Alumni Voice: Brooke Thomas
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR CAREER TRAJECTORY?
I’d have to go all the way back to the two summer internships I held between my third and fourth years at Ball State, both of which were under the guidance and supervision of Ball State alumni. That summer was split between an internship with a privately-held land development company and another with a private engineering firm. The projects and tasks I worked on that summer were equal-parts, “we have an actual deadline and a deliverable to produce” and “make of this what you will.” There was a housing assessment, parking regulations, architectural review and approvals, and lots of updates to past analyses using the newly released decennial U.S. Census data. I was exposed to both a typical satellite, consulting office environment and a gated, country club environment.
Fast forward another year when I was invited to work for the engineering firm as a full-time, entry-level planner in their corporate headquarters location where I would soon become the only professional planner on staff, albeit one with little to no real experience to put down when competing on job proposals. One of the vice principles who was leading the firm’s environmental engineering practice at that time brought me under his team where I would go on to lead in the creation of several chapters of five different storm water quality management plans and ultimately as editor-in-chief for each of the five plans in their entirety.
My “trajectory” was set. Over the next 20 years I’d answer several more calls from other Ball State alumni wanting to know if I would join their team or if I’d consider taking on large or atypical projects of some kind or another. The last “call” I took brought me to where I am today as the Director of Strategic Planning for the Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation, better known as IndyGo, in Indianapolis. I’ve worked for a couple engineering firms over the years whose clients ranged from municipal and county governments and a board of aviation commissioners to military bases and large-scale redevelopment commissions with mega sites. I also found opportunities to work in the public and not-for-profit sectors to stand up and lead transformational land use and zoning projects. I’d like to one day circle back around to work for a developer, or master developer.
WHAT DOES YOUR CURRENT JOB ENTAIL?
It’s a pretty exciting time - still - to be at IndyGo. We’re still in the process of implementing the redesign of our entire bus network, which includes the introduction of bus rapid transit service to the Central Indiana region. We’re modernizing our fare collection system with the hopes of making paying to ride public transit more equitable and more convenient at the same time. We’re establishing a roadmap for introducing trip planning and fare payment integration across modes (e.g. bus, bike share, microtransit and regional workforce connectors) and transportation providers a reality. We’re also working to strengthen the land use and transportation connection by playing a key role in local policy and decision-making surrounding transit-oriented and transit-supportive development and calling attention to development proposals that are simply transit-adjacent.
My current job is one where I get to lead or otherwise work with some pretty incredible team members, professionals with skills I’ll never possess and who have made me a better planner because of what they can do. I’m fortunate yet again to have the opportunity to help lead several flagship planning projects; the one notable difference this time around is that I’m no longer two or three times removed from the people’s lives that this work will impact. The benefits and the outcomes are much more evident. Palpable even.
WHAT’S ONE PROJECT THAT YOU WORKED ON THAT WOULDN’T BE A “TYPICAL” PROJECT THAT A PLANNER WOULD BE INVOLVED IN?
The consulting firm I was with at the time was under contract with government officials in White County, Indiana, to prepare the first Wind Energy Conversion Systems Siting Regulations Ordinance. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, wind energy ordinances adopted by counties, towns, and other types of municipalities are one of the best ways for local governments to identify conditions and priorities for all types of wind development. These ordinances regulate aspects of wind projects such as their location, permitting process, and construction. Key components of these types of ordinances are identifying where commercial, non-commercial, and micro WECS can go and where they can’t. How tall they can be. How far back each one of them needs to be from a home, a road, and even another wind turbine. What to do if overhead wiring is needed, and which types of equipment need to be considered, such as controls and breaks, or climb prevention. When it comes to public health, safety, and welfare, something as simple as the color or the finishes of structures like these tends to matter. Finishes need to be non-reflective and the regulation of the color helps to ensure that the sky doesn’t become littered with these really large advertisements.
White County’s first commercial wind farm was the first for the state of Indiana overall. Their WECS ordinance has been updated over the years and has been replicated by others to regulate the siting of wind energy systems in Indiana and elsewhere across the country. So the next time you find yourself traveling along I-65 in northwest Indiana, know that planning played a significant role in determining where each wind turbine went.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE BALL STATE OR CAP MEMORY TO SHARE?
Here’s one I hope makes other alumni smile as they recall their own personal experience. The details have gotten fuzzy over the years, but we were on a field troop to Boston. We were only part way through our day. We’d just popped up out of the subway when a classmate walked up to Dr. Francis Parker. The student made Dr. Parker pause long enough to make eye contact with her before telling him not to leave, that she needed to use the restroom. To which he replied “okay, I won’t.” Fast forward to sometime later and, having speed-walked just to try and keep up with Dr. Parker another classmate casually says, “hey, where is [insert the now missing student’s last name here].”
I’ll never forget the look on the poor man’s face! He quickly offloaded all of us onto the other chaperones and - as if he’d just been strolling along before - took off to retrace our steps as best, and as fast, as he could. He never did catch up with her, but she ended up exploring the city and seeing many of the same sights as we did that day. It’s something we never let him live down, and something that would always draw a huge smile out of him anytime we brought it back up.
CAP was a pretty special place with some pretty special people back when. If you’re a past alumni like me, I imagine it was for you, too. If you’re a current or prospective student, I can only hope you have your very own Dr. Parker and some pretty incredible classmates as well.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR STUDENTS WHO WANT A CAREER SIMILAR TO YOURS?
Go on every field trip you can. Value the time and energy and dedication that your professors have to offer. Never underestimate the value of getting and staying connected with other planning professionals. Know that this career path can take you just about anywhere you want to go. My graduating class of 12 (I think) - we are or have been city planners, town managers, consultants, educators, economists, realtors, elected and appointed officials, entrepreneurs, developers, practicing attorneys, humanitarian aides, and more. Those who are working outside of this profession are also crazy good problems solvers in their chosen fields. It’s what we planners do best!