Sean Maguire is completing his first year leading the town’s Planning and Economic Development Department, Industrial Development Agency, and Local Development Corporation. In his first year, he guided the town to a Best Practice Award from the New York Upstate Chapter of the American Planning Association for its implementation of remote public meetings as a result of the pandemic. He is the town’s first dual-certified planning and economic development leader. He was recently recognized as one of North America’s Top 50 Economic Developers for 2021. Prior to joining the town, Maguire was vice president for Workforce Development and Community Education at SUNY Schenectady. He has prior experience which includes serving as director of Economic Development for the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, regional project manager for the state Department of State, and senior economic development planner for Albany County. He is a lifelong resident of the Capital District – and previously served as an EMT for Colonie EMS. At home, he lives with his wife Amie and their two children.
Q: When talking development, different stakeholders often have different goals and objectives. How do you balance those goals, in particular those between the developer and residents or businesses in existing neighborhoods?
A: The first step is to listen, and it took me a few years to figure that out. The whole idea of hearing what everyone has to say wasn’t always apparent to me but I really credit Margaret Irwin at River Street Planning and Development with helping me to both understand it and how to put it to use. Listening is important because one of our goals in planning is to achieve consensus in our decision making – and you cannot get there if you don’t know where everyone’s position is to start from.
Q: You have had a long career in planning and economic development. Is there a guiding principal or standard you try to follow and how has planning evolved over the years?
A: I’m guided by a few principles including being genuine and honest with people. I also think that empathy is very important in our work but not thought of outright. Having empathy doesn’t mean having to agree with someone’s position or point of view, but that we do our best to understand their experience. I think that we have been conditioned to dismiss unconventional ideas or opinions, which are formed based on experience. In fact, I open one of the classes I teach at UAlbany about planning with clips from the TV series Parks and Recreation that depict public meetings. Students typically find it funny but it’s a teachable moment about empathy in that people come together with different experiences. I think that’s how planning will continued to evolve — by incorporating concepts including empathy and equity into our professional lives.
Q: COVID has changed the way we do everything. Do you see any of the changes at the Planning Department, like remote meetings via Zoom, that will carry over after we get back to normal?
A: For all that we’ve done to make remote public meetings engaging and accessible, I think these practices will be another tool in the toolbox but not a replacement for the traditional face-to-face approach to our work. I really enjoy the people part of this job and it is among the things I truly miss. I don’t believe you can plan from behind a desk – or behind a camera. But I recognize that remote public meetings have also removed some barriers to public participation like transportation, access to childcare, scheduling, and the ability to be immersed into the process. That’s been the silver lining — we’ve created a public participation process that requires only a telephone line to join in. I’m curious how we can blend the best of both worlds but I don’t want to replace one for the other. And I have to day that I really applaud all of the work our MIS team has done to support us and some of my pushes to implement new tools and methods. None of this can be done without significant support from a solid team!
Q: In planning, there is the micro perspective, or any given particular project or neighborhood, and a macro perspective, or something that is or should be good for the town or county or state as a whole. Is one more important than the other and why?
A: I think planning as a system. It’s not enough to have only a micro or only a macro perspective. They mutually influence the other. Think of economies for example — our national economy is not a single entity but a system of regional economies that work together. And a regional economy is an assembly of local and neighborhood economies. They all ebb and flow together. So when I think about planning, I think about things like traffic impacts from development. It’s impossible to shut off the spigot and rather than fight against what I call the fluid dynamics of traffic, I’m interested in how we can relieve pressure and create new opportunities we haven’t yet thought of. They are equally as important and the secret is in the ability to balance them.
Q: If you could visit any city in the world, where would it be and why?
A: I’d love to visit Brasilia which is the capital of Brazil. It was the first city that I really studied in college that wasn’t here in the Capital Region. I was drawn to it because the Empire State Plaza takes its inspiration from Brasilia, along with Chandigarh and Versailles. I love the idea of the monumental axis which is the central spine of the city’s original design. It’s why I love spaces like the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and the Plaza in Albany. I’m a planning nerd at heart, or “plannerd” as I like to say, so I would just geek out with even just a few days in Brasilia. And at the end of the journey, I’d look for views of Capital Region on our final approach to the Albany International Airport. It’s always good to be home.
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