As Bismarck's new mayor, Steve Bakken is settling into the position — a job he says he loves — he was elected to fill nearly seven months ago.
In his role, Bakken is turning his attention to the possibility of developing the waterfront along the Missouri River.
“From an economic perspective, we have to get the waterfront developed because we’re forgoing a lot of tourism dollars and a lot of economic impact that that river affords us,” he said.
Bakken envisions a couple of public marinas with opportunities for fishing, a boardwalk lined with bars, restaurants and light commercial businesses, an amphitheater for outdoor events and plenty of green space.
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Bridge could be incorporated into the development, if efforts by the Friends of the Rail Bridge to preserve it in its current location — straddling the Missouri River — are unsuccessful, he said.
BNSF's preference is to demolish the existing rail bridge, which has been standing since 1883, and construct a new $40 million bridge in its place. FORB is rallying to maintain the structure for use as a pedestrian bridge.
If it must come down, Bakken said he’d like to see it done in a way that the bridge, or at least portions of it, could be salvaged.
“We kind of have to ask the question: ‘Is it about preserving the bridge or is it about preserving the bridge where it’s at?’ I think that question really hasn’t been answered yet by the people who are trying to save it,” he said, noting the bridge is an important piece of Bismarck’s history.
“We may lose it where it’s at, but we could still retain the bridge, whether it’s in sections for spanning the mouths of the public marinas or incorporating it into a boardwalk,” he added. “It would be a great repurposing of a beautiful asset.”
The city’s utility operations study and the process of updating the strategic plan are important issues that have crossed the city commission’s table in half a year’s time, according to Bakken, who noted his passion for Bismarck has become a labor of love.
Former Bismarck Mayor John Warford describes Bakken as a visionary, which is a quality he says he likes to see in an elected official.
“You need to be a visionary, looking toward the future. You need to have a road map. That’s something I really like about Steve,” Warford said, noting he’s pleased to see the city is updating its long-term strategic plan.
Continuity and Bakken’s “bold” moves, such as helping to place the half-cent sales tax on the ballot, as well as the mayor’s being accessible, are additional strengths, according to Warford.
The new, voter-approved half-cent sales tax will allow the city to tackle arterial road projects, including the reconstruction of 43rd Avenue, ahead of schedule, according to Bakken, who said that particular project is “long overdue.”
Warford also pointed to Bakken's communication skills as a plus for Bismarck.
“He’s an articulate speaker, shows great passion for the city and takes the job very seriously,” he said.
With the belief that communication is key, Bakken has initiated meetings with state legislators, as well as the Burleigh County Commission, in recent months.
“It’s in everybody’s interest that Bismarck’s successful — whether it’s the state, the county, the school district, the park district and the residents of Bismarck. We need to be successful,” Bakken said. “Open lines of communication help facilitate that.”
Bakken has critics — and his wife, Wendy, may be his most vocal one. Shortly after he was elected, she bought him a new sign for his office: “Be humble and kind,” it reads.
“It’s not really the role she wanted me in, but she understands the importance,” he said. “She works in the community and loves the city, too.”
In June, Bakken drew notice for attending a pro-gun rally and then a town hall meeting with students from Parkland, Fla., who visited North Dakota with the goal of starting a dialogue on gun control and to encourage people to vote. He characterized his attendance at both events as a private citizen, not in an official capacity.
Bakken, who faced criticism following the events, said he was “very disappointed” that the town hall meeting focused solely on gun reform, without mention of bullying or mental health topics.
“The issue should’ve been how do you address mental health, how do you address bullying, how do you address all these different pieces to make school safer? That was the legitimate discussion,” he said.
To his critics, Bakken says: “We may not always agree, but I will respect ... you for standing by your principles … I’ve got a lot of respect for you for voicing your opinion and standing up and speaking up about what you believe in."