When Tony Mancuso’s retirement was announced at the St. Louis County Board meeting Tuesday in Hibbing, he was surrounded by folks in the audience who came to address hot-button topics, including short-term rentals.
But upon hearing accolades from commissioners about the outgoing property management director, applause rose from every corner inside the Hibbing City Council chambers.
They knew a good thing when they saw one.
“You’re one of the leaders in the nation when it comes to sustainable buildings,” Commissioner Patrick Boyle said. “You’re way ahead of your time.”
“You have overseen what I consider to be a renaissance in St. Louis County buildings,” Commissioner Keith Nelson said.
Mancuso will walk away at the end of the week following 22 years of service with the county. But before he went, the 63-year-old toured with the News Tribune one of the jewels in what will be his legacy — the Government Services Center at 320 W. Second St. in Duluth.
“This building’s energy use has gone down about 65%,” he said from the second-floor balcony overlooking Second Street. “I’m not an activist for the environment. However, I want to be environmentally responsible, because we’ve all got to live here. It’s a small rock we’re on, and I’ve got grandkids.”
When the county bought the seven-story building from the state in 2002, county services were spread across five downtown Duluth locations and the building was showing its age. Mancuso pitched the County Board on renovation, telling them they could spend $45 million over 20 years to maintain and operate it as-is, or spend a chunk of money up front to renovate it and retrofit its systems.
“So, we put in $19 million and we started the life cycle of the building over, and now we have this super-efficient operational system,” Mancuso said. “The cost of doing nothing is really high, but if you can’t explain that to decision-makers they’re always going to think you’re saying the sky is falling.”
Mancuso, a Cromwell native, came to Duluth from a similar department in Hennepin County. As St. Louis County’s first property management director, Mancuso’s hiring was contested and not every commissioner agreed on the creation of the new position, Nelson explained Tuesday.
As Mancuso set about starting the county’s property management department from scratch, he changed opinions in the process through innovation and cost savings.
“Whether you’re green environmentally or green monetarily, we have both types of policymakers, commissioners and constituents,” he said. “The thing about doing buildings like this is everybody can win.”
Mancuso established asset management programs for the county’s roughly 175 facilities, including the 25 or so that take up most of his time, including courthouses in Duluth, Hibbing and Virginia.
He transitioned away from outside contractors for cleaning and maintenance, and as a result the department is now filled with about 85 people.
“Having your own staff,” he said, “they take ownership; they take pride.”
Beyond Duluth, Mancuso oversaw facilities consolidation into government services centers in Ely, Hibbing, and, last year, Virginia.
“That building will be almost near zero” in terms of energy costs, he said of the new Government Services Center in Virginia.
Mancuso outlined a series of innovations in county buildings:
Sensors that decrease the heat or air conditioning in unoccupied rooms;
Solar roofs and walls;
Smart elevators that don’t send two cars rocketing up to a single floor with the push of a lone button;
Daylight sensors that trigger the lights off when natural light is ample;
Layouts that brought glassed-in supervisors’ offices into the interior and shifted walkways around the windows and walls.
“It’s a more democratic process, plus we get natural light deeper into the building,” he said. “Everybody gets a view; everybody gets daylight.”
Mancuso pointed out the stairwell in the Duluth building — once hardly used and nothing more than a fire escape. To encourage using the stairs, fire-rated windows to exit doors and motion-sensor lighting were installed. The alterations, in a building with roughly 80% women, brought security, comfort and increased the frequency with which people used the stairs, Mancuso explained.
He talked about using higher quality materials, so that buildings hold up longer. In Duluth, the building was outfitted with premium motors to run its systems.
“You buy premium motors and they’re 2% more, but run about 25% more efficiently,” Mancuso said. “A building like this has 200 motors in it. It adds up.”
A hobbyist, Mancuso likes to carve wood and stone, and makes sculptures out of junk he finds. He called his artwork “therapeutic,” and donates much of his work to charity auctions.
He takes advantage of the 1% artwork allowance in county projects to not just buy paintings for the walls, but to incorporate art into the floors and walls. In Virginia, an elaborate steel mural of die-cut fish and lake imagery greets visitors upon entry into the main lobby.
When asked if it would be hard to leave, Mancuso said he was ready to go. He’s confronted mortality with friends who are ailing, and he’s eager to be a full-time grandparent, along with wife, Mariann, to four grandchildren.
He’ll fish, too, of course.
Before the tour was over, the News Tribune asked him about his prosthetic left hand. It happened Jan. 21, 1981, he said, after Mancuso was clear of a four-year stint in a U.S. Navy construction battalion. He was working maintenance at an industrial plant in Carlton.
He came in from 20-below-zero temperatures outside to fill in for a machine operator who didn't show. Mancuso shed his leather choppers, but not the liners. When he started the machine, his mitt became caught in rollers, filled to 350 degrees with steam. He broke his right hand punching in pain and dislocated his left shoulder trying to pull out a hand that was ultimately freed by an industrious co-worker. His crushed left hand was badly burned and could not be saved.
"I was a big mess for a while, but I said, 'I'm not going to let this slow me down,'" he said. "I do pretty much anything I could do before."
He went on to earn his electrician’s license, because growing up logging and farming in Carlton County was something that always eluded him and he wanted to know more. On the advice of a co-worker who told him to take advantage of the GI Bill, he later earned a college business degree taking night classes.
By the time he arrived in St. Louis County, he was a man in full with a lifetime of varied experiences taking on buildings he described as being "in terrible shape." Applying his skills and knowledge across 22 years, it’s fair to say he transformed his workplace. Commissioners praised him for a host of traits: his easygoing manner, lighthearted humor, spirit of collaboration, ingenuity, insight, pragmatism, stewardship and guidance.
“It’s been a great run,” said County Administrator Kevin Gray, estimating that Mancuso has been in charge of $100 million in projects in just Gray’s 11 years at the county.
Mancuso thanked the commissioners and the rest for providing what he called "a great place to work with great benefits."
“Thank you for trusting us,” Mancuso said. “The buildings are in good shape.”