Brian Usher is public works director of rapidly growing Zion, Ill., where more than 600 homes are projected to be built over the next three years. Photo: City of Zion

In the ever-expanding Chicago region, Zion, Ill., is the last open space on Lake Michigan's north shore before reaching Wisconsin, but the town is expanding rapidly. Brian Usher has spent the past five years as Zion's public works director striving to control and accommodate the rapid growth.

Usher never intended to go into public works. “It just kind of happened,” he said. As a teenager and during college, Usher worked at a park district to earn some extra money. With a college background in criminal justice, Usher could not find a full-time police or fire job. He accepted a position with the Itasca, Ill., public works department as a maintenance laborer and decided to stay in the field. He held increasingly responsible positions as street superintendent in Glendale Heights and maintenance superintendent in Arlington Heights.

Usher moved on to Zion in 2000 to help manage the impact of the population boom. Zion established a pre-development team representing public works, community development, building and zoning, and the fire department.

The team meets regularly to discuss proposed developments in town. Its principal role is to help guide the community's development efforts and it meets with every developer wishing to build in the city. The “one-stop” process allows the city to provide coordinated information to the developer/builder. This has reduced the time spent by developers on follow-up questions and the time city staff spends on plan reviews and construction inspection. Additionally, the team advises the city council on other issues impacting development opportunities in the city.

“We are revising the city's comprehensive plan, which reflects the changing demographics and interests of the community as a whole,” said Usher. The plan identifies future land uses the city wishes to implement. The pending revisions would address increased emphasis on commercial and industrial development, institutional zoning, and clearer zoning classification.

Despite a population of 25,000, Zion has not lost its small-town atmosphere. Much of the population can still trace family roots back to the original founders of Zion in 1901. “It is very enjoyable to work here because the community buys into things and really is supportive of attempts to keep the community moving forward,” said Usher.

The largest issue today is money and funding, said Usher. He tries to work in a participative style of management and supervision. “I am painfully aware that I don't have all the answers, but I feel that one of my strengths is that I have a good sense of where to find the answers or who to go to find them,” said Usher.