MORPC is recognized as a leader in sustainability. Please share your insights on what that means to central Ohio and the state.
MORPC is an association of local governments and unlike a lot of associations of local governments or metropolitan planning organizations, our members have pushed us and asked us and followed us into this sustainability role.
It's something that's unique among a lot of our peers, especially with the level of involvement that we have. And it's exciting because in central Ohio we're the forum for many of the local governments and for a lot of our nonprofit organizations to talk about a lot of issues — infrastructure, water and transportation.
And sustainability is at the core of all those conversations. That's exciting for us because we have an interest in it and we see the benefits. People think of us as leaders in it.
What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities for central Ohio?
Central Ohio is a growing region and there are a couple of big things that are shifting very rapidly that really change the outlook on infrastructure and on local governments.
Energy is one. There's a lot of talk about energy systems and different types of fuels and efficiency and all that goes into that.
Transportation and infrastructure funding is a huge issue. We have great needs in maintenance, great needs to reinvent infrastructure, to provide new infrastructure to a growing region and funding sources that we've depended on are changing or disappearing. And the crux of the issue is how do we fund that?
And probably the other big issue is shifting demographics. This is something the whole country's facing. In central Ohio we have a large, growing senior demographic, but we also have a pretty robust professional and young person's demographic. We're becoming more diverse.
So you mix all of these things together. We depend on our energy, we depend on our infrastructure, we depend on solid demographics and that's a challenge to bring that together in a way where we can stay competitive and take advantage of new ideas. But it's also challenging us to think anew and reinvent ourselves.
MORPC's Summit on Sustainability, your signature conference, had record attendance in 2013. What do you think can be attributed to that great growth in the conference?
With all of the challenges and opportunities we're seeing people really interested in sustainability — environmental sustainability, fiscal sustainability. There's a lot of hunger just to talk about it.
The conference is a one-of-a-kind resource in Ohio, a vehicle to bring local governments together to talk about sustainability.
So they hear it, they're working on small pieces of it, but that conference really brings all the different work that's going on, all the different experiences together. There's just been a lot of excitement about it, a lot of focus on what's new, about what people have accomplished, about the impacts.
So much of MORPC's work involves bringing diverse stakeholders together to build consensus around future plans. How do you build consensus when the divisions between stakeholders are wide and the topic is difficult?
One of the key roles that MORPC plays in central Ohio is bringing people together on difficult issues. It's not always easy but where we start is we try to make sure we have diverse opinions and diverse voices at the table and really try to focus on objective things and points of agreement on getting to some solution.
A good example is the Sustaining Scioto plan. If you start at climate change, instantly it becomes political or emotional. But we work with local governments and we try to focus on putting it in the context of local governments. What kinds of concerns do they have? How does it impact their bottom line, their quality of life, their economic development and really focus on accomplishing things in that context.
That may seem a little dispassionate but it still gets to the end of grappling with the impacts of climate change on our water and sewer infrastructure. So starting from that different standpoint of, "OK, let's set aside the big issue and think about how it affects the local level," that's how we try to approach the different situations and get people to get to a consensus.
What do you see as the most promising trends in the region?
In addition to some of the big changes we talked about with demographics, we're seeing a big interest in redevelopment downtown and changing up the cores of our suburban communities. People are looking at those areas not as leftovers but as assets to take advantage of and to leverage.
So there's a lot of interest in new buildings and redoing infrastructure and making it walkable and bringing in businesses and using that as a competitive tool. Not to dissuade us from doing suburban development, but looking at this as a complement to the region.
And what about disturbing trends?
Public involvement and how we engage people is shifting so quickly that it's becoming a difficult thing for us. We used to be able to hold a public meeting and people would show up and we'd talk about it, but now we're having trouble reaching certain demographics.
People aren't coming to the meetings. Social networking and online resources aren't as robust and developed yet. We're not certain if it's capturing public involvement.
We've really been trying to grapple with that by using all different approaches. We are working with consultants and working with communities to make sure that we're hearing the public's voice because that's so important to infrastructure planning and solving issues.
That's a challenge that's not unique to MORPC but it affects us very much.
What are the top priorities for MORPC in the next few years?
We're about local government and local governments solving challenges, so we've engaged on three big themes.
1. Sustainability. By this I mean environmental sustainability and financial sustainability, so we're looking at ways sometimes do both at the same time. With green infrastructure you can both have environmental positive impacts and save communities money.
2. Collaboration. We talked about that a little bit, bringing local governments and their citizens together on issues that are facing us. That's something that we're always attuned to.
3. Mobility. By mobility I mean freight mobility all the way down to bicycle and pedestrian mobility. And in central Ohio in particular we've just seen an explosion of new opportunities of how to move people and goods around and that's something that's exciting but it also comes with new challenges.
And kind of a personal thing for me is helping with leadership development. Of course, on the outside we want to work with the local governments to develop leaders. But with our organization, on the inside, MORPC is thought of as an incubator of talents.
I can't hold on to all of those great people forever as their careers develop but I want to make sure that we're providing good career development for them and making sure that we're challenging them and getting the most out of them. When they're ready, we're promoting them or sending them off to be good colleagues in central Ohio.
What is the most significant project you have been involved with in your career?
For me, working on the Clean Ohio Brownfield Fund is the most significant and it followed me my whole career. It still is this year at MORPC.
I worked for City of Gahanna for a number of years. We got a Clean Ohio Brownfield grant for $3 million that cleaned up a hazardous landfill that was 80 acres and affecting water quality and all of these things. We successfully completed that and just as I completed that I went to State of Ohio to run the Clean Ohio Brownfield program and we worked in communities all over the state and had a really big impact on the environment and the economy.
MORPC is the organization for central Ohio that coordinates the Clean Ohio fund application. It's been a pretty impactful fund on the state, but also on my career.
What is on your reading list right now?
This isn't necessarily anything that has to do with water quality but I just finished "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain.
It's a really great study on the issue looking at the benefits of introversion and extroversion and separating out shyness from the two. Being an introvert working in an organization with many, many introverts, it really opens my eyes to some of the characteristics and how to motivate people and some of the talent that you might be missing otherwise.
What is on your to-do list?
On a professional level, we just reorganized our agency around some real core areas for us. Energy, planning and environment, data and mapping. Just saying the names of the new departments kind of lays out the big focus areas for us. So we are just in the process of reorganizing. That's going to keep us pretty busy.
We're in the middle of some pretty important studies right now. Sustaining Scioto is the study of the impacts of climate change on our water systems. We have a zoning and a land use study that's pretty comprehensive, a new fiscal impacts tool and our metropolitan transportation plan. We've got a lot of things going on. We're looking at the proposed Chicago to Columbus passenger rail line; that's a big potentially transformative project for us.
On a personal level, I like to travel and I've been to all 50 states. But when I went to all 50 states I forgot to go to all the capitals so I've been working on state capitals and I'm at 48 state capitals. So I'm trying to come up with a good excuse to get to Boise, Idaho, and Pierre, S.D.