MANKATO — The name Larry “Ralph” Forsythe probably doesn’t ring a bell for many of the tens of thousands of people who shop at River Hills Mall, the thousands of employees in Mankato’s east-side industrial area or the hundreds living in the city’s widespread affordable housing units.
But Forsythe, the former city planner and economic development director who died Thursday at the age of 60, had his hand in all of that and much more.
“He definitely did a lot of good for Mankato,” said retired City Engineer Ken Saffert, who spent three decades working for the city.
“He took a job when there were difficulties and solved the difficulties,” said former City Manager Bill Bassett.
“And he was very visionary,” said Paul Vogel, Mankato’s current community development director. “He saw the potential of Mankato as a growing regional center.”
Forsythe, who had a small-town upbringing in Vernon Center and got his start with the city as an intern, was also quick to mentor other would-be urban planners as an instructor at Minnesota State University and as the boss of the city’s planning/community development department.
He emphasized the importance of critical thinking and being technically strong — digging into the nuts and bolts of good long-term planning — and the result was a community that has grown steadily without generating the conflict with surrounding townships, the traffic congestion caused by uncontrolled sprawl and other problems that have beset some regional centers.
“People talk about the development process in Mankato and how orderly it is. That foundation was laid by Larry,” Vogel said. “To my credit, I haven’t screwed it up. But he basically laid that foundation.”
That doesn’t mean Forsythe’s tenure was without conflict. Forsythe was the one who negotiated the development agreement for River Hills Mall, which was the final blow to the downtown mall as a retail hot spot in Mankato.
Forsythe tried to get the River Hills developer and landowners around Madison East to agree to an expansion of the existing mall, where good infrastructure was already in place, Saffert said. When they couldn’t strike a deal, River Hills ended up in the next best spot in the eyes of city officials — at the near corner of the intersection of recently expanded Highway 14 and Highway 22.
The owner of the downtown mall didn’t like it.
“The flack we got from Art Petrie, (Forsythe) was right in the middle of that,” said Saffert, who said the planner wasn’t intimidated by any of the town’s movers and shakers. “He was determined but he didn’t get wild or upset. He just kept plugging away.”
Bassett said there was no point in trying to block something like River Hills, something that was happening in growing communities across the country, in an effort to preserve the status quo. The important thing was to guide it to a location that worked best for the city.
“The fights to stop progress are never successful,” Bassett said.
And it was Forsythe who first suggested the city buy land on the corner of 14/22 opposite of River Hills and create Eastwood Industrial Park, which has filled up and expanded and will expand again with a Walmart distribution center that is projected to bring hundreds of more jobs to the community in coming years.
“He had the big picture in mind,” Saffert said.
At the same time, he worked hard earlier in his career to expand affordable housing options in the city, according to Saffert, who also wonders if Forsythe might have had a hand in expanding affordable eating as well.
Forsythe, who moved into private sector development in 1996, was a big fan of Gary’s Pizza and Ebert and Gerbert from his days at St. John’s University, said Saffert, a fellow Johnny. Saffert wouldn’t be surprised if Forsythe’s legacy extends to those franchises coming to Mankato.
“I think he’s the one that talked them into coming,” Saffert guessed.
An obituary for Forsythe is on Page B2 of today’s Free Press.