent for this state, especially in transportation and economic development,” Hagen said. Referring to the many-year effort to upgrade U.S. Highway 53 to four lanes (north from Eau Clair to Superior), Hagen said, “If it hadn’t been for his commitment to Highway 53, I don’t know when it would have been built.”
In 2011, Hagen returned to Superior with plans to retire, for the most part, except for his co-ownership in Hagen-Anchor lighting. “I figured I could continue that from anywhere. I loved my time in Madison, but I wanted to come back to Superior,” he said.
“Mayor [David] Ross was interested in going to work for Gov. Walker and somebody suggested I run for Mayor again. So I thought, why not? That was five years back and I’ve really enjoyed it—and I felt I made some good strides,” he said.
Both Jauch and Thompson said Hagen’s love has always been for Superior. “I visited when I was running for the U.S. Senate. We went all over the city and he was pointing out what his plans were; he never stopped planning for Superior,” Thompson recalled.
“I told him … I really wanted him to come to Madison with me and he said, ‘You need to get elected first.’”
– Tommy Thompson, former governor and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services
Among the mayor’s accomplishments during his second administration are the Tower Avenue reconstruction and reconstruction of Belknap Street (beginning in spring of 2017), along with aesthetics such as new signage at city approaches and along main thoroughfares.
Accomplishments that may not be as noticeable (but that he believes are equally important) are the many new appointments he’s made, and the creation of strong teams working to improve the city at all levels: economy, essential services and lifestyle. He believes young professionals are the shot in the arm Superior needs and they’ll have the fortitude to carry a new vision through. “It came to my attention that we had no young people on any board or commission—zero,” Hagen said. “I’ve appointed more young people than anybody before me.”
He also said governing the city has been a more difficult task this time around.
“There were more resources up until about 10 years ago,” Hagen noted. “Resources are very few now – some of them gone completely. ‘Cut back’ is a mantra everybody seems to embrace because it’s politically safe. What is the accomplishment? Inability for cities to provide the acute services needed for the population that lives there.”
Lack of resources and increased difficulty in forging relationships at state and federal levels (in the country’s deeply divided political landscape) are frustrating for the mayor. “I’ve lost my passion for the job – that’s the fact of it,” he said. “I feel bad about not finishing out my term – but I feel good about the fact that I probably shouldn’t. I’m excited to retire and I’m excited to see a new day for Superior.” He also provided perspectives on challenges his successor will face. “The two biggest concerns for the next administration – and the next and the next – are going to be housing and retail. Without those two components, the growth will not be there,” he said.
Hagen has long championed revitalization of neighborhoods that would offer close access to work, shopping, dining and leisure opportunities – amenities that are attractive to both seniors and young professionals. “We need to have growth in the new housing sector and greater investment in our infrastructure to make Superior desirable as well as functional for new generations,” he said.
“Bruce’s fingerprints are all over positive development in the city of Superior,” Jauch said. “If people will believe in the community as he does – and work as hard as he does – the city will have a great future.” P.S.
Judiuth Liebaert is a freelance writer based in Northwest Wisconsin.