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photo of Mike FortnerMike Fortner, AICP

Through IPA, former Peace Corps volunteer found his vocation as a city planner

Unlike many of his classmates, Mike Fortner (MPA ’02) came to IPA with a rich background in volunteerism and community development. His master’s program internship experience directly led him to his vocation as a planner for the City of Newark, Del.

Fortner began working for Newark even before he had finished his Master of Public Administration degree. He describes the opportunity that presented itself.

“I started working for the City of Newark’s Planning Department during my summer internship with the MPA program and continued to work here during my graduate assistantship in the fall of 2001,” Fortner explains.  That semester, the position of Planner became available; he applied, was offered the position, and started the job in January 2002.  “It was in my final semester in the MPA program, and I only needed to take one more class, which I took at night, and finish my [analytical paper] in order to graduate in the spring.”

After graduating from the University of Delaware’s MPA program, Fortner continued his education by preparing for, and passing, a rigorous exam to qualify as a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP).

While his position hasn’t changed, the scope of his responsibilities has certainly broadened since then. 

“For example,” Fortner says, ”two years ago, I took over the staff administration of the Downtown Design Committee, an advisory committee to the Newark Planning Commission, which reviews the façades of new developments and rehabilitations to buildings downtown, as well as promotes a pedestrian-friendly downtown. Also, I have taken on more responsibilities by doing more site-plan reviews and have been using ArcGIS to make custom maps for public information purposes and help modernize the city’s mapping records.”

Fortner is stimulated by his current position and is always trying to learn more and broaden his reach as a planning professional, though he admits that working for a smaller city like Newark can be somewhat of a double-edged sword.

“One of the main challenges in working for a municipality is the many hats—as the cliché goes—I get to wear on my job,” Fortner says. “If I worked for a larger government agency, I would probably be more specialized in one aspect of planning.  But in my position, I need to have knowledge in a broad range of planning specializations including housing, community development, land use, urban design, transportation, economic development, and geographic information systems/map-making.” 

While this definitely keeps his job interesting and makes him feel that he is continuing to grow professionally, Fortner admits, “The downside is that I sometimes feel spread thin.”

Fortner’s primary responsibility is to administer the Newark’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program—an annual federal grant of approximately $320,000 to use for programs or projects that primarily benefit Newark households earning below 80 percent or the area median income—and the its Revenue Sharing Program—an annual grant of about $60,000 from its general fund that assists area nonprofits in providing services that benefit Newark residents. 

Administering the CDBG program involves working with an appointed Citizen’s Advisory Committee that reviews dozens of applications for funding from area nonprofits and community groups and develops a recommendation to City Council on the use of available funds.  In addition to the City’s CDBG program, Fortner administers a home-ownership program for income-qualified first-time homebuyers, and home-rehabilitation and -weatherization programs for Newark homeowners.

Fortner also provides staff support to other advisory committees such as the Newark Bicycle Committee, and the Newark Transit Subcommittee. He serves on the Wilmington Area Planning Council’s Technical Advisory Committee and as a board member of the Delaware Chapter of the National Association of Housing and Rehabilitation Officials and is the city’s liaison to the U.S. Census Bureau.

On the up side, Fortner likes the broad scope of the work he gets to do with the city.  “My boss gives me a lot of flexibility to take on projects that interest me,” Fortner says. “For example, I am interested in pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly community design, so I am able to take on an active role with the Downtown Design Committee and the Newark Bicycle Committee, which actively promote these objectives.”  He also relishes the direct contact he has with the public. 

“Through public meetings and the general accessibility of local government offices, I am able to work directly with constituents and see firsthand the results of my work,” Fortner says. In a larger city he might not have been able to reach out as much.

Fortner reminisces about his mid-career educational experience at the University of Delaware.

“The most valuable thing about working for IPA was the connections I made with people working in the public administration field.  As a student and a new resident of Delaware, I got to meet and work with many leading professionals in state and local government.  Those contacts gave me several opportunities for summer internships and got me connected with the government agency that helped me obtain my current job.  In addition, many of the students I went to class with also went on to have careers locally, and I’ve remained in contact with some of them.”

Fortner went on to cite some of the courses that made a difference for him.

“Many of the courses I took in the MPA program were invaluable, especially Management Decision Making, Strategic Planning and Program Evaluation, and Economics.  I still consult my textbooks from those classes for reference.”  

Fortner than adds, “Of course, my IPA assistantship and summer internship with the City of Newark Planning Department directly led to the position I have today.  And my analytical paper was my first introduction to city planning, as it involved developing and using a series of analytical tools to evaluate the parking supply for downtown Newark.”

Prior to his coming to the University of Delaware for his master's work, Fortner, a native of Effingham, Ill., received a BA in political science at the University of Cincinnati in 1992.  He then served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, West Africa, working as part of an international campaign to eradicate Guinea worm disease.  After the Peace Corps, he moved to Washington, D.C., and worked as a team leader supervising a team of AmeriCorps*National Civilian Community Corps members involved in community-development projects. He then worked for the Arc of DC as an employment specialist, helping adults with developmental disabilities find employment and providing support services.

Fortner’s many interests include running and writing. He recently authored his first book titled Greetings from Jungleland.  It is a memoir based on the two-and-a-half years he lived in Togo, West Africa, while working as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Fortner describes the book:

book cover of Greetings from Jungleland“The book is about being sent to live and work in a small, remote, village named Komlakopé and being immersed in a new culture and language while trying to do community development work.  I was 24 years old and felt completely overwhelmed, but I made a small, but loyal, circle of friends that helped me through the various cultural, language, and development barriers.  The small village included a variety of people—peasant farmers, voodoo priests, village chiefs, expats, missionaries, gendarms, public servants—and even monkeys and goats, all of which provide much of the book’s heart and humor.” 

Fortner’s book also includes such rich personal tales as riding in a bush taxi with a corpse, meeting and shaking hands with Togo’s ruthless military dictator (the late Gnassingbé Eyadéma), witnessing and participating in voodoo ceremonies, and traveling across the Sahara by train.

“All royalties from sales of the book,” Fortner says, “will go to Friends of Togo, an organization of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers that funds community-development projects like the ones described in the book.”

Fortner talked about his professional aspirations. “My plans are to continue to grow professionally in my current field.  I don’t think I will ever run out of things to learn about city planning,” he says. 

As an AICP member, Fortner is required to take 32 hours of certified training every two years to stay up-to-date in the field, a bar that he readily clears.  He adds, “My goal is to continue to learn, become more competent in using GIS technology, and take on greater responsibilities.”

Fortner resides in Perryville, Md., with his wife, Shannon, stepson, Patrick (15), and son, James (3).  He has become involved within the Perryville community by having been appointed to its Planning and Zoning Commission and then, about a year ago, as the commission’s chairperson.

In November 2009, Fortner completed his first marathon (Philadelphia Marathon) after nearly a year of training. It offered him a unique view of the city, which was not lost on him from a professional standpoint. He says, “It was thrilling to be able to run through the urban streets past many of the historic landmarks and sites that make Philadelphia a wonderful place—and have thousands of people cheering!”

Likewise, IPA applauds this hard-working alum.

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