Middlebury planner steps down

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury had gone more than 30 years between hiring new town planners when Eric Blair was appointed to that position in December of 2013. He succeeded Fred Dunnington, who had retired earlier that year following a career that began during the early 1980s.

Eric Blair, we hardly knew ye.

With a little more than a year as Middlebury’s town planner, Blair confirmed on Thursday that he will be leaving the post. He has tentatively accepted a job as a senior associate with the Orton Foundation, a Shelburne-based nonprofit whose stated mission is “to engage and assist citizens and officials of small cities and towns to identify and articulate their community’s heart and soul — those things they hold dear and indeed connect them to one another and to the community as a whole.”

It was a difficult decision for Blair, who had nothing but good things to say about Middlebury, its citizens and his colleagues.

“I have very much appreciated the town of Middlebury bringing me on,” Blair said. “It’s a wonderful thing they’ve done to allow my family to move to Middlebury and be a part of this community. The community embraced me; it’s a great staff here. I have enjoyed every moment of it.”

But in the end, Blair couldn’t resist the allure of the Orton Foundation position, which will see him refine and implement the organization’s signature “Community Heart & Soul” program. That program, according to the Orton Foundation website, “reconnects people with what they love most about their town and translates those personal and emotional connections into a blueprint that serves as the foundation for future community decisions. It’s a barn-raising approach to community planning and development designed to increase participation in local decision-making and empower residents to shape the future of their communities in a way that upholds the unique character of each place.”

The new assignment will require Blair to do some traveling to communities in and around the Rocky Mountain West, the Midwest and, of course, New England. He will lead “Heart & Soul” public input sessions in those communities, offering and receiving feedback, and then following through on initiatives that emerge from those sessions.

Blair is excited to take his community planning skills on the road.

“A big part of it is the opportunity to go into many, many communities to work across a larger expanse of this country,” Blair, 37, said. “I think a lot of the focus of my work with Orton will be bringing in expertise in planning and design. (Orton) manages the public process really well. One of the things I think they don’t have a team of is planners and designers. They wanted to strengthen themselves, and strengthen the team, in planning and design.”

It was last fall that the Orton Foundation moved its Vermont headquarters from Middlebury to Shelburne. The nonprofit also maintains a small office in Denver. And the Midwest has emerged as a new target area for Orton Foundation programming.

Prior to his arrival in Middlebury, Blair had served as a town planner for the city of Portland, Ore., responsible for the planning and design of sustainable land use and transportation projects. Prior to that, he worked as sustainability coordinator for Athens-Clarke County, Ga. He has also worked as town planner for the city of Walla Walla, Wash., and as a planner with the University of Georgia’s Metropolitan Design Studio.

Blair’s past work saw him extend planning services to many communities, using forums to gain public feedback.

“That’s a similar model to what (the Orton Foundation) does,” Blair said. “I know what it’s like to go into different cultures, different regions and operate. I can put on my Midwest hat or my Pacific Northwest hat and I can adapt to that culture and that region very quickly. I think they were looking for someone who hadn’t worked in just one region.”

The Blair family will stay in Middlebury. Eric said he regrets that he will no longer play a role in some of Middlebury’s major planning initiatives, including the vetting of four groups that are competing for a chance to develop the town’s so-called “Economic Development Initiative (EDI)” parcel off Bakery Lane, behind the Ilsley Library. Blair and Jamie Gaucher, director of the Middlebury Office of Business Development and Innovation, have been coordinating the process of soliciting interest in the parcel and determining how the proposals for its use will be evaluated. Based on feedback at a March 11 public meeting, the town has decided to hire a professional firm to conduct a series of public “visioning” meetings around what the best use of the EDI property might be, with the results of that process to be incorporated into the request for proposals from the four competing groups, according to Gaucher.

“I would have loved to have been a part of that team,” Blair said, though he expressed confidence in Gaucher’s ability to carry the EDI process forward.

The town had not yet posted a listing for the town planner vacancy as the Addison Independent went to press on Friday. Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay said she will meet with the planning commission on April 6 to discuss a timetable and process for recruiting Blair’s successor.

Blair made an impact during his brief tenure with the town, according to Nancy Malcolm, chairwoman of the Middlebury Planning Commission.

“Eric has made a real difference to Middlebury during his short tenure,” she said. “He shared ideas and taught us about neighborhood planning and urban forestry that we have started incorporating into our planning for Middlebury. Needless to say, we are disappointed that Eric did not stay with us longer, but we are most thankful for him opening our eyes to some good ways to insure we keep Middlebury the jewel that it is. We certainly wish him well at the Orton Foundation.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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