Terrie Piram showed up for work today (Friday, Jan. 7) as office manager in the Wright County Planning & Zoning office much in the same way she has for just short of the last 15,000 days – a span of 41 years. What made today different was it would be her last.
Her first day in Planning & Zoning was Jan. 16, 1981 – four days before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated for his first term as president. Earlier this week, his co-workers threw her a retirement party and Piram received a recognition plaque for her long tenure of public service from the Wright County Board of Commissioners.
Tom Salkowski, Piram’s boss for 30 of her 41 years with the county, said he couldn’t imagine his work life without Piram, who, while not technically the boss, was the face that ran the place.
“There’s a difference between being in charge and keeping something running,” Salkowski said. “While I was in charge of the Planning & Zoning Department, it was Terrie who was doing a masterful job quietly behind the scenes of keeping the place running. She made sure the bills got paid. She made sure that critical deadlines for hearings and meetings got met. She oversaw the preparation of thousands of critical documents that government work requires be not only timely, but 100 percent accurate.”
The Planning & Zoning office has bore witness to the county’s sustained growth, especially along the I-94 corridor, for decades. But when Piram started her career, there was an ongoing struggle taking place as the rural landscape of Wright County was starting to disappear and township leaders were concerned about preserving farmland and protecting lakes.
“I think that is where Planning & Zoning in Wright County really started,” Piram said. “Township boards were concerned about the expansion from the metro into Wright County, especially in the eastern part of the county. At that time there were no regulations on shorelands – how we develop and where we want our density. It wasn’t that we didn’t want development, but we wanted some order and standards as to how we develop.”
The job of P&Z has multiple fronts. The county didn’t have a building inspector until the 1970s and safety became a much bigger priority, especially as a sustained boom period of housing and businesses expanded the size of cities throughout the county. With more than 300 lakes in Wright County that have numerous environmental requirements that run through the P&Z office, house and cabin construction become a much bigger issue.
However, one area where the county isn’t expanding is in the realm of the family farm. For most of its existence, Wright County was largely rural farm country, but in her Planning & Zoning career, Piram has witnessed the shrinking of the multi-generational family farm. They still exist, but their numbers are dwindling.
“You’re seeing a lot of younger families not wanting to take over farms,” Piram said. “It used to be that farms got passed down from one generation to the next. You’re seeing less of that now and it’s a piece of our history that seems to be getting less all the time.”
There have been several distinct eras in Piram’s time with Planning & Zoning when change came quickly and wasn’t always expected, including a boom in lake property construction, the sharp increase in the number hobby farms, the proliferation of cell phone towers and the current growth of solar farms. At times, it would seem as though Planning & Zoning has sounded the alarm when the first trickle of a flood of applications for zoning permits came in. Piram said these cycles haven’t had P&Z looking to shut down the process, rather to manage it so it is done right and policies can be in place.
“It isn’t like we want to hit the brakes when these issues come up and we see a dramatic increase in something, it’s more about putting some thought into where they should be,” Piram said. “Our job is to protect the farmland, the lakes, the natural environment and the residents of these areas, so they just not put in willy nilly.”
As Piram’s long career of public service comes to a close, she is going to miss the co-workers who have become part of her extended family. While the size of the P&Z has grown over Piram’s time, it is still a small department given the responsibilities and mountain paperwork that come through the office.
The result of the workload has made it necessary for employees to cross-train on the job duties of their co-workers. The team approach has brought the department much closer as they pull together to get their jobs done.
“We’ve worked lean for a pretty long time,” Piram said. “That’s made us an awesome team that steps up where the need is. You never hear, ‘That’s not part of my description.’ That’s not the kind people we are. I always call them my Planning & Zoning family because we do feel like a family and support each other.”
Piram has been thinking about her final day on the job for some time – at times looking forward to ending the four-decade grind and at others not knowing how life will be without her work responsibilities that have been engrained in her so long.
“I have mixed feelings about it because I have enjoyed my work here,” Piram said. “The people I worked with here made it enjoyable because I liked them and they made this a great place to work. I’ve never felt like this was just a job. I care about the people I’ve worked with over the years. They become like family because you spend so much time together and go through so many events in your life together. But it’s also going to free up time to spend with my family – my husband, my kids and my grandkids. I’m looking forward to the next chapter in my life and hopefully I can do something to contribute and stay active. I’m looking forward to it.”
Replacing Piram will be impossible because of the wealth of experience, professionalism and commitment to public service. She was a treasured employee who will be sorely missed. While her work friends are happy that she will be enjoying her retirement, there will be a void left behind when Monday comes and Piram doesn’t come through the door.
Salkowski summed up the feelings of those fortunate enough to have spent significant time working alongside Piram – a love and respect that won’t end just because her work for the county has come to a close.
“Terrie made me a better person,” Salkowski said. “She made the P&Z office a better place to work. She made Wright County government a better organization. With the work she did and the people she supported, Terrie made Wright County a better place to live. We are all in her debt.”