Talking Shop with David Grimes, deputy director of the Southeast Missouri Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission

Monday, July 9, 2012
SEMO Regional Planning Commission’s David Grimes. (ADAM VOGLER)

David Grimes, deputy director of the Southeast Missouri Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission in Perryville, Mo., does a little bit of everything in his job, from transportation planning to environmental issues to homeland security. He loves researching new topics and says his job is the closest thing he can find to school while still getting paid. He began working with the planning commission in the early 1980s, and after many years away, he returned to the area and the commission. Today he works just a few inches from where he started with them years ago.

Q: How did your career evolve to get you to where you are today?

A: In 1980, as an unemployed history teacher with a master's degree, I was doing handyman work. I answered an advertisement in the Southeast Missourian for a regional planner. I had no idea what a regional planner might be but thought it sounded like indoor work with no heavy lifting. When I went for an interview, Tom Tucker, the executive director at the Southeast Missouri Regional Planning Commission at the time, said, "Let me tell you about the agency." He then spent about 20 minutes describing, in great detail, the "ideal job" that some friends of mine and I had dreamed up about three nights before. My only question was "when can I start?" I was with the agency for seven years when I figured it was time to move on. At that time the executive director had been there for about 17 years, the deputy director for about 15 years, and turnover rates suggested that I had gone about as far up that career ladder as I could. I had a new wife and thought it would be a good idea to have a fresh start. I accepted the position of executive director with the Southern Colorado Economic Development District in Pueblo, Colo. I was there for 12 years. I had been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, and since I have always been a bit of a gear head, I opened a small engine repair shop in Madison, Ind. I did that for five years and then worked for Lowe's for the next five. When my wife and I separated, I returned to my support system in Cape Girardeau. I was looking for a job and stopped by the Regional Planning Commission since I was in Perryville anyway. Talking to the folks up there, many of whom I still knew from my time with the agency, they mentioned that they might be hiring some planning staff. I left a resume. A couple of weeks later Chauncy Buchheit, the executive director now, called me in for an interview. He hired me, and now I am back.

Q: Describe the role of the commission in our community.

A: The Southeast Missouri Regional Planning Commission is, essentially, the locally owned planning agency. The commission is owned, lock, stock and barrel by the seven counties and 37 cities, towns and villages that are the members. We do such a wide range of things it is hard to know where to start. By way of planning, at any given time we will be working on city comprehensive plans, transportation plans, tax increment financing district plans, a clean air action plan, hazard mitigation plans, solid waste management plans and homeland security plans, just to mention those that spring to mind. Besides planning, we are the locally owned consulting firm. We prepare grant applications when our local governments have projects that need outside funding. We administer the grants when we get them. We work with one-time projects such as, for example, a recent project that is nearing completion where we worked with local governments and school districts to replace something on the order of 60,000 older fluorescent lamps with new, more energy-efficient lamps. We encourage our members to bring any question they have to us. Generally, if we do not have the answer, we can find it.

Q: You and your organization do a lot of work with grants. What are some things people misunderstand about seeking and receiving grants?

A: The most popular misconception is that the government gives grants to people. Outside of various social service programs, with very few and limited exceptions, there are no such grants. I do not care how many infomercials at 2 a.m. assure you that there are, there simply are not. We work primarily with local governments to prepare applications and then administer grant funds. Recently, for example, we prepared the grant application to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to help obtain some scrap tire-based soft material for a playground at Cape County Park.

Q: Your organization has been keeping a close eye on the area's ozone levels and watching out for potential restrictions that could come to the area if it's found in violation. How did you determine your organization needed to step up and take an active role in this?

A: In March 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released new standards for ground-level ozone. Before 2008 the standard had been 84 parts per billion. The new standard was set at 75. The county commission in Ste. Genevieve County was very much aware of this issue since they had been nearly designated as part of the St. Louis Nonattainment Area when the last round of review set the 84 parts-per-billion level. They contacted us and asked if we could help. The rest, as they say, is history. I was assigned as the lead planner on this project. The commission hosted meetings held by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources during their process to develop recommendations. My personal function was to get myself educated on this area, completely outside of my background, so that I could keep our folks informed on what was happening. During this process the Air Quality Committee developed, made up of interested persons from throughout the region. This committee is the best example I know of that "Public/Private" partnership that agencies always talk about. In this case, the membership is almost perfectly 50-50, public and private members. The private sector has shown support in the most direct way -- by providing the funding to cover expenses. The latest monitor readings, during the heat wave, have the Perry County monitor out of compliance and the Ste. Genevieve County monitor still in compliance but it has registered some individual readings that are not in compliance. This is a problem for the area since next year will be the normal review year for ground-level ozone standards. During a period in 2011 there was discussion of lowering the standard to "somewhere in the range of 60 to 70 parts per billion." My personal view is that this would be ridiculous. Regardless, though, even at the existing 75 parts-per-billion standard, with the Perry County monitor out of compliance it is a virtual certainty that at least Perry County will be designated as a nonattainment area. One of my jobs for the coming two years, then, is going to be damage control.

Q: What do you think makes the counties represented by the SEMO Regional Planning Commission a great place to live and work?

A: Like so many others, my initial lure to the area was the university. When I got out of the Air Force it was a school I could afford to attend. My intention was to be here for six years, I never really intended to finish up in four and then move on. I was here for 13 the first time and now I am back. For me it is the combination of people and the area. I enjoy the small towns and the people I deal with in them. I live in Cape Girardeau and still enjoy the place. I'm a Colorado boy and for me, even after all of these years, a river that I cannot reach across is fascinating. Just a couple of weeks ago we did a family outing in Illinois and I took the Ste. Genevieve ferry across the river coming back. One of those little adventures that seem to be around any corner.

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