Another lifer closes shop

DBA President Skott Johnson is moving away at the end of the year.

Owner of Autographics Skott Johnson attends the Dinkytown Small Area Plan meeting at Burrito Loco on Thursday. Johnson, is stepping down as DBA president this year.

Juliet Farmer

Owner of Autographics Skott Johnson attends the Dinkytown Small Area Plan meeting at Burrito Loco on Thursday. Johnson, is stepping down as DBA president this year.

by Nicolas Hallett

When Skott Johnson leaves Dinkytown after nearly 40 years, he’ll take one box with him.

Inside, he said, are keepsakes from the source of Dinkytown’s charm — its people.

Johnson, a University of Minnesota alumnus, owns Autographics, a printing shop at the corner of Fourth Street Southeast and 13th Avenue Southeast. He’s been the Dinkytown Business Association president for nearly two decades. Johnson, 59, is leaving at the end of December to return to his hometown of Austin, Minn.

The DBA will hold a replacement election soon, but DBA member and Qdoba Mexican Grill co-owner Randal Gast said it will be hard to find someone to fill Johnson’s shoes.

“I don’t know who can do justice to it,” Gast said. “He always made sure there was a good forum for people to come in and say what they wanted to say.”

People have called and inquired about the position, Johnson said, often asking about the time commitment.

Johnson estimates he spends between five to 20 hours a week connecting with other neighborhood leaders, informing residents and holding meetings as DBA president.

“I don’t want to scare anyone away by telling them,” he said.

Minneapolis city planner Haila Maze said she has “high respect” for community volunteers like Johnson. She said filling his position will likely come down to who can handle the large time commitment it demands.

“That’s hard to replace when you have people who are dedicated and show up for meetings without getting paid for it,” she said. “We couldn’t really do our jobs without them getting organizations together.”

But Johnson’s chosen successor — Greg Pillsbury, Johnson’s friend and co-owner of Burrito Loco — isn’t sure if he wants to take over.

“He’s been my right-hand man. He knows what I’ve been doing,” Johnson said. “He’s got enough on his plate to want to take on any more, [but] I’m going to convince him he can do it.”

Letting go

When Pillsbury arrived in Dinkytown 11 years ago to start Burrito Loco with his brother, he found a man taking speakers off the wall of their building.

“I thought I was getting robbed,” Pillsbury said.

The man told him the building belonged to his cousin and he was helping her move out. That man turned out to be Johnson.

“We’ve been good friends ever since,” Pillsbury said.

When Gast started coming to DBA meetings in 2007, Qdoba was being boycotted after it replaced the original Purple Onion Café. He said the community insight he gained from attending the meetings gave him an advantage over his competition and got them out of “survival mode.” 

Gast said he and Johnson have disagreed on political issues over the years, but Johnson always catered to Dinkytown’s best interests in the end.

“I don’t how we find someone who has the time and a good neutral positioning,” he said. “You can’t ask for anything better than that.”

Whether through e-mail, a newsletter or a personal phone call, Johnson said his goal was to make sure everybody in the neighborhood knew what was going on.

Community members said Johnson’s commitment to Dinkytown’s first small-area plan helped translate community feedback into public policy. Unsettling development in the area inspired the plans, which aim to give residents more say in the area’s future.

“That was a big group effort,” he said. “We’ve had some people who have been great about meeting every week.”

Johnson will return to Austin, Minn., to care for his mother, who he’s visited every weekend since his father died three years ago.

Johnson said he enjoys the two-hour trip and sings out loud the entire way.

“I play all my CDs,” he said. “It’s therapeutic time to myself.”

Johnson said he has another community waiting for him in Austin. It’s a small town like Dinkytown, he said, but with a different cast of characters.

“All the good people here make it worthwhile,” he said.

Pillsbury said he has tried talking Johnson out of moving home before, but isn’t going to pressure him into staying this time.

“I’d like Skott to be here forever,” he said, “but we have to let him do what he wants to, too.”