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Call it serendipity — Salt Lake City and Eric Shaw found each other.

The 37-year-old California native, who earned degrees at UCLA and Harvard in planning, is Salt Lake City's new director of community and economic development.

But Utah's capital was not a place in which Shaw, who has most recently been involved in planning in Louisiana, had much interest.

"I came in June for a conference and [City Council Chairman] Soren Simonsen and [former city planning director] Stephen Goldsmith and Mayor [Ralph] Becker took me around," he said. "It was like, 'Wow, this place is actually nice.' I hadn't really thought much about it before."

Simonsen and Becker also are planners, and Shaw said he was impressed by the progressive initiatives at City Hall.

"What's so exciting about here is the city is doing so many innovative things," he said, referring to the emphasis on such things as walkability, equality and sustainability.

Shaw comes to Salt Lake City from the Foundation for Louisiana, where he was vice president of programs and policy. He also was director of community planning for the Louisiana Recovery Authority in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

In addition, Shaw has held planning positions in San Jose, Calif., and Washington, D.C. He replaces Frank Gray, who recently retired.

The Becker administration is "excited" to have Shaw on board, said the mayor's chief of staff, David Everitt.

"He brings a unique combination," Everitt said, "of a strong planning background and a lot of experience working with community groups that can really help us in Salt Lake City."

Shaw now oversees some 200 employees at City Hall in arts, planning, transportation, engineering, building services and economic development.

In an interview, he said he will approach issues on a citywide basis involving all departments to get the biggest impact for every dollar spent.

"If you're thinking citywide, you're thinking shared resources," he said. "We have to ask, 'For every dollar spent, are we improving quality of life, quality of space and quality of community?' "

Among Shaw's interests is community building. Simonsen said that expertise "will help the city do things we haven't been able to do in the past, like engaging immigrants that have been underrepresented."

Councilman Kyle LaMalfa, who is chairman of the Redevelopment Agency Board, said Shaw is energetic and ambitious.

"Eric Shaw has been in cities that have seen transformation take place," he said, referring to New Orleans and Washington, D.C. "I'm looking forward to integrating planning with Eric Shaw and the RDA."

The new community and economic development director said an important part of community building is empowering citizens to become "cultural entrepreneurs" — that is, to make their ideas become reality.

"We are going to make it as easy and open as possible so you can participate," he said. "It's about you and your neighborhood."

And while it's important to emphasize neighborhoods, Shaw said, it's also critical to realize that the city is made up of a collection of neighborhoods.

One of the questions he would ask residents is: "How do you see your neighborhood fitting into the city?"

Shaw sees a vibrant future for Salt Lake City.

"All the elements are intact here," he said. "I think part of the excitement on a day-to-day level is affirming how good it is here. Now, I'm going to be an ambassador."

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