Attested Development

First appeared in the October 2006 issues of Business People-Vermont

by Julia Lynam

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Rutland has a genuine champion when it comes to economic development

Mark Blucher’s father helped write Act 250, so it seems fitting that the son has embraced the planning profession. Blucher has worked with the Rutland Regional Planning Commission since 1972, and has been its executive director since 1983.

A 34-year firsthand perspective on one region is a tremendous tool to bring to the planning process. That’s exactly what Mark Blucher, executive director of the Rutland Regional Planning Commission since 1983, is able to contribute. 

Blucher joined the commission in 1972. Since then he has devoted three and a half decades to planning the development of the 27 communities of Rutland County, from the tiny town of Mt. Tabor with its population of 203 to the city of Rutland, third-largest municipality in the state with a population just over 17,000.

Community planning may be an inherited talent. Blucher’s father, Walter, also made a lifelong commitment to the discipline. Back in the 1930s, Walter was director of the American Society of Planning Officials (now the American Planning Association), and in the 1970s, he was closely involved with the drafting of Vermont’s pioneering environmental legislation, Act 250. 

Born in Flossmoor, Ill., after graduating from college in 1963, Blucher headed for the West Coast. While there working for the San Francisco Redevelopment Authority, he met Hope Knight, a law student at the University of Michigan, the very college he’d just left! They married in 1967 and moved to Philadelphia. 

In the late 1960s, Blucher and Hope came to Vermont to stay with his parents, having left their jobs in Philadelphia and traveled for six months in Europe. The elder Bluchers lived in Arlington, where Walter was a planning consultant. Blucher worked for his father for a year before joining the short-lived Vermont Environmental Center in Ripton for two years. 

Blucher sees the role of the regional development commission as that of an enabler. “The most important thing is to listen to people,” he says, “to understand where they are, to help them articulate where they want to be and to assist them in drawing the road map to get them there.  

“We bring a lot of technical skills to what we do, but without the ability to listen and work with a wide variety of people, the technical skills aren’t going to do us any good.”

Those technical skills include helping local residents put together town plans and zoning regulations, and providing training for planning commissions, zoning boards and development review boards. The three regional planners, Tara Kelly, Susan Schreibman and Paul Conner, also present periodic workshops for road foremen and zoning administrators. 

Two other members of the staff have been with the commission since 1974: senior GIS technician Mary Trombley, who now works with computer-generated maps, but in the past drew all the regional maps by hand; and financial administrator Judy Holcomb, who is “the glue that holds the organization together.”

The commission’s brief also includes transportation planning — in 1976 Blucher designed a system of bus routes that is still in evidence today — and emergency planning, where the responsibilities have expanded greatly in the last few years due to Homeland Security initiatives. The commission is currently helping communities to develop strategies for coping with pandemics.

“We’re not doing this in isolation,” Blucher explains. “Rutland City and the surrounding area has come alive over the past 20 years because of all the work that’s been done by people at the local level.

“I’d point out the Paramount Theater and the work that’s been done in the center of the city in setting up a special tax district, bringing the merchants together, reconstruction of the downtown plaza and bringing in the first downtown Wal-Mart in the country. These things have happened because of people in Rutland and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, the Rutland Economic Development Corporation and the Downtown Rutland Partnership.

photoThree regional planners help residents put together plans and zoning regulations and train town personnel. Susan Schreibman (center), the senior regional planner, is pictured with planners Paul Conner and Tara Kelly.

“I believe that businesses tend to look at whether a community is looking after itself — whether it’s thinking about its future. If it is, that’s a plus in the eyes of businesses that may want to relocate or expand here.”

“Mark’s work has been key to the success of the economy in the county,” says Jerry Hansen, interim executive director of the Rutland Economic Development Corp., who sees Blucher’s talent for bringing people together as a great asset to the community. “He’s been instrumental in developing strategy and databases which the rest of us couldn’t do our work without. We worked together most recently on the Regional Development Plan for 2007, which is the work plan for the economic development corporation and the regional planning commission. It lends itself to our ability to generate income to attract new businesses. It’s done and accepted, so now we can move ahead for 2007.

 “Mark really maintains a high level of integrity; he gets things done. He’s a pretty savvy guy who takes new ideas and develops them, a good listener who incorporates other people’s ideas if he thinks they will benefit the community.”

In the last 34 years, Blucher has seen an encouraging trend toward recognition of the role of planning on local, regional and state levels. “There’s been a growing acceptance of planning as a necessary tool for community development,” he says, “largely because of some personalities that have been involved in this process, which waxes and wanes depending on who’s at the community level and certainly at the state level.”

He credits former Gov. Madeleine Kunin with efforts to connect the various levels of planning, and he believes that Act 200, passed in 1988 with support from Kunin, has promoted an acceptance of the necessity of planning.

“Act 200 tried to set up a system that coordinated planning from the local to the regional to the state level, and established a set of goals that towns, regions and state agencies are supposed to look at when they do their planning,” he explains.  “It also set up a funding source for regional and local planning through an add-on to the property transfer tax, although the Legislature has typically not funded the formula to its full extent.”

The third achievement of Act 200, Blucher continues, was to set up a computerized mapping system for Vermont’s 11 regional planning commissions, which he believes to be the only state-wide system of its sort in the country. 

Earlier significant legislation that advanced the cause of community planning in Vermont included Act 250 and other bills relating to water quality enacted in the early 1970s under the guidance of Gov. Deane Davis, he adds. 

photoGIS technicians work on computer-generated maps. Judy Holcomb (center), financial administrator, and Mary Trombley, senior GIS technician, have been with the organization since 1974. Steve Schild is GIS manager.

While state legislation can enable and support local and regional planning, Blucher sees the participation of individuals and organizations at the local level as the vital ingredient that achieves results like the downtown revitalization Rutland has seen over the last 20 years.

“The very act of planning helps communities,” he says. “Relationships develop through people talking together and working together. All of the regional organizations here support each other. We work with the chamber and the development corporation and the different housing organizations, continually trying to integrate our activities and support one another.” 

Serving on many boards and committees of professional planning organizations over the years, Blucher has taken his place as an important player on the planning scene in Vermont and beyond. His dedication was recognized in 2005 when he was named Professional Planner of the Year by the Northern New England chapter of the American Planning Association and the Vermont Planners Association.

One of those who nominated him for that honor was Peg Elmer, director of planning at the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

“Mark’s long experience and tireless commitment to collaborative planning for the future of the Rutland region is greatly appreciated,” she says. “He’s a kind, thoughtful and intelligent team player who encourages innovation. He has focused on education and training for a long time to encourage stronger local decision-making.”

That focus promises to endure. After 34 years, Blucher is as enthusiastic as ever, whether he’s talking about home or work life. On the home front, he and Hope have raised two sons: Tycen, 34, a senior medic in the U.S. Army, who shipped out for a tour of duty in Iraq last month; and Jorden, 28, an events coordinator and graphic designer living in Salt Lake City. Hope has a family law practice in Rutland and is running in the November 2006 election as a Democratic candidate for the state Senate from Rutland County. 

Enthusiasm at work comes in part from what Blucher calls “constant change.” 

“Every couple of years there’s new legislation and new issues. I’ll stay until I get tired — or until my board gets tired of me!” •