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The man with the master plan

Community Development Director Nate Brown leads the city’s planning department. Photo illustration by Andrew Jackson.

Of the Keizertimes

Born in El Paso, Nate Brown lived on a Navajo reservation until age five, when his family moved to Castro Valley in the San Francisco Bay area of California.

He went to a community college there before going on a two-year mission to Alaska for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, spending time in Juneau, Skagway and Anchorage.

“You couldn’t call home except for Christmas and Mother’s Day,” Brown said of the experience. “It’s a pretty austere life. You get up, you do your studying, you go out and contact people, knock on doors – and just trying to teach people.”

That said, it was an invaluable lesson in learning about others, and how to deal with people, he said.

“It’s cool to develop a relationship with people and be able to share your beliefs and have them acknowledge it,” Brown said of his mission. “… It’s also a really good experience teaching you about people, about how people tick. At that young age, you’re pretty naive about the world.”

He said the time also taught him “not to make assumptions about what’s going on in other people’s lives. They make their own choices, and that’s OK.”

While he was on mission his parents moved to Utah, so he joined them there and enrolled at the University of Utah’s art history program.

“Art’s an important part of our world, so I thought, ‘Yeah, what the heck?’” Brown said. “Then I thought, ‘What am I going to do with a degree in art history?’ At some point I was going to have to make a living.”

Which is what led him to major in architectural engineering, a path that eventually led him to work in community planning.

“It was kind of the best of both worlds. There’s aspects of aesthetics and good design, but it’s also dealing with the built environment, construction and change that’s so vibrant and invigorating,” Brown said.

After finishing that degree and obtaining a master’s degree in public administration, he took a job with Salt Lake County’s planning office. But the lure of the ocean brought him back to the west coast. He and his wife were both from the Bay Area and “wanted to get back to the coast.”

After stints at several Washington counties and cities, he came to this area, seeking better schools for his five children.

He worked for the City of Salem for six years before becoming Keizer’s community development director in 2003.

As an employee, he said the difference between Salem and Keizer “is like night and day.” In addition to that “informal and personable” feeling, the job got him out of dealing with building codes exclusively.

What Brown finds most satisfying about the job is “when you can actually make a positive impact through site design in people’s lives – an interesting space, one where people can enjoy life.”

Brown wouldn’t engage in the debate about Oregon’s centrally-controlled land use system – which puts severe restrictions on development outside of urban growth boundaries.

But he noted the state’s relative lack of billboards along freeways adds an aesthetically pleasing aspect to an otherwise dull drive.

He said of a recent visit to Utah, “Billboards along the interstate show me they don’t care about the overall visual impacts of where they live. If they want to look at garbage on both sides of the freeway, I guess that’s what they’re going to do.”

While a planning and codes department often deals in minutiae, the impacts can be life-altering.

“We’re social creatures, and we all live in communities,” Brown said. “Some of them are rural, in nature, and they’re spread apart, but we all function because of communities. And so we all have to recognize that we have impacts on each other, and we need to create good boundaries so that we can create an environment that is conducive to growth, prosperity and mental health, physical health – it all plays together.”

He said both an upside and downside of working for Keizer is that plans, once adopted, tend to move forward quickly, citing the Salem Area Mass Transit station as one that will start moving shortly.

But Brown’s life isn’t all work by any means. He’s recently picked up the art habit again via a class at a local community center, and has been traveling. He went to Italy last year and to Barcelona this summer.

Brown suggested that younger people just starting out in life should take the time to go overseas so they can better appreciate life in the United States.

“The more you travel, the more you understand that we’re all pretty much dealing with the same issues and have the same struggles, no matter where you are,” Brown said.

His youngest daughter, Gayleen, is still in high school at South Salem High School. His son Art is attending law school in Florida; another son, Wayne is a paramedic for Rural Metro Ambulance. Daughter Michelle is a nurse living in Provo, Utah, and son Phillip is studying engineering at Oregon State.