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Boreal Community Media

Exclusive: New community leaders settling in their roles and looking to the future in Cook County

Apr 05, 2022 06:13AM ● By Editor
Exclusive to Boreal Community Media by Rae Poynter • April 5, 2022

Over the last several years, several prominent positions in Cook County have changed hands. Among these are the Cook County Administrator, Extension Educator and Community Center Director, and ISD 166 Superintendent. Despite their varied roles in the community, those who have taken on these positions—James Joerke, Sarah Waddle, and Chris Lindholm—all share a passion for their respective roles and a commitment to serving the people of Cook County.

Taking on New Roles

In September of 2021, Sarah Waddle took the position of Cook County Extension Educator and Community Center Director after the retirement of Diane Booth. A comprehensive and unique role that combines both the management of the Cook County Community Center and working as the Extension Educator for the University of Minnesota Extension, Waddle’s position includes a wide variety of tasks that serve the community such as food systems, nutrition, and gardening.

 New Cook County Extensive Educator Sarah Waddle.  Submitted photo:

“I love working with groups of people and helping bring community ideas to fruition, which makes this a great role for me,” Waddle said. “I studied Environmental Studies in college and have worked previously as a Sustainability Coordinator and an Environmental Educator, all of which has built my excitement and interest in community sustainability, of which local food, farming, and strong community relationships are huge parts. The focus for Extension programming in Cook County is ‘healthy and resilient communities,’ which is a perfect fit for my personal and professional interests.”

In addition to her duties as Extension Educator, the Cook County Community Center is a hub for all kinds of recreational activities and community events, which Waddle says is fun to be a part of.

Another major change in roles took place in the County’s administration, James Joerke took the role of Cook County Administrator in October 2020. Having worked with local governments since 1997, Joerke gained a wide range of experiences including working as an environmental planner with the Mid-America Regional Council, the council of governments for the Kansas City metropolitan area, and later working as the first sustainability program director for Johnson County, Kansas. It was there that he was inspired by the community-minded leadership of County Manager Hannes Zacharias—a thoughtful leadership style that inspired Joerke to pursue this line of work.

Cook County Administrator James Joerke. Submitted photo

“My interest in serving as county administrator of Cook County, in particular, has deep roots,” Joerke said. “I grew up near Saginaw, Michigan, and my best childhood memories are of being outdoors fishing, canoeing, swimming and enjoying the natural beauty of the state’s forests, rivers, inland lakes and the Great Lakes. Coming to the North Shore for the first time in September 2020 felt like a homecoming. It felt right. I did a lot of research about Cook County after making it past the first round of interviews and quickly realized that the County offers a level of diversity and cultural and recreational amenities that you don’t usually find in a smaller community. As I told the County Board in my final interview, I came to realize that I wasn’t looking for job, I was looking for this job in this place. There simply isn’t anywhere else like it, and I am humbled and incredibly lucky to be a part of this community.”

For Chris Lindholm, his role as Superintendent of ISD 166 stemmed from a career in teaching, which grew into working in school administration in the Twin Cities before becoming Superintendent of the Pequot Lakes Public Schools. Lindholm became Superintendent of ISD 166 in July 2021, the beginning of the academic year. Coincidentally, this was the second time that he had applied to work at ISD 166.

Cook County Schools Superintendent Chris Lindholm.  Submitted photo

“I interviewed for the Principal position here in Grand Marais back around 2001, because I was a Dean at Edina High School at the time,” he said. “I was a very young administrator at the time so I came in second and didn’t get the job. But my wife and I have always just loved the North Shore—we honeymooned here and loved visiting and camping, so when this position was posted in April 2021 we talked about it as a family and decided to go for it.”

Embracing New Opportunities

As one could imagine, taking on big new roles in the county—especially during the midst of a global pandemic—comes with amazing opportunities as well as unique challenges. For Sarah Waddle, adjusting to her new role has been an exciting venture as well as a learning curve.

“The first few months have been a whirlwind of learning for me about all of the programs and stakeholders who are invested in the work of Extension and in the Community Center,” she said. “My predecessor in the role did this job for many, many years, so it has been both a highlight and a challenge to wrap my mind around all the rich history of the Community Center and Extension programs.”

Similarly, James Joerke said that the adage “drinking from a firehose” has been descriptive of taking on the role of County Administrator. 

“There has been so much to learn and so many new relationships to build. You can’t be effective in this role unless you’re willing to spend a lot of time listening to people to understand what their concerns are and what they feel the priorities of County government should be,” he said.

According to Joerke, much of this listening came in the form of listening to community members and asking lots of questions, a task complicated by the fact that he began his role in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“There wasn’t an opportunity to meet people in person; it was all virtual. It was a bit limiting, but thanks to Zoom and Teams, I was able to start making connections with people and working with them,” he said.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Joerke’s first year also included some notable highlights, including providing financial relief to businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic, achieving the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in Minnesota, and working with community partners like the Cook County/Grand Marais Economic Development Authority to address the shortage of affordable workforce housing in the County.

“The County Board’s willingness to create a Housing and Redevelopment Authority and fund its work represents a huge step forward,” Joerke said. “We still have a lot of work to do to increase the availability of affordable housing in the County, but we are laying a solid foundation to make that goal a reality.”

Like both Waddle and Joerke, Chris Lindholm said that starting the new position has been a whirlwind, especially given the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“It’s been a challenging time to transition into a new role that requires so much relationship building and trust building within the community in a time where people weren’t meeting together in person,” Lindholm said. “But there are some great people that have made the transition as smooth as it could be, and it’s been fun to see our staff just love kids and do everything in their power to build those relationships through all the challenges. That’s been a joy.”  

Joining the Community

Another aspect of taking on new roles in Cook County is adjusting to life in this remote corner of Minnesota. While Sarah Waddle had lived in the area prior to taking on her new role, both James Joerke and Chris Lindholm moved to the area to start their new jobs. 

Chris Lindholm said that as the start date for his job grew closer, he grew nervous because he still couldn’t find a place to live. He mentioned this in an interview with the Cook County News Herald, and after the story ran, he got a call from a Grand Marais resident who was looking to sell their house. The rest, Lindholm said, was history.

“We’re really looking forward to this coming spring and summer,” Lindholm said. “The fall was such a blur for all of us—my wife is a secondary English teacher but there was a special education position open, so she took that and has had to learn a whole new job. We’ve enjoyed getting to know the community through church, and I’ve been invited to a few community groups that have met through Zoom, but we’re really looking forward to getting to be outside and really meet people.” 

James Joerke also said that the busyness of his first year meant less time spent outdoors than he would have hoped, he is enjoying living with the spectacular outdoor opportunities and sense of calmness that Cook County brings.

“I still frequently have moments where I think, ‘Oh my gosh – I actually live here!’ Being right on Lake Superior, having access to amazing hiking trails only minutes from home, and having literally hundreds of great fishing lakes and streams nearby is still hard to absorb,” Joerke said. “I was able to get a kayak at the end of last summer and plan to start making up for lost time this year. Look out, walleye!”


Looking Toward the Future

Looking ahead, Waddle, Joerke, and Lindholm all said that they are eager to lean into their roles and see what the future brings. 

Sarah Waddle said that she has loved meeting so many different members of the community, both in person and through Zoom, and that she feels lucky to be working with such dedicated community members. 

“I am looking forward to serving as a connector between our community and the amazing offerings of University of Minnesota Extension,” she said. “From gardening to family finances, there is so much opportunity for connection and I look forward to building programming locally that meets our community’s' needs and interests. I also look forward to stewarding the resources of the community center so that our recreational and group event facilities are well utilized and well known to everyone in the county.”

James Joerke said that he sees Cook County at a pivotal point in history: the county’s population was 5,600 as of the 2020 Census, and the population growth rate has accelerated over the last few years. With the Covid-19 pandemic triggering a migration from cities to more rural areas—and the remote work that has come along with that—Joerke said that Cook County’s population can be expected to continue increasing. Not only that, but climate change is causing people to relocate to areas that are less prone to extreme weather events and have access to fresh water. Northeastern Minnesota’s abundant natural resources—and widely available broadband—will continue making it an attractive place for people to consider relocating to. 

“We will need to be thoughtful in planning for and managing this growth. Our lakes, rivers and forests are vulnerable to degradation from overuse, and the character of our city and towns are subject to change as more people move to Cook County. Protecting the things that make this place special and that make people want to be here is vitally important to our economy and quality of life,” Joerke said. “We also need to focus a lot of attention and effort on making sure that regular working people are not priced out of the County. The shortage of affordable housing and childcare are two of the biggest issues we need to address.”

At ISD 166, Lindholm said that the administrators and board are working on creating a strategic roadmap for the district based on input from the community and staff members. Some of the particular challenges of such a small district include coordinating outside services and determining what courses they can offer, particularly to secondary level students. 

“The most unique thing about Cook County is how far away we are from the next closest district, so for us that means a lot of services, such as high-needs special ed services, are two hours away,” he said. “There’s no bussing kids to those services, so we have to figure out how to make it happen here. Virtual meetings are a tool we’ve been using quite a bit to meet some of those needs.”

Both James Joerke and Chris Lindholm noted how inspired they were by the people of Cook County and their willingness to meet new challenges.

“Coming in as the new guy, I would describe Cook County as a place of amazingly wonderful and smart people,” Lindholm said.

Joerke said, “I feel optimistic about the County’s future. We are rich in human capital – smart, talented people who are committed to our community and want to see it thrive. The pandemic has provided a great example of how Cook Countians can solve big problems by working together. I am confident that we will be able to find solutions to the challenges we face, and I look forward to playing a role in that process.”




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