COLUMBIA — Rusty Strodtman knows all about the stereotypes — the ones he’s said he'll have to defy. He said sometimes people in Columbia have a black-and-white view: You’re either pro-business or no business.
As senior general manager of Columbia Mall, a former leasing agent for Jose Lindner and Forum Development Group and a member of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, you can guess which side people think he’s on.
“One of my other goals or priorities is to show the community of Columbia that a person in a business position can still have the city of Columbia’s best interest in mind," Strodtman said. "And it’s not just about cramming more business down people’s throats."
Strodtman, the newest member of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, attended his first commission meeting on Oct. 20.
He was selected by the City Council in a 4-3 vote over James Downey on Oct. 3. He received votes from Mayor Bob McDavid, Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill, Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl and Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Helen Anthony said the commission works best when there is balance of opinions and that she preferred Downey because she thought the business community was already well-represented.
Strodtman takes over the vacancy left by former commission chairman David Brodsky, who left Columbia in August to pursue a business opportunity in California. Strodtman will serve on the commission until May 31, 2016.
In 2009, Strodtman was passed over for a Planning Commission vacancy when he was a senior leasing manager with Forum. Neither he nor the other applicant, Don Stamper, were selected because of material conflicts of interest.
Strodtman feels it worked out better this time because his work with the mall is self-contained. He’s not actively developing anymore.
“So I think it will be a little easier for me to be neutral on more topics,” Strodtman said.
On Columbia's development spectrum from pro-business to no business, Strodtman places himself in the middle.
“Obviously, I’m still a very pro-business person, but I live here, and I want to live here and raise my family,” Strodtman said.
Jay Lindner, who succeeded his father as president of Forum Development Group, said Strodtman brings a common-sense approach to the commission.
Strodtman lives in a small subdivision off Smiley Lane with Melissa Strodtman, his wife of almost 15 years, and their three children: sons, Tanner, 12, and Noah, 11, and daughter McKenna, 8. It’s because of his family that he wants to see Columbia grow responsibly.
The Planning and Zoning Commission is also heavily involved with the city’s Comprehensive Plan Task Force. Strodtman felt the timing was right for a comprehensive plan since development has slowed.
“We, as Columbia, just need a plan as to how we want to see the Columbia in 20 years or 10 years. We just can’t go at it reactively,” he said.
Revisiting Columbia Mall
If you’ve ever sat in your car during evening rush hour along the stretch of Stadium Boulevard in front of Columbia Mall and inched toward Interstate 70, you might appreciate planning and zoning a bit more when it’s done right.
Stadium from Broadway to I-70 will be revamped in a project beginning this year and lasting until 2014. The cost: $20 million, half covered by the Missouri Department of Transportation and half by the Stadium Corridor, Columbia Mall and Shoppes at Stadium transportation development districts, according to a previous Missourian report.
From the owner's standpoint, Strodtman said the mall has been a success. High occupancy rate, good sales figures, etc.
But it’s a planning failure. And Strodtman said that if the city ever considers doing a big development like the area around Stadium and Bernadette Drive again, there are lessons to be learned.
According to traffic studies Strodtman has seen, it’s the second most congested area in Columbia behind the I-70 and U.S. 63 interchange.
“… One of the biggest problems with this area is just the lack of forethought or that it was ever going to be this much (development),” Strodtman said. “And as a result, we’re now very reactive. We’re many years behind the 8-ball to address that problem.”
The Regency mobile home park request had already been denied a recommendation from the Planning and Zoning Commission before Strodtman became a member.
During his commission interview with the City Council, he said he would have denied the request, too, even though he thinks the area is right for student housing. But he also thinks it’s worth taking a broader view of the development and the social impact of evicting residents.
“You can’t just look at it and say that this is the site and that’s all we’re reviewing and they meet all of the requirements and, yes, we accept approval,” Strodtman said.
He applauded Anthony and Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe for going to the mobile home park and touring the property. Strodtman said he went to properties that were considered for rezoning in his first meeting Oct. 20.
“I went out and drove a couple of them, and looking at the paper and seeing it, it changes your perspective as to like 'that doesn’t seem right' or 'maybe it does' or 'now I get it.'”
Strodtman said he wanted to see the city make it clear to Regency residents that it will look out for their interests.
“So I think it’s important for (the residents) to say, 'Hey, at the end of the day, we know that (the city's) going to be there to back us, and no harm is going to come to us,'” he said.
Growing up in Fayette
Strodtman grew up on a 1,000-acre farm in Fayette, raised mainly by his grandparents Julius and Grace Johnmeyer. His mother and father divorced when he was 6, and his father was absent until later in his life.
His mother, Judy Strodtman, was often away managing Johnmeyer Enterprises, the construction company set up by Julius Johnmeyer. She would be home for winter, or during lean construction years. Much of the year, her three children got by with phone calls.
Strodtman said his father came to maybe one or two of his football games in both high school and college. It’s why Strodtman appreciates being active with his children, coaching one of them in a sport every season.
“I think I try hard to be there for them when I didn’t have that,” he said.
Strodtman described his grandfather as a hard man and as “a wheeler and dealer.” Johnmeyer bought and sold houses and land and also went to many auctions. Strodtman said his family has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. He's followed that trend by having five rental properties in Fayette.
His grandfather also taught him not to judge a person based on looks. Johnmeyer liked to buy a new Cadillac almost every year. He would walk into the dealership wearing bib overalls, and Strodtman said the salesmen would assume he was just another poor farmer — until he pulled out a wad of money and paid for the car with cash.
His grandfather would throw feed buckets in the back seat and herd cattle with his Cadillac. His justification was: “Well, I didn’t buy it to not use it,” Strodtman recalls.
On the farm, they planted corn, beans and hay. They also had cows, pigs and chickens. He remembers being terrified of the chickens and chased by the roosters.
“Every time, you have to go in there and you have to get the egg out from underneath the hen and she’d peck on your hand, and as a little kid, you just get a little scared,” he said.
Strodtman went on to graduate from Fayette High School, and he earned dual degrees in business and accounting at Baker University. He said he applied for jobs with big accounting firms, but eventually took a job as an assistant manager with Kmart in Kansas City.
That’s where he met Melissa, a pharmacy technician, and her brother Mark. Strodtman would ask them to do extra work around the store because he knew he could count on them. About a year later, after Strodtman moved to another Kmart in Kansas City, he and Melissa began dating and later married.
The Strodtmans returned to Columbia in 2005 when Rusty Strodtman began working for Forum Development Group. Lindner said his father was fond of Strodtman and hired him for his vast experience adding restaurants and parking garages to shopping centers.
Strodtman rejoined General Growth Properties, the company that owns Columbia Mall, a year ago after previously working there for 11 years.
Strodtman is forward-looking about his time on the Planning and Zoning Commission. He doesn’t want to look back and have regrets.
“I just want everybody at the end of my five years, they can say, 'Wow. Rusty, even though he was in a business, commercial-type position, still had the community’s best interests at heart and didn’t always vote just because it’s business.”