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Erik Burgess, Published February 04 2014

After five decades of running Fargo's parking lots like clockwork, Rogne to step aside

FARGO – At about a quarter-to the hour, a large clock on the wall of John Rogne’s office chimes. A few seconds later, another clock, on the opposite wall, follows suit.

Rogne keeps talking, unaffected by the clanging. He’s been making clocks by hand for about the last 10 years – around 100 of them in total, he guesses, including six in his office and three mammoth grandfather clocks in his south Fargo home.

“It’s kind of like I don’t even hear that now,” he said. “You ought to be in my house at noon.”

You have to be an orderly person to manage a parking lot business, and the 71-year-old Rogne has been running his like clockwork for 51 years.

He’s also been managing the city’s public lots and ramps for about as long, but he’s set to retire at the end of this year, just as some major redevelopment is about to hit downtown and require a renewed look at parking issues there.

As the city considers new parking ramps and changing on-street parking rules to help alleviate an ensuing parking squeeze, city officials say Rogne’s experience and knowledge will be missed, but it’ll also be good to get a fresh perspective.

Attendant to owner

Rogne got his start in the parking business, strangely enough, after a bad car accident put him in a body cast with a broken back.

A graduate of West Fargo High School, he was attending college in Wahpeton to become an electrician, but his injury made him reconsider his future. He had a part-time summer job in Fargo as a parking ramp attendant.

At 20 years old, he took over management of that ramp at Merchants National Bank – now U.S. Bank – in downtown Fargo, and opened up his Parking Service business in 1963.

“I kind of branched out from there, taking over other lots, and now we have 16,” he said. Eleven of them are city-owned.

Rogne and those close to him say he’s stuck around the parking business because he loves interacting with people.

“He’s really good at that,” said Bob Stein, the city’s retired senior planner who worked with Rogne for 13 years. “Interacting with people for parking isn’t always pleasant, so I don’t know that that attracted him, but he was really good at it.”

After acquiring several downtown lots, Rogne said he won a bid to manage some city lots. Then in the early 2000s, Fargo sent out a request for proposal to manage the city’s entire parking system.

Stein said only two people applied – Rogne and a big, national parking firm. Rogne, who had already worked with the city for years and offered a lower price, won the bid and has had his contract renewed regularly ever since.

Over the years, the city has had a trusting relationship with Rogne, Stein said.

“He hasn’t always been the quickest to accept or embrace technology, but doggone it, he’s just honest and dependable, and that means a lot,” Stein said.

Stein recognized a city can’t award a contract on trust alone, but he said no one has ever complained about it to the City Commission and Rogne has done a good job.

The city’s Parking Commission will soon have to consider how to replace Rogne by 2015. With major construction projects like a flood wall and a new City Hall coming downtown, Stein said now is a good time for that conversation to be happening.

For Rogne, it’s a time to consider who might take over his business once he’s gone. He’s not sure who it will be yet.

Hard to change

Rogne’s business is likely run the same way today as it was when it opened.

On his desk, there are stacks of checks, cash and an old calculator with a spool of white receipt paper spilling out the back. He doesn’t accept credit cards and still does all his own accounting by hand.

On one side of his desk, there’s a hulking metal machine that looks like an old general store cash register. It reads “Paymaster” on the front and has a large, silver hand crank.

Rogne punches in numbers and swings the crank down, impressing a dollar amount in red and black ink onto a sheet of paper.

“That’s an antique,” he jokes, but he uses it for his payroll checks.

Rogne has always been cautious about change, having done things a certain way for five decades, said Jim Gilmour, Fargo’s planning director.

A couple years ago when city staff was getting new phones installed, they told Rogne he’d be getting a new phone number.

“John was about fit to be tied,” Gilmour said, laughing. “He’s had the same phone number for 50 years.”

Gilmour eventually worked it out so that Rogne could keep his number.

But Rogne’s resistance to change and his intimate knowledge of his customers – some of whom have rented from him for decades – provided a good perspective for city officials, Gilmour said.

“If you suggest changing something, he’ll caution you, ‘Well that’s going to upset these people.’ And that’s good to know,” Gilmour said. “I don’t want to criticize him for that.”

Lisa McCarthy, one of Rogne’s two daughters, said her dad isn’t stubborn. He’s practical.

“What he always says is: ‘If it’s working the way it is, why do you have to change it?’ ” McCarthy said.

Still, Gilmour said sometimes change is necessary for the betterment of the whole, and some big changes are likely coming to downtown Fargo soon.

A flood wall on Second Street and the new City Hall on the north end of the Civic Center parking lot will eliminate hundreds of parking spots there, maybe by the end of this year.

As the city looks to build new parking ramps, they need to look at using more automated systems, Stein said.

Rogne has a crew of parking lot attendants who only accept cash or check. These are jobs that could be done almost entirely with machines, much like conventional parking ramps in any major city, Stein said.

“He hires mostly retired people because he finds them to be honest and trustworthy, also,” Stein said. “He’s probably got the most overeducated staff in town. There’s retired college professors and ministers.”

Like clockwork

Rogne loves working with his hands, and has a special passion for woodworking.

He’s crafted enough furniture for his family – armoires, TV stands and bed frames – to fill a warehouse, and he’s always quick to help his children when they need a hand with a fixer-upper, said his wife, Diane Rogne.

He also plants about 400 geraniums a year and has a small greenhouse in his backyard.

“He’s very talented,” Diane Rogne said. “He can do just about anything.”

A testament to his abilities is his lake home on West McDonald Lake, about 10 miles south of Vergas, Minn.

It started out as an old, beat up trailer home that Rogne bought for $4,500 in 1972, which was such an “absolute disaster” that his wife refused to go inside.

“But I told her,” Rogne said, his eyes bright as he recalled the story, “It’s got possibilities.”

He cleaned up and added onto the trailer, but eventually sold it about five years later to start building a two-story cabin from the ground up. McCarthy said she, her brother and sister grew up on weekend trips to the lake, and now the six grandkids enjoy it, too.

Back in his Fargo home, many of Rogne’s clocks are mechanical, requiring him to keep a somewhat diligent winding schedule to make sure they all chime together. When they do, his living room buzzes like a church belfry.

He’s got a temperature-controlled shop, too, where he works with wood and builds the timepieces, which he gives away as gifts.

“He makes use of his time. He doesn’t waste it,” Diane Rogne said. “He’s always busy.”

But even with his retirement eminent, Rogne said he can’t imagine spending the rest of his life in the solitude of his workshop.

“I’ve got to get out and deal with people,” he said. “I’ve got friends of mine who have retired, and they don’t do a doggone thing. They sit at home on the computer for five, six hours a day.

“And I’ve got some that have done nothing, and they’ve also got sick and died. And I just feel like I gotta keep moving.”

Just like a clock.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518