Just an hour north of the Boulder/Denver area, Fort Collins, Colo., is bounded by grasslands and Rocky Mountain National Park. A college town (Colorado State University is located here), it's an intellectually and physically active mix of students, academics, hikers, mountain bikers, and nature lovers.

As a maturing city, Fort Collins aims to keep its downtown core vital while managing against sprawl from new suburban development. Successfully balancing those challenges requires solid growth management and a clear vision from the city planning team. "An effective city planner needs to be a gatekeeper, negotiator, and advocate for community values that have been identified by the appointed and elected bodies," says local architect Paul Trementozzi, principal of OZ Architecture.

Fort Collins planning director Joe Frank is all of the above. On the job for 28 years, he came to town from Illinois, where he worked with the City of Naperville and, prior to that, studied at the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University. Of the department he leads in his adopted hometown, Frank says that in recent years, "we have reinvented ourselves" in order to navigate population growth and the need for more developable land.

"Our previous focus had mostly been on growth management and neighborhoods, and we have a solid foundation of planning and implementation as a result," Frank explains. "Now, we have adjusted our focus on areas of existing and future economic growth--downtown, underutilized shopping centers and strips, and greenfield opportunities." That means doing more-detailed predevelopment plans, creating incentives and tax-increment financing, and working with property owners and business people.

Frank's strategy seems to be working. Last year, Money magazine voted Fort Collins the best place to live in the United States, and the year before, Outside magazine counted the 128,000-resident town among the country's New American Dream Towns. In 2006, Frank was elected a fellow by the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Frank eschews too much praise, boiling his success down to a mantra: "Stay cool. Stay current. Stay flexible."

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