By Craig Wilkins
Mike Stensberg (at left) and Skip Pitzen, Land Management, share a laugh as they recall a story related to a property parcel acquired by Mn/DOT. Photo by Craig Wilkins
By 1967, Werner “Skip” Pitzen earned a college degree, married, fathered six children and served as a deputy sheriff in his native Pine County.
It was also the year Pitzen, age 39, started his career with Mn/DOT.
When he joined Mn/DOT, Pitzen transferred from the St. Paul Port Authority, which was then a state agency. He now serves as an appraisal supervisor with the Office of Land Management.
Pitzen’s other pre-Mn/DOT work experience includes working in the steel business, buying men’s clothing for a department store and becoming a real estate appraiser.
Off the clock, Pitzen pursued his passion for horses, owning and racing several thoroughbreds at his family’s farm near Pine City.
And, oh yes, he played defense for the St. Paul Saints that were once part of the now-defunct U.S. Hockey League.
Pitzen brought his energy, sense of purpose and appraisal skills to Mn/DOT at the height of the interstate highway building boom. His primary duties then were appraising commercial and industrial properties being acquired for right of way.
Now he reviews appraisals and manages projects and consultant contracts.
Pitzen was one of the first employees to work in the then-new Transportation Building in St. Paul.
In those early days, right of way agents were often harassed by property owners, but no one bothered Pitzen, an imposing man with a no-nonsense approach to virtually everything he does.
Pitzen, who just turned 80, is still going at it full-bore.
Co-workers, retirees, friends and contractors recently surprised Pitzen with a birthday lunch in St. Paul attended by more than 60 people.
“I was really surprised,” he said. “I was surprised that there are that many people left who aren’t teed off me at me.”
You’ve been with the department for 41 years, what’s changed?
I once swore I would never use one of those computers, but now I do—and I have three at home. We can do a lot more work faster, but I still think we use more paper than ever.
And we have a lot fewer people. Once we had 88 people just doing appraisals; now we only have 83 full-time employees in the Office of Land Management.
We also have fewer projects than before and consultants now do a lot of our work.
What has stayed relatively the same?
The striving for excellence and dedication of Mn/DOT employees. People still care about what they do, despite all the changes that we’ve been through.
I’ve been a real estate supervisor since 1994. I keep track of, review and certify appraisals made in Districts 1, 2, 3 and 4.
What are some of the more interesting or challenging projects that you’ve worked on?
The most recent one is the Hwy 10 project in Detroit Lakes because, among other things, we had to move a section of railroad that carries 72 trains each day to realign the highway.
Building Interstate 394 in the Twin Cities metro area was also a challenge because of the magnitude of the project and the kinds of parcels we had to acquire. We worked with car dealers, big box retailers and a lot of restaurants. There were a lot of issues.
The most challenging of all may have been building I-35 in Duluth. Although part of the roadway is underground, it affected properties all over the city. We had to negotiate and acquire property that ranged from residences and churches to industrial areas and relocate five railroads from Duluth to Superior, Wis.
Do you have plans for retirement?
Well, I’d hate to come to the end of the road with so many highway projects left to go. Once I see a project start, I want to get it done.
What do you consider to be your most enduring legacy?
Since I’ve worked and lived this long, I think I’ve had a positive effect on a lot of people. That’s pretty rewarding.
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