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Alumna improves her hometown with engineering creativity

May 10, 2019
Story by
Kwame Manu
Echo Gates under a bridge
Civil engineer Echo Gates, is the force behind the design of Tallahassee's beloved Cascades Park. She's also an alumna of FAMU-FSU Engineering.

 

It isn’t uncommon to find individuals in a city striving to make a positive impact. However, what differentiates civil engineer Echo Gates from many is that her ideas are literally changing the landscape of her community and improving the quality of life in Tallahassee.

Since 2005, Gates worked as a project engineering for Genesis Group, a Tampa-based civil engineering firm that recently merged with Halff Associates of Richardson, Texas to form Genesis Halff. Genesis designs and builds projects for both public and private sector clients, specializing in projects relating to transportation, public and civic infrastructure, and community design. As Genesis’ associate vice president at its Tallahassee location, Gates oversees proposal preparation, civil design work, staff supervision and financial and business management. With her leadership, the Tallahassee team has created new roads, parks and much more throughout northwest Florida and southern Georgia.

Gates has 22 years of experience in construction management. After graduating from TCC in 1974, she began working for Bear Construction Company, a commercial general contractor. She then earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering in 1997 and 1999, respectively. For 16 years she built her resume, beginning in the Bureau of Beaches and Coastal Systems, a now-defunct division of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. As program administrator for the Coastal Data Acquisition Section, she was responsible for gathering and disseminating coastal data from all of Florida’s beaches. 

In 2015, the Florida Engineering Society named her the Big Bend Chapter’s Engineer of the Year.

Gates is the current chair of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering Civil and Environmental Engineering Advisory Board. She leads 11 other distinguished and proficient engineers that comprise the board, which plans for the needs of the university’s constituents. They help develop the department’s curriculum and assist in both student organizations and fundraising. The college ensures it is able to produce successful professionals by following the advice of Gates and the board.

Throughout Gates’ career as an engineer she has formed relationships with many engineers in Florida. J.W. Hunter, Jr., state president of the Florida Engineering Society and senior project engineer and area manager of Eisman & Russo, Inc., has been a colleague for over a decade. He is familiar with many of her projects around Florida and Georgia and speaks highly of Gates’ aptitude as an engineer.

“She has an excellent work ethic,” Hunter said. “Echo is a very well-rounded civil engineer. She also has experience in a lot of various disciplines within the field.”

Together, Gates and Hunter have worked on multiple projects in Tallahassee. One of their collaborations includes the 2013 restructure of Franklin Boulevard, a project that called for the scaling of the four-lane road down to two with an addition of bike lanes, a sidewalk and more, increasing pedestrian safety on the road.

As a Tallahassee native, virtually every project Gates works on in the city holds some personal interest. Gates is one of the moving hands that has been improving the consistently developing city for years. She has seen a lot of change within the city, starting from when the population was only 25,000. 

“It’s very personal because I’ve seen Tallahassee grow from being a small city to what it is now: a medium-sized city,” said Gates. “I’ve seen land change, I’ve seen property being developed, new roads in the area. It’s my hometown, so I do see a lot of change.”

With no environmental laws until the mid’70s, Gates remembers some of the rudimentary infrastructure of her childhood. There were no stormwater management systems, wide roads and low-rise buildings that never dared to reach over five stories. Her biggest concern in her work now is preserving the areas she develops. As an instrument of change, she is aware of the power she has and her effect on the planet.

One of the biggest projects Gates headed for Genesis was the creation of Cascades Park, a 24-acre recreation ground that serves as a place of leisure for the Tallahassee community. Originally conceived in 1971, the site was shut down after contaminated soil and buried toxic waste left from a gasification plant were discovered. After environmental remediation in 2006, the city wanted to revitalize its purpose once more. Blueprint 2000, an intergovernmental agency created by the City of Tallahassee and Leon County, partnered with Genesis to recreate the park. Funded by a penny sales tax, construction began in 2010 and finished mid-2014. Gates was designated as project engineer and co-project manager. She was on-site during the entire creation process, providing construction administration and engineering design.

The improved Cascades Park now boasts many new features including a 2.3-mile biking trail, a 3,000-seat amphitheater, timed fountain show, music-to-light programming, playground and Korean War memorial all in one downtown area. It quickly became a popular attraction and hosts families, joggers and visitors daily eager to enjoy the facilities. The park also doubles as a stormwater draining system. An underground network of channels, open streams and retention ponds catch rainwater and prevent flooding. 

“She gave a lot of attention to that project,” said Wayne Tedder, the City of Tallahassee assistant city manager, who oversaw the construction. “With her team’s efforts it has turned into a world-class park. She played a significant role in the design of the project and took care of the stormwater needs for our community first and foremost.”

A Love for Math – and the Ah-ha Moment 

Gates has always had an affinity for mathematics. Throughout her education, the higher the intensity of the math course, the more she enjoyed it. She finds great satisfaction in being able to problem solve and deal with real-world issues. As she tells it, she was convinced to pursue engineering one day at Bear Construction Company while she was speaking with an engineer. To estimate the price of a project, she needed information from a structural engineer. The engineer, however, left everything in her hands.

“It was at that moment that I said, ‘If I had the education, I could do this,’” she recalled. “I could design this and I could have an answer right here — I wouldn’t have to ask him.”
Her quest for self-reliance and knowledge led her to apply to FAMU-FSU Engineering in 1990, after she had married and had children. She would have pursued engineering sooner in life, but for a long time she did not know what an engineer was, not to mention the core qualifications of the job. Her father encouraged her brothers to pursue engineering, but neither did.

During her time at the college, Gates was invigorated by the learning environment. She was able to learn what she loved while being around others with the same level of interest for learning. 

“I was immersed in engineering for the first time in my life,” she said. “Every day that I went to class I just said, ‘Thank you God for giving me this opportunity.’ I had dropped out of school and then got an opportunity to go back and do something I was really interested in.”