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So long, Chuck! Retiring Economic Development Director had huge impact in shaping Perham

Chuck Johnson poses for a portrait with his dog at his home north of Perham. Johnson is retiring as Economic Development Director after 17 years. (Carter Jones/ FOCUS) 1 / 2
Chuck Johnson poses for a portrait at his home north of Perham. "I'm known for my woodpile," Johnson said. (Carter Jones/ FOCUS) 2 / 2

In 1978, a 25-year-old Chuck Johnson interviewed to be the editor for the Perham Enterprise-Bulletin. Expecting to not take the job, Johnson forced the paper's publisher, Mike Parta, to pay for his expenses from Minneapolis. Johnson had to look on a map to see where Perham was before he arrived, Parta said.

"In walks this young, skinny kid with hair down to his shoulders. You know what the attitude of long hair was at that time," Parta remembered. "He became our day to day face in Perham for 20 years."

"I totally didn't think I would ever want to live here," Johnson said of his first impression of Perham.

But 41 years later, Johnson, 67, is retiring as Perham's Economic Developer after 17 years on April 19.

"I've told Mike several times, the best thing that ever happened in Chuck Johnson's life was when he hired me to come to Perham," Johnson said.

Some could argue Johnson himself is one of the best things that has happened to Perham. In his tenure as EDA director, Perham's population has grown nearly 25%.

Johnson said the Perham he came to know in 1978 was way different than it is today.

"Things were happening, but they hadn't gathered momentum," he said.

In the last decade, Johnson estimates industrial projects at Shearers, Kit Masters, Bongards, Perham Health and KLN have added up to $340 million.

Working at the Enterprise-Bulletin for 24 years familiarized Johnson with the inner workings of Perham and its business network.

"When you sit at the newspaper, you sit inside lots of stuff, and you just get more and more deeply embedded into stuff," he said.

Former City Manager Bob Louiseau hired Johnson as EDA Director despite his lack of experience, because he knew Johnson had a lot of resources in the community to draw from.

"Chuck almost bleeds Perham yellow and black," Louiseau said. "He consistently works with people to find solutions to problems."

Johnson said when he was hired, he told Louiseau that he found his last job.

"It's really rare for me to run into something and say 'I'm tired of this,'" Johnson said. "I like sticking with whatever it is."

Johnson's writing skills also helped when applying for state and federal grants.

"It's not like it's magic, but it takes a certain level of writing proficiency to make that happen," Johnson said. "You have to be a solution creator. When you write a grant, that's one flavor of being a solution creator."

Lousieau said Johnson's legacy in Perham will speak for itself.

"When I look at Chuck, the community is a lot better off than it was before he came," Lousieau said. "He really believes in the community."

"I never stand on a podium and take credit for anything. I never do that," he said. "If somebody wants to think I did a good job, that's fine. You can make that decision if you want, but you do that on your own without me bragging."

In Johnson's first week on the job, Craig Swanson of Kit Masters said he wanted to move the company to Perham.

"Craig walks in the door and says 'We want to move to Perham.' Chuck says 'Holy cripe, this ain't hard,'" Johnson recalls.

Johnson said it's "dumb luck" that the Kit project, along with many other of Perham's companies, have settled here, but leadership is what seperates Perham from other communites.

"Perham is very visible for its level of success and outsiders look at that and say 'What the hell is going on,'" Johnson said. "Leadership is why Perham is Perham. There's no doubt in my mind."

Johnson cited a pyramid of leaders that universally work for a public gain, alongside the "extremely unique" business district that works together, rather than compete directly.

With all of its changes, Johnson hopes Perham doesn't lose its small town spirit.

"If Perham keeps growing, it's harder to hold together," he said. "If there's a big project that needs to be done, it's hard for you to hide in a small town."

Perham went from being a spot on the map to climbing into Johnson's soul over four decades.

Over the years, Johnson has become "Perham embedded" by marrying his wife, Darla, raising kids and seeing "lots of really, really cools things happen."

"This might be the best small town for a small town kid to live in," Johnson said. "I have zero desire to move anywhere else, because there's no reason. Anything that's important to me is here."

Parta said Johnson has always been a community-minded guy.

"Perham has a lot of people working together to get things done," he said. "Chuck was a leader to set that positive attitude in town."

Johnson says he still enjoys coming to work every morning, but is retiring to have more flexibility to "chase the grandkids."

Immediately after his last day, the chase begins when Chuck and Darla leave for Montana to babysit.

"That's a hoot," Johnson said

After that, he'll tackle a few ideas he's saving for his woodshop and continue his pastime of chopping wood.

"I love running my chainsaw. Me and the chainsaw are going to spend quite a bit of time together," he said.

Perham City Attorney Dennis Happel said Johnson's unbelievable enthusiasm for growth has rubbed off around town.

"You couldn't ask for a bigger Perham booster," he said. "He's a guy who's worked hard for every project and every cause. Hopefully he's not done yet."

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