GeoInspirations: Brett Lucas - Many Hats, Single Focus

By Joseph J. Kerski

Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today, our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features Brett Lucas, who wears many hats but is focused, in all of his roles, on promoting and supporting wise decision-making from a geographic perspective with GIS tools.

I met Brett Lucas at the Applied Geography Conference about 10 years ago and have worked with him in panel sessions at this and other events that explain and promote the use of GIS with business faculty. Over the years, we have enjoyed sharing photographs of cultural and physical geography from our work travels. Since I met him, I have marveled at not only the many roles Brett has, but, also at how his work in all of these roles is of the highest quality and performed with the sincerest earnestness. While collaborating with him, it quickly became apparent that he is a leader in our community. Therefore, it is my great pleasure to introduce Brett Lucas to Directions Magazine readers and, through his story, inspire you to make a positive difference in our world — no matter what hats you may wear!

Bret Lucas (Photo courtesy Bret Lucas)

Brett’s primary role is that of senior planner for the City of Cheney, Washington, home of Eastern Washington University. “As the city planner, I am in charge of development review (subdivisions and land use applications), long-range planning (Comprehensive Plan and demographic forecasting), and economic development,” Brett told me. “All of these tasks draw on my knowledge and understanding of physical, economic, and human geography. I have worked on all types of commercial projects, from a new McDonalds to a new JCPenney or a Walmart Supercenter. The most rewarding aspect of the planning profession is the opportunity to see a new project come in on paper and then come to fruition, and asking whether the built project resembles what it looked like on the plans. One the biggest challenges as a city or urban planner is the ability to deal with the local politics of planning and land use in general. All planning is political; however, a skill set most planners often learn on the job is the ability to be a consensus builder and find solutions that satisfy a majority of the stakeholders.”

“When I started work as a planner for Alameda County, California in 1999, I decided that getting a master’s degree was worthwhile,” Brett continued. “I also had some graduate credits from Oregon State University that were close to expiring (being applied to a master’s) so I had to move faster on a graduate degree. I vacillated between doing a master’s in urban and regional planning or geography. I chose geography, as that is where my heart is. With a master’s degree in geography, I still kept the door open for jobs in the planning profession, as almost all planning job descriptions allow a geography degree to suffice for a planning degree. I completed my master’s in geography in 2005 from [California] State East Bay. I am a member of the American Planning Association.”

“In addition, my teaching experience includes an adjunct geography instructor [position] with American Public University and Eastern Washington University. At APU, I teach online sections of World Regional Geography and Human Ecology. Here I have an opportunity to interact with students who are stationed in the military all over the world. At EWU, I served as an adjunct geography instructor where I taught Business GIS. This was an opportunity to interact with students in an effort to see geography applied in a business/retail/real estate setting.”

“I also own and operate a GIS consulting firm, Cardinal Geographics,” Brett said. “Here, I focus on geospatial and locational intelligence analysis for real estate and business clients. Location intelligence is the combination of spatial data (captured via GIS) and business data to gain insight into a specific organization and enhance business operations. Furthermore, I serve as vice-chair of the Business Geography Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers.  The purpose of the specialty group is to bring together individuals (academics and practitioners) who have mutual professional interests in business geography specifically and locational intelligence more widely.”  

As an example of Brett’s innovative work, his map(above) showing his analysis of the Super Regional Malls Trade Area Draw in Southeast Pennsylvania.

I asked Brett to name the most important thing that convinced him to enter his field. He replied: “I have always been interested in geography, ever since I was a child. In my youth, family vacations to many of the national parks west of the Rockies inspired my interest in geography and, more specifically, physical geography. In a roundabout way my parents inspired my interest, even though they never focused on it. I was fascinated by maps, hence my interest in cartography. When I was 12 or so I received a used copy of the "Atlas of California” by Michael W. Donley, which exposed me to the world of thematic mapping. Up until that point I thought AAA road maps were all that existed. It was not until I was in high school that I heard one could major in geography in college. I went to Oregon State University and received a B.S. in geography, focusing on geographic techniques and physical geography. Later, I went on to get a M.A. in geography focusing on economic and transportation geography from [California] State East Bay in Hayward, California.”

I also asked Brett to name the person, class, or topic that most inspired him during his career.  He replied: “As an undergraduate I was inspired by Dr. Philip Jackson and Dr. A. Jon Kimerling at Oregon State. Both of them opened my eyes to the intertwined connections between land use and physical geography, as well as the many unique applications of thematic cartography. In my professional life, I have been inspired by many mentors, including Dr. Murray Rice, Dr. Ken Smith, and Larry Carlson. These fine geographers have provided me guidance on how aspects of business geography can be applied to a multitude of real world settings.”

Since Brett has been involved in so many, and such a wide variety of projects, I asked him to name the one of which he is proudest. “While I have been a part of numerous projects, one of the projects that I enjoyed the most was a market analysis report for a store relocation of Dillard’s from Midway Mall to a site on US-75 in Sherman, Texas,” he said. “What was interesting about this project is that it allowed me to work on a project in a region I was not intimately familiar with, both geographically and economically. The project included an analysis of the retail supply and demand, business mix and psychographics (the study and classification of people according to their attitudes, aspirations, and other psychological criteria, especially in market research) using a variety of GIS software. The result showed enough capacity for Dillard’s to remain in the region (same trade area) along with complementary apparel retailers (i.e. Ann Taylor, Chico’s etc.).”

“Many people have asked me, ‘How did I get involved in location analytics?’ Being a planner, I’m often involved in economic development. Years ago, I worked on a project for a new McDonald’s restaurant in Vancouver, Washington. While working on land use review for a fast food restaurant was nothing new, a question that came up at a meeting was: ‘What is the customer base or trade area of the restaurant?’  My answer at the time was, ‘I have no idea.’ That then sparked my interest in how GIS could be used in answering that question. I then saw some YouTube videos that Dr. Grant Thrall had put together on location intelligence for the University of Florida business geography courses he was teaching, and that further sparked my interest. Most of my experience in locational analytics has been through my own research and readings, as well as developing professional relationships with colleagues through AAG and AGC.”

“As a geographer, I have always enjoyed traveling and expanding my curiosity through road trips. I can remember as a young kid going on family vacations throughout the West and noticed that different commercial gas stations were in in different regions of the country. Why wasn’t Conoco or Sinclair in my home state of California? I then started reading some of the works of Dr. John Jakle, and many of those curiosities along the roadside started to be answered. I have also been an avid train buff, so I have had a soft spot for railroad depots and the significance they played in the development of small towns throughout America. That has since dovetailed into retailing and the downtown department store,” Brett said.

“A project that I am currently working on is for the JCPenney special collections at Southern Methodist University. This is a long-term project that involves cataloging all of the 1970-71 JCPenney company store sheets (approximately 3,000 locations) including geocoding each location. The purpose of this project is to better understand the devolution of downtown department store retailing and the transition to the suburban shopping mall.”

Brett had some recommendations for the geography and GIS community: “I think there are two avenues of opportunity for the geography, planning, and GIS community. The first opportunity is to get spatial thinking and GIS incorporated into the K-12 curriculum. As we continue to become a more interconnected community, spatial thinking skills are even more important. In higher education, I would like to see more of an application-based approach of how geography can be used in solving real world problems. Focus more on using geography and less on teaching geography.”

What is Brett’s advice to a new geographer or geospatial professional?

“As the city planner for Cheney, I often have the opportunity to mentor EWU geography and urban planning students. Depending on the student’s area of focus, I always recommend that the student consider a minor in another field such as business or economics to round out his or her education. Often when taking a minor, one will see an opportunity where geographic or spatial solutions can be employed.”

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