Manhattan has seen incredible growth over the last three decades, and Bill Frost, long-time city attorney, has been involved much of it. Last Friday, Frost’s retirement ended his 35-year run with the city.
Frost came to Manhattan in 1975 and, with Jim Morrison, established a law practice now known as Morrison, Frost, Olsen, Irvine, and Schartz, LLP. However, he was also interested in work outside of the firm.
That led to an unsuccessful run for county attorney in the same year but opened the door later for a position with the city.
In January 1977, Frost was hired by the city as a prosecutor and assistant city attorney.
The next year there was an opening on the City Commission because one of the commissioners moved out of town, making him ineligible to serve. The position was to be filled by the city attorney.
“That opened the opportunity for someone to be the city attorney,” Frost said. “The city manager hired me to fill it.”
When Frost started, he estimates city business took up about 10 to 15 percent of his time. At the time of his retirement, Frost said city business was taking up “125 percent” of his time. But he couldn’t have predicted that.
“When I started as city attorney, it was a part-time thing,” Frost said. “I don’t know that either myself or the city manager had any vision of how long I would stay in that role.”
Much of Frost’s time as city attorney has been dedicated to downtown redevelopment, first with Manhattan Town Center and then with the north- and south-end redevelopments. The mall redevelopment started in the late 1970s, progressed through the mid-1980s and resurfaced again in the early 1990s because of a refinancing issue.
The entire project was difficult and controversial. Frost recalled particular difficulty with the Union Pacific Railroad. Tracks used to go through part of the mall property, and Union Pacific failed to return several calls about the redevelopment.
When a group from the city showed up at the company’s office, company representatives responded by saying, “Oh, you were serious about doing this?”
Frost said it took an enormous amount of time, energy and commitment to finish the project. He said he doesn’t doubt he made some enemies but noted it’s understandable because eminent domain is such a highly emotional issue.
He added that the second redevelopment project took a similar amount of effort.
“Both of the redevelopment projects were significant things for Manhattan,” Frost said. “They were unique in that a community was willing to take its time and energy and its money to preserve a downtown area.”
Frost believes Manhattan is unique in what it accomplished with the projects. He said if you look at other communities where malls have been built on the outskirts of town, the downtown areas suffer.
“Manhattan prevented that by what it’s done,” Frost said.
Despite some of those difficulties, Frost said the most rewarding part of working with the city over the years has been taking part in its evolution.
“I guess the single most important thing to me overall is from 1975 to 2012 Manhattan has grown enormously and just to be part of that growth and to have some small role facilitating it,” Frost said.
He said normally the relationship between an attorney and client (his client being this city in this case) would be strictly professional but said his relationship goes beyond that.
“I have always felt not only is the city government my client, but I’m part of a team doing things for the benefit of that municipality,” Frost said.
But Frost’s work isn’t quite done yet.
He will continue working at his practice, and city staff members want to contract with him to finish up a few loose ends. It will help to “bridge the gap” between his departure and the arrival of the new city attorney, Katie Jackson.