Wisconsin Geospatial News

Bay-Lake RPC Veteran Takes Over as Executive Director

Mark Walters

Mark Walter was recently named Executive Director for the Bay-Lake Regional Planning Commission (RPC) after serving for over 16 years in a variety of capacities for that organization. I recently met with Mark to talk about his new position.

Mark, recently you were named the Executive Director of the Commission, congratulations. By education and training you are a cartographer and GIS user; how did this background lead to you becoming the director of a regional planning organization?

Thank you. I’ve always had an analytical approach to solving problems, which I think explains the interest I’ve had in GIS throughout my career. Through the variety of positions I’ve held, GIS has always been a constant, and a tool I’ve come to rely on.

That said, I suppose you could say I grew into my current position by constantly challenging myself, and by being willing to take on new duties. I’ve also learned to say “yes” a lot, sometimes even when I didn’t have all the answers right away. In that sense, the old adage of having a “can do” attitude is something I’ve always tried to live by.

I started with Bay-Lake in 1988 as the Graphics Coordinator, which later evolved into GIS Coordinator as the technology matured. Over time, I learned more about planning issues by being immersed in them on a daily basis. Two years ago our former Director Martin Holden was thinking about retirement, and decided we needed a logical leadership succession plan. At that time I was named Assistant Director, and became more directly involved in the daily management of our organization. Later, when the formal search for a new director began after Marty announced his retirement, I was in the pool of potential candidates. I was fortunate enough to be offered the position.

You have been with Bay-Lake RPC for 16 years. Now you are the Executive Director. As Director, what are some of your goals for the organization?

Good question. First, I would like to identify a more stable source of funding for the RPC. As a public agency, we are always asked to do more with less; consequently we are always seeking new sources of funding to help keep the organization moving forward.

In addition, I want the RPC to become more widely understood by our citizens. Historically, we’ve worked a lot with the various communities and counties around the region, and we will of course continue this work. However, I also want us to have more direct contact with our citizens, and do a better job informing them as to our impact on their daily lives.

Finally, I want us to be recognized for innovation, even more so than we already are. In the early 90’s we were way ahead of the technology curve as compared to most of the counties in our region. Now, all of our counties have caught up, which is great. I hope this is in part a result of our leadership. Recently, we’ve started to get involved in activities related to the Wisconsin Land Information System (WLIS). Last year we partnered with Kewaunee County and received a $25,000 grant from the Wisconsin Land Information Board to implement a WLIS pilot project.

Speaking of WLIS, you and your staff have been involved over a number of years in discussions and planning of WLIS. What are your thoughts on the value and future of WLIS?

WLIS is something that I’ve put a lot of thought and energy into over the years. I served on the original Land Council WLIS Technical Working Group, and helped craft the final report that was released in 1999.

As with any anything, especially technology, a person eventually has to ask the basic question of “so what?” You can collect lots of data, spend a lot of time massaging it into various formats, and so on, but eventually you have to step back and critically analyze what you’ve done. If people can’t get to your data, or they don’t know how to use it, then what good is it? All of us have worked hard to build good data over the years, but the next challenge is demonstrating what our data can do.

The concept behind WLIS is important to my organization for a couple of reasons. First, we obviously deal with many regional issues, so our need for data cuts across county boundaries. Therefore, it’s natural for us to want a system that allows us to integrate data and reduce the amount of reformatting we currently need to worry about.

WLIS is also of interest to us because we are beginning to do a lot of modeling. Currently we are using our GIS for watershed analysis, transportation forecasting and land use/environmental planning. In that sense, WLIS can benefit us by providing a reliable and timely source of data for our planning needs, while at the same allowing us to extend our modeling capabilities to communities through distributed applications.

I envision applications, modeling applications in our case, plugging into WLIS in order to solve real-world problems. My hope is that WLIS, in whatever form it eventually takes on, is not just a data “catalog” but a framework on which we can all build applications.

What are the most significant issues in this region? How will GIS play a role in helping to solve those challenges?

We are very fortunate because the economy in our region has been growing strong over the past few years, despite lackluster performance elsewhere. This is demonstrated by the fact that northeast Wisconsin is one of the fastest growing areas of our state.

Our biggest challenge by far is the amazing diversity present in our region. For example, we must understand the needs of Florence County, a county with 5,000 people and no incorporated municipalities, while also appreciating issues faced by the city of Green Bay, the third largest city in the state with over 100,000 people. We also have a surprising amount of ethnic variation among our 500,000 or so residents. The physical landscape varies tremendously as well, from the north woods, to extensive farmland in the south, and back up to Door County, which has more shoreline than any other county in the United States.

Because of this diversity, it’s very difficult to describe the region with one unified vision. Therefore, from a planning standpoint, we’re in a very challenging situation. We have to constantly search for new and effective ways of communicating with our citizens.

In my mind, that’s where GIS comes in. GIS, and closely related technologies such as web mapping, allow us to get information out to people in a way they can understand. GIS allows us to bring together our communities by showing them the social and economic issues they face are similar, despite the physical differences. We use the mapping and modeling capabilities of our GIS to demonstrate that solutions to a problem in the southern part of our region can have a direct impact on the northern areas. Perhaps most importantly, our use of GIS can show that cooperation across political boundaries is often the best and most effective way to address regional problems.

Over the years here, what has been your most notable accomplishment?

The use of technology has grown tremendously during the time I’ve worked for the Commission. When I started we had two IBM PCs in the office. A year later, we were able to purchase PC Arc/Info. Of our eleven staff, we now have two full-time people doing GIS work on a daily basis. I’m very proud of the fact that GIS technology has grown to be a critical part of our operations. GIS has been integrated into all of our planning programs, and lets us be more effective innovators. Without it, we would have a much more difficult time accomplishing much of the work we do.

We wish Mark all the best in his new position at the Bay-Lake Regional Planning Commission. He can be reached at (920) 448-2820, or via email at mwalter@baylakerpc.org