This summer, Wayzata Mayor Ken Willcox announced that after 12 years as Mayor he was not running for re-election.
During the last 20 years, he has served the City of Wayzata through a variety of roles, with the last 12 years as Mayor.
Willcox has committed over 50 years of his life to public service and nearly three decades specifically to local governments.
Willcox was born in New York City, but has lived in the Twin Cities since he was five or six. He grew up in Southwest Minneapolis.
He later got a degree in economics from Williams College and later went to the University of Minnesota to gain his MBA.
Willcox served in the Navy and was stationed on a ship off the coastal waters in Vietnam. After his tour, he remained in the Navy reserves for another 24 years and retired as a Captain.
Willcox then got involved in the trucking business – big and small. He spent time as the head of strategic planning for Tonka Toys and remembers attending toy fairs all over the world.
Later, he and a friend got a patent and went into business together.
“We got in a business that made air ride upper couplers for semis.”
He and his business partner became aware of another company that was for sale in southern Minnesota making truck bodies.
“That’s kind of what we did. We manufactured air suspensions and truck bodies and did that for the next 25 plus years.”
While living in Minnetonka, he became interested in city government.
“There was going to be a bridge built over the railroad tracks near our house and I didn’t know how that decision got made. I started tuning in to what the Minnetonka City Council was talking about.”
He wanted to become involved and served on Minnetonka’s Planning Commission.
“After you’re in city government it is fascinating.”
Willcox and wife Winnie moved to Wayzata, and in 2000, he got on the Planning Commission.
He served one term and was then elected to city council for one term and then ran for mayor when Andrew Humphrey stepped down as mayor.
“There were a lot of difficult, big projects and challenges that we had. First, was trying to get Wayzata to pull out of the recession 2008-2010. We were in tough shape.”
The next big issue was what to do with the Bay Center. It sat on a swamp and would require thousands of pilings to build anything there.
Two developers were approved, but after further cost analysis, could not afford to build.
“By the time Presbyterian Homes came around, we knew we had to be very flexible with our ordinances. And that’s why it looks the way it does.”
When Presbyterian Homes was set to build, a decision had to be made about the old city’s municipal liquor store, bar and restaurant which was located in the path of the development.
“Staying in the liquor business was a big project. It was controversial whether we build a new Muni. We did that and that’s been a success.”
Willcox was mayor when the Bushaway Road construction took place.
“We battled the County for five years to preserve the charm. We finally got that to a point where we were satisfied.”
And of course, there is there’s Lake Street, specifically Broadway Avenue and west.
“I was door knocking for my first run for City Council, back in 2004, and a guy said why do you have a parking lot in a key part of town (adjacent to Cov). He said you can’t even see the lake. I said that’s a good question. That started the whole process.”
After a decade of planning, construction began this summer, and a plaza has replaced the parking lot.
But development in Wayzata is not welcome with open arms and Willcox acknowledges that.
“Almost every time you see a developer’s drawings or renderings, the actual building comes out looking much bigger than what it appeared on paper. Almost everything we approved over the years came out bigger than I thought it would be. I would have preferred we didn’t have to build a five-story building in the Promenade area. In retrospect, I don’t think we had any choice. Of course, we passed an ordinance right after it was approved that basically prevented anyone else from ever doing that anywhere else in town.”
What does the outgoing mayor wish for the incoming mayor, Johanna McCarthy?
“I was blessed with a lot of talent around me. We’ve got that talent here in town. I would hope for Johanna that the community come forward to help her.”
When 2021 rolls around, Willcox and his wife plan on traveling a lot. But, the pandemic has put those plans on ice.
“We planned on traveling our brains out, but that’s not happening. We have reservations in Hawaii that aren’t going to happen.”
As Willcox looks ahead, he hopes the city hangs on to what makes it so special.
“The future of Wayzata, what I hope for, is to fight the development pressures and try to preserve the small-town scale and charm of the place. It’s one of the only organic, natural downtowns in all the suburbs. We are so lucky to have that. We can’t let it become Miami beach.”