In tune with his city for 34 years

If there’s one thing retiring City Administrator Mark Grams understands, it’s Port Washington, and that has made him a trusted leader through decades of change

PORT WASHINGTON CITY ADMINISTRATOR Mark Grams, who stood behind the Common Council desk at City Hall, has been the steady hand at the helm of city government for 34 years. Grams, who began working for the city in 1986, is only Port’s second administrator. He retired on April 10 but has been working part-time in a volunteer capacity until his successor Tony Brown begins work on Monday. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

If you look at the plaques in Port Washington’s municipal buildings, there’s one name in common — City Administrator Mark Grams.

He’s been the steady hand at the helm of the city for almost 34 years, serving alongside eight mayors and so many aldermen it’s difficult to remember all their names.

Only the city’s second administrator, Grams has attended more meetings than most people will during their lifetimes — Wednesday, April 8, was his last Common Council meeting — and shepherded renovations of every city building.

He’s seen the city celebrate the visit of a president and persevere through natural disasters that include a major flood and sheer-line windstorm and now a pandemic.

And he’s seen the city change from a largely industrial community to one driven by tourism.

“I think we’ve done pretty well,” Grams said. “It’s nice to go out and actually see what you’ve accomplished, to be a part of the city and make a difference in people’s lives.”

He’s quick to share the credit for what he’s done with the officials and people he’s worked with.

“That’s what makes or breaks you,” he said of the city staff. “They’re the experts. You have to let them do what they do best. You’re just the coordinator.”

His last official day on the job was April 10, but Grams is continuing on a volunteer, part-time basis until his successor Tony Brown begins work April 27.

Grams’ tenure is an exception to the rule, Mark Gottlieb, who served for six years each as alderman and mayor, said.

“To last that long in a job like that is remarkable. That is a testament to someone who is in tune with the needs of the community,” Gottlieb said. “Mark really understood the nuts and bolts of the budget. He has institutional knowledge. He’s a very steady manager, and I think that’s what the city needed as it went through changes throughout the years. 

“The City of Port Washington is a great place to live, and I think Mark should be given credit for that.”

Grams, Gottlieb said, understands that the administrator doesn’t make policy but it is his job to implement it.

“You see a lot of communities where there’s a lot of infighting and drama. You just didn’t have that in Port Washington — you had a team — and I think that’s a reflection of the sort of professional management style Mark had.”

Mayor Marty Becker concurred, saying, “This is not an easy job. I don’t always agree with him, but I respect his opinion. The stuff he puts up with is incredible. His demeanor is exceptional, and everything he does is for the betterment of the city. Until you go behind the scenes and see how the city is run, I don’t think you appreciate what he’s done.

“Mark lives in the city. He’s involved in the community. He supports the businesses in town. That’s what you want.”

Grams, who said he always wanted to work in the public sector, grew up in Aurora, Ill., earned a degree in urban studies from Aurora University and a master’s in urban affairs from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

He interned in Wauwatosa, then went to work as the Chamber of Commerce and community development director in Glencoe, Minn. He served as village administrator in Mayville before being named Port’s administrator in May 1986.

He was drawn to the city, he said, by its location on Lake Michigan and the fact Port is a small town near a larger urban center.

At the time, he said, Port was an industrial community with large manufacturing firms that drew much of their workforce from the city. 

“We  went from being a more heavy industrial community to a bedroom community, a residential community,” Grams said. “Eventually people discovered Port Washington more and more. They started to move in and industry started to move out. That’s been one of the biggest changes.”

The marina had opened in 1982, and its impact on the community and its burgeoning tourist industry was just beginning to be felt, Grams said. 

Hand in hand with that came what Grams considers to be some of the most significant improvements in the city during his tenure — the creation of Rotary Park and the north slip marina and the beginning of the harborwalk, which today extends for several miles along Port’s lakefront.

Other lakefront projects that helped redefine the city included the redevelopment of land around the harbor’s west slip and the conversion of the We Energies coal dock into Coal Dock Park — the culmination of months of negotiations when the utility converted its coal-fueled plant to one driven by natural gas and years of work navigating the state system to obtain the parkland.

“At that time, there weren’t any pathways along the lake,” he said. “But when we created Rotary Park, it helped create the (current) downtown. To me, that’s been the most important area we’ve been able to develop, the lakefront. We’ve opened it up to the point where people could walk from the north beach to south beach, and that’s done so much for the downtown.

“The councils, that’s been their focus, to do more for downtown. You do that by bringing people down there with the walkways, the marina, the parks.”

The downtown has come a long way since he came to Port, Grams noted.

“We’ve had some rough economic times,” he said. “I remember when none of the businesses would be open on Sundays. The streets would be full of people looking in the shop windows.

“Today, the people who own businesses are more aggressive, more forward thinking. Things are open on weekends. The shops are filled. It’s vibrant.”

Grams credited much of that to the formation of Port Main Street Inc., the Business Improvement District and Tourism Council, all of which helped get merchants more involved in the community and redevelopment projects.

Some of the redevelopment work has been controversial, Grams said, but they have paid off for the community.

“When you do things like that, they bring people down and help with your tax base,” he said. “Without it, you wouldn’t have half the businesses here you do today. You’d have more empty storefronts.”

And, he added, the work was done without raising taxes excessively. Dealing with the levy limits imposed by the state in the mid-2000s has been one of the biggest challenges of his career, Grams said.

“You’re limiting your tax growth, and your hands are tied as far as what you can do,” he said. “Improvements are needed. Street work has to be done. Equipment has to be replaced, so unfortunately we’ve had to borrow for many of those things.”

The city is fortunate, Grams added, that the agreement it reached with We Energies over the power plant conversion also included a $500,000 annual payment that continues as long as the gas-powered plant operates — funding that has helped it weather tight budgets.

Other challenges through the years have included the 1996 flood that caused millions of dollars in damage to public and private property in the city, and the straight line winds that hit two years later, Grams said.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said of the flood, which dropped a foot of rain on saturated ground in the city over 18 hours. 

“It just kept raining and never stopped,” Grams said. “It was a phenomenon that happened over Port Washington and nowhere else.

“It took out city streets. It cut the northeast side of the city off from the rest of the city. Lower Lake Park (now Veterans Park) flooded. The bridge over Sauk Creek almost went down. The Jackson Street hillside and the bluff slumped. We had to close the city.”

As challenging as those times were, there were equally memorable times to celebrate, Grams said.

Topping that list was the July 27, 1987, visit by President Ronald Reagan, who gave a speech about the economy at the bandshell, Grams said.

“It was really neat working with the Secret Service and White House staff to make that happen,” Grams said. “Out of my 34 years here, that was the highlight.”

He recalled the hundreds of staff hours spent working over two weeks to ensure the president’s safety and coordinate the details of the visit. 

Just before Reagan gave his speech, Grams said, he and then-Mayor George Lampert were taken aside and escorted into a tent next to the bandshell, where they watched the speech. Then, he said, Reagan came into the tent.

“He had a bulletproof vest on and the first thing he said was ‘I’ve got to get this off,’” Grams recalled. 

“I got to meet him and shake his hand. He said, ‘It’s nice to meet you. Thank you for having me here.’ That was neat.” 

Later that day, Grams said, Secret Service agent Jerry Parr took he and former Public Works Director Bob Dreblow out for drinks.

“The stories he told us were unreal,” Grams said. “They weren’t so much about the president but other things that he did during his career.” 

And while there are many development proposals that he would like to see through — the Newport Shores redevelopment, Cedar Vineyard and Prairie’s Edge subdivisions, The Blues Factory in the north slip marina parking lot, the redevelopment of the former Simplicity property and expansion of the industrial park — Grams said it’s time to step back and let someone else deal with those.

In retirement, Grams and his wife Sandy, who is also retired, plan to travel and spend time with family. An avid golfer, Grams said he may work at the Bog part-time and play the sport a little more, as well as do some volunteer work.

And, as he takes his daily walks through the city, he may take the opportunity to look around, reflect on his legacy — something he defined simply, “Making Port Washington a nice place to live and raise a family.”


Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login