Andrew Gunning has been on the job (and in Colorado) for just a couple of months now, but the new executive director of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments is eager to dive back into regional planning and equally excited to get to know his new home.

Prior to beginning at PPACG in February, Gunning spent seven years in Maryland, most recently as planning director for the city of Rockville. The municipality of about 60,000 is located near Washington, D.C.

“It’s a great, vibrant, well-planned and very engaged community,” Gunning said. “It was a great environment and I did a lot of complex land use development projects, a lot of redevelopment around stops on the regional metro rail system. I dealt with land use, transportation and environmental issues, as well as affordable housing and fiscal and economic impact studies.”

The Baltimore, Md., native (who grew up in Pennsylvania) also spent his early career as a regional planner in Arizona — a position, he said, that’s similar to the one he occupies today.

Gunning spoke with the Business Journal this week about the PPACG and his priorities in his first year.

Where did you go to school?

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I got my undergrad in sociology from Shippensburg University [in Pennsylvania]. I knew I couldn’t really become a sociologist, so around my junior year I knew I’d be looking at graduate school. I went to grad school at Clemson, S.C., and went through a two-year program studying city and regional planning. I ended up working as a city planner and then planning director at Clemson. It was a great experience and it’s what got me started in the planning arena. I dealt with everything from long-range plans to zoning enforcement to downtown redevelopment and everything in between.

Then what?

An opportunity came up in Arizona. We’d never been there before and I threw my hat in the ring for a position in Tucson. Everything fell into place. We ended up in Tucson for 16 years and loved it there.

I was with a county planning agency for a while, coordinating their long-range planning efforts, and shifted to a regional planning agency which is really similar to PPACG.

I was with the Pima Association of Governments going on 12 years. It’s a regional planning agency that does transportation and environmental planning and, while I was there, we created a regional transportation authority. … We were able to get that off the ground and put a plan together in collaboration with community members and local jurisdictions like neighborhood associations, the environmental community and homebuilders. We got the plan by Tucson-area voters in 2006 after four previous failed attempts. History was kind of against us in putting together a transportation plan.

So, we were in Arizona until 2010. I went to Rockville but missed regional work and collaboration among multiple jurisdictions and stakeholders and the private and nonprofit sectors. I always had it in the back of my mind that if the right position came along, I would give it a shot.

What’s the scope of PPACG’s responsibilities?

There’s something like 14 councils of government in Colorado and we cover three counties: Park, Teller and El Paso.

We’re a regional voluntary association comprised of elected officials from 13 cities and towns in the three counties. It’s roughly a 20-member board. The military bases and [the Colorado Department of Transportation] have nonvoting representation on the board.

Our basic purpose is to solve regional issues that cross jurisdictional boundaries, whether transportation planning, providing aging services, coordinating joint land use studies.

What attracted you to this position?

I missed the nature of the work. I saw a lot of similarity between PPACG and the agency I was with in the Tucson area. I knew that, through collaboration between jurisdictions and other stakeholders, there’s a lot of good stuff we could do. I was hearing about wanting to improve the visibility of the agency and do more throughout the community and it seemed like a good fit for me.

I also missed being in the West. We missed the wide-open spaces. That was appealing. This is an incredibly vibrant economic area and an accepting community. It seemed too good to pass up.

How is the PPACG similar to PAG?

Economically we’re different than Tucson because they have a larger university presence. But they also had a strong military presence in Davis-Monthan [Air Force Base]. Demographically, the growth rate here is similar to what we were facing in southern Arizona. When I moved there in 1995, there were between 650,000 and 700,000 around Tucson. When I left at the end of 2010, there were about a million people in the region.

What are your greatest challenges?

One thing we will do this summer is create a strategic plan, which is something that hasn’t been done before as an agency. There are specific things we have to do as a regional planning entity, like coordinating a transportation planning process. We’re also the official area agency on aging, which means we have to do specific things to get grant funds from the state and feds.

Beyond that, we don’t have a strategic plan as to where we want to be five years from now. The challenge will be trying to identify where we want to position ourselves and who we want to collaborate with to get big things done in the community. One big overriding challenge, not immediate, but we’re a rapidly growing area in a rapidly growing state, but we have counties in our region — Park and Teller — that aren’t growing as much. They have different needs from the more urbanized part of the region we deal with.

Looking at transportation and aging services, there will be a significant challenge. Long-term, to the year 2045, we’re going to grow more than 300,000 people. How do we move all these people around? That will be a phenomenal challenge. We need to plan for future transportation improvements but there’s also so much change and innovation right now. … How does that affect our transportation planning with things changing rapidly in 10 years? It’s kind of like the turn of the 19th into the 20th century when people were pulled around by horse and buggy. Then cars were thrown into the mix. It feels like that’s sort of what’s happening now in a different way.

Any other big challenges?

The aging population. We’ll continue to see the silver tsunami over the next couple decades. We have a fantastic model now as far as how we collaborate with our nonprofit community and how that augments the services we provide in our three-county area. For seniors, that can include training and raising awareness on Medicare and how to sign up for the right plan. We have case managers who provide assistance to seniors and informal caretakers for seniors. That population is growing by leaps and bounds, so maintaining and expanding those services will be a major challenge.

As for our military coordination, we will wrap up a joint land use study later this year. It touches on land use issues, transportation needs, safety issues — coming up with a set of recommendations to help strengthen the five military installations so we can be ready. But we also aim to balance other impacts, such as quality-of-life issues. We want to do what we can to be sure our military installations thrive here.

Beyond our main responsibilities, if our board thinks there are things we should be more involved with and that need’s not being met, we’ll put those into the mix. But we’re here to serve local jurisdictions — they could be as small as Ramah, Victor, Alma and Fairplay, but they all have a key seat at the table.

Are you bringing best practices from elsewhere?

One example could be creating a more robust transportation plan that analyzes our freight and goods movement into, through, and out of the region, which ties into our economic development needs as well. … We should also continue to refine and develop our technical tools. We can use those in partnership with a lot of different agencies and develop a land use and transportation model to look at future growth trends. … Right now we can take data and run forecasts as to what the region will look like in the future. But it’s something we could develop a little bit more and it could be a really good regional resource so people can see what we’ll look like over the next 20, 30, 40 years and how that ties in with infrastructure needs.

What are your goals this first year?

The big thing, and this has been going on before I got here, is to make sure the Interstate 25 Gap project is under construction and make sure we do anything we can as a region to move that along. That’s the No. 1 priority on the transportation side.

We’ll also, as a staff, look for ways to constantly innovate and collaborate. I don’t know what that looks like quite yet, but we’re growing so much that I want to look at new ways of doing things. I want to make sure we’re not becoming complacent.

Care to talk about your family?

I’m married to my wife Kandi, who is retired Air Force. … We’re just now getting acclimated to the altitude, but we like to do a lot of hiking and exploring different neighborhoods to see where we want to buy a house once we’ve sold our house in Maryland. We’re also getting used to the Colorado weather, which seems to change daily. We love it here.