Leonard Bentz has been in the headlines of late after it was announced he is leaving the Mississippi Public Service Commission to head up the Southern Mississippi Planning and Development District, one of the 10 planning and development districts (PDDs) in Mississippi.
So, what exactly is a PDD? Turns out, there is no simple answer.
“There are a few things all PDDs do, but most of what we offer is dictated by the area’s needs,” said Randy Kelley, executive director of the Three Rivers PDD in Pontotoc whose service area stretches across eight counties in North Mississippi.
“We serve at the will and pleasure of our local governments.”
PPDs in Mississippi trace all the way back to the 1960s. They were created to work with and support local economic and community development efforts, addressing issues and challenges that many times overlap political boundaries.
The nature of their work — largely behind the scenes — is a factor in the public’s lack of awareness of PDDs and the roles they play.
“We are not out front,” said F. Clarke Holmes, CEO of the Central Mississippi Planning and Development District. “We are the support group.”
Each of the PDDs is governed by a board of directors and managed by an executive director. They are staffed with administrative personnel and specialists in areas such as planning, economic development, community development, job training, social services, transportation, data processing, gerontology, and community-based Medicaid programs.
In short, PDDs provide support services to area governments, offering them resources they do not have in-house, and coordinating and managing regional projects that reach across multiple communities and jurisdictions.
For instance, Three Rivers PDD spearheaded the PUL Alliance that landed Toyota in Blue Springs, and it is managing the 44-mile Tanglefoot Trail project.
“One minute I might be working on a major industrial project, and the next I’m talking with some of my team members about getting a grant for a town that needs new police cars,” Kelley said.
Three Rivers’ services show the spectrum of PDDs work. It is heavy into landfill management and financial software packages, and offers a free severe weather warning service called CodeRED in addition to common PDD offerings such as loan and grant assistance and Medicaid waivers.
The more urban Central Mississippi PDD, for comparison, is more heavily involved in planning, houses and manages the Mississippi Association of Planning & Development Districts.
However, PDDs continue to evolve, providing services such as geographic information systems and other high-tech offerings.
Clarke Holmes has seen most of these changes. He has been with Central Mississippi PDD, which serves seven counties, for approximately 40 years. He lists numerous challenges that he faces as CEO of the organization, the top being federal regulations and the bureaucracy in Washington.
“It has become a burden to local economic development efforts,” Holmes said.
He added that this is especially problematic for PDDs as they rely on the contracts they land, some with federal agencies, to fund their efforts. The competition for those federal contracts is fierce, and obtaining them essential.
As example, Kelley at Three Rivers PDD has a staff of 75, but the organization only collects 172,000 annually in dues from its client-members. The rest is generated by the organization from contracts and other outside funding.
And, Kelley, Holmes and other PDD leaders also face stringent audits and held accountable for their funding. In addition to local and state audits, it is not uncommon to have a federal inspector general drop in for a review.
So, why would Bentz want to leave the Mississippi Public Service Commission? Sharon Gardner, executive director of the Northeast Mississippi PDD, said it is the building of partnerships and the opportunity to actually see the results of her staff’s work that keeps her in the Booneville-based PDD.
Still, the work is demanding, and while recent news stories have highlighted the six-digit salary awaiting Bentz at Southern Mississippi PDD, Kelley said he will earn it.
“I’m excited that Bentz is coming. I don’t know him, but I understand he’s a sharp guy,” Kelley said. “I love what I do, but it is competitive. It’s simple — you either produce, or you’re gone.”
>>Mississippi Planning and Development Districts
Organization, Address, Phone, Website
Central Mississippi PDD 1170 Lakeland Dr., Jackson, MS 39236-4935 (601) 981-1511 www.cmpdd.org
East Central Mississippi PDD 280 Commercial Drive, Newton, MS 39345 (601) 683-2007 NA
Golden Triangle PDD 106 Miley Dr., Starkville, MS 39759 (662) 324-7860 www.gtpdd.org (under construction)
North Central PDD 711 South Applegate, Winona, MS 38967 (662) 283-2675 www.ncpdd.org (under construction)
North Delta PDD 220 Power Dr., Batesville, MS 38606 (662) 561-4100 www.ndpdd.com
Northeast Mississippi PDD 619 East Parker Dr., Booneville, MS 38829 (662) 728-6248 www.nempdd.com
South Delta PDD 124 S. Broadway St., Greenville, MS 38702-1776 (662) 378-3831 www.southdeltapdd.com
Southern Mississippi PDD 9229 Hwy. 49, Gulfport, MS 39503 (228) 868-2311 www.smpdd.com
Southwest Mississippi PDD 100 S. Wall St., Natchez, MS 39120 (601) 446-6044 www.smpdd.com
Three Rivers PDD 75 S. Main St., Pontotoc, MS 38863 (662) 489-2415 www.trpdd.com
Note: Source for the list is the Mississippi Association of Planning and Development Districts. Southern Mississippi PDD has a Hattiesburg office — the 700 Hardy St., Hattiesburg, MS 39401, and the phone is (601) 545-2137. Please direct questions and comments to Wally Northway at email@example.com.