Unlike his colleagues on the Duluth City Council, Arik Forsman was appointed to his At Large seat, and without the benefit of a campaign or an election, the 30-year-old remains largely unknown to many of his constituents throughout the city.
Forsman took his oath of office in August, replacing Council President Elissa Hansen, who stepped down due to the demands of her new job as president and CEO of The Northspan Group Inc., a regional nonprofit development organization. The council picked Forsman out of a pool of 20 candidates to appoint to fill out the remainder of Hansen's term, which ends in January of 2020.
Since taking a seat on the council, Forsman said his top priority has been "reaching out to people." He has met with community leaders "just to be able to pick their brains about who else I should be talking out to."
Forsman also said he and his family have tried to attend every possible community event, including Hill Fest and the Labor Day picnic. During National Night Out, Forsman and Council President Noah Hobbs together visited eight different neighborhood cookouts from Morgan Park to Lakeside, where his family resides.
In coming weeks, Forsman said he intends to launch a city-wide "listening tour."
"I like to think I have good ideas and that I have good experience that will translate to doing good work on the council, but I also really want to shut up and listen for a while and hear what people have to say," he said.
"So I'm going to try to be really intentional about getting out of the house for the next three months and making myself as available as I can be," Forsman said.
Forsman has also connected with people online, making use of email, Twitter and Nextdoor, a neighborhood mobile app.
After attending a couple of meetings as a councilor, Forsman said he has been impressed by how engaged community members are in local issues.
"It's drinking from a fire hose, no doubt," he said.
For instance, Forsman estimates he spent about eight hours on a recent request for a variance, visiting the property and talking to parties on both sides of the issue.
"That's the only way, in my mind, that you can approach being a councilor and being effective, is to really dive in, even if it's not something that's going to generate a lot of headlines. That's the job, and that's why I applied, because I was interested in serving," he said.
"That's why I'm excited about city government, because these are things that impact people's daily lives," Forsman said.
Forsman spent about a year serving on a local task force assigned to explore whether Duluth should adopt a policy requiring employers to provide workers with earned time off to deal with an illness or family emergency.
"That was sort of a toe-dip into local government," he said of the hotly debated policy.
"In the end, I thought it ended up in a pretty moderate place. But it sort of hit some bumps and stumbles along the way," Forsman said.
Reflecting on the drawn out process, he said: "At least you can say that the conversation was not cut short. There was ample opportunity for everybody to weigh in. And you know, there's no perfect way to do these things, but I do think we landed on something that was Duluth-specific, which was always my goal as a task force member: to make sure that whatever we do, it meets the needs of the community, as best as we can."
By day, Forsman works as a regional development representative for Minnesota Power/Allete, and through that lens, he expressed optimism about Duluth's opportunities for economic growth.
"I think we have everything we need to be successful, but we're going to have to be really strategic about how to achieve a vision," he said.
While Forsman noted that Duluth offers beautiful views, numerous recreational opportunities and an excellent quality of life, he said the city struggles to overcome an old image.
"There's still this perception that Duluth doesn't offer as many opportunities as other places. So I think people are making decisions not based on where they want to live necessarily but still based on where they think they can find opportunities.," he said.
Forsman said he believes the city can overcome that perception, but he pointed to certain factors that could impede economic development if unaddressed. He said the city could do more to build its housing stock and meet the needs of working parents for high-quality affordable child care..
Forsman grew up in Aurora and enrolled at the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2006, making his home in the community ever since. He and his wife, Jessica, a guidance counselor at Duluth East High School, are the parents of a 3-year-old daughter, Amelia, and a 3-month-old son, Arlo.
Forsman described Duluth as striking an attractive balance.
"Duluth's a big small town," he said."It's that perfect blend of a city with a small-town feel, where it's big enough that there's stuff going on, but small enough that you feel you can make a difference too."