History of the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission

Historical Sketch

Planning and Development Region IV

The Southwest Michigan Planning Commission (SWMPC) is one of 14 Regional Planning and Development Regions created in 1968 by Governor George Romney.  This step was taken in response to a growing number of federal programs (housing, water quality, economic development, and transportation) that recognized the area-wide nature of many problems.  The regional boundaries were established as a consistent geographic area upon which not only planning activities but also the delivery of services could be based. Berrien, Cass, and Van Buren Counties were established as "Planning and Development Region IV."

The Southwest Michigan Planning Commission was organized officially in 1973 by resolutions of the Boards of Commissioners of Berrien, Cass, and Van Buren Counties, but was not formally staffed until 1974. The organization was known as the Southwestern Michigan Regional Planning Commission. Prior to that, Berrien and Cass Counties were members of the Michiana Area Council of Governments, based in South Bend, and serving communities in both Michigan and Indiana at the time. Van Buren County had no regional affiliation.

The original board was made up of county commissioners and mayors. Over the years, additional representation has been added from townships and the general public with the intent of having a representation that reflects a variety of special interests, ethnic diversity, and that meets the District designation requirements of the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

SWMPC – Evolving to Meet Regional Needs

As the membership of the Board has evolved since 1974, so has the mix of programs offered by the Commission. Originally, SWMPC was conceived as an organization that would complete the planning documents necessary to retain the eligibility of Southwestern Michigan's communities for federal funding. The member communities worked together to develop sets of policies and procedures governing the location of sewer and water treatment systems, transportation facilities, publicly funded housing, comprehensive planning, and other related activities.

The Commission's second phase of evolution began in the late 1970s after the majority of policy planning documents had been developed. Although regional planning and development regions have no implementation powers, the Commission chose to move from the policy planning stage to the development of implementation plans. Specifically, this movement entailed building consensus among the area communities for specific projects, which would lead to the realization of the policies previously adopted. Among the products of the second phase process were the Criminal Justice Training Program, the activities of the Southwestern Michigan Business Promotion Program, the development of the Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council (now an independent organization), and the implementation of well-log mapping projects in the three counties.

At approximately the same time, a series of outside decisions began to have an impact on the provision of services in southwestern Michigan and elsewhere. As the late 1970s and early 1980s progressed, federal funding was reduced for several program areas. This reduction came at a time when inflation made the provision of services increasingly expensive and applied not only to planning activities but technical services as well. Thus, SWMPC took on several activities designed to lessen the impact of such funding reductions on Southwestern Michigan. These activities took several forms. A management agreement was begun with the Human Resources Commission in which the Commission provided staff services for administering substance abuse services programs. This was accomplished at a reduction of approximately 15 percent in administrative costs. At the same time, the Commission began seeking contracts to provide planning and management services to other agencies and units of government. Among these activities were the administration of coastal management grants and projects on behalf of Hagar Township, the City of Bridgman, and others; the provision of planning services to Berrien County Action, Inc.; and the staffing of the Southwestern Michigan Development Company, Inc.

It was during this period that Southwestern Michigan Regional Planning Commission voted to change its name to Southwestern Michigan Commission. This action was taken in recognition of the fact that the Commission had become less of a planning body and more of a management, administration, and contract agency.

The third evolution of the SWMPC came in 1982 when the Commission experienced a substantial downsizing. At this time, the organization returned to its role of planning and coordination. The late 1980s brought requests for assistance in grant writing, grant management, policy planning, and other similar activities to be conducted on behalf of agencies and local units of government. A "Local Technical Assistance Program" was formalized in 1987.

Another evolutionary phase has been the one reflecting the Age of Information and Technology, which has fostered the incorporation of computers and their applications in areas affecting the operations of the Commission. The collection of the substance abuse service provider's raw data was the first phase of computerization, followed by the accounting system. By the early 90s, every staff person was assigned a desktop computer. The necessary hardware and software to create maps via geographic information systems was obtained in 1990. Also during this time, the Commission became a designated Census Information Center. SWMPC established a library that included print as well as CD ROM material in response to providing information becoming a key role of the Commission.

The new millennium finds SWMPC in an age of collaboration and co-partnering brought on by shrinking resources and more need. The Commission co-sponsors workshops and is a participant in many discussion or work groups relating to various topics. The topics generally relate to the continuing program areas that the Commission undertakes such as transportation, economic development, land use/growth management, solid waste, and resource management. Essentially, this is an age of much greater demands on time while few new funding sources are available.

Within the last decade, the SWMPC underwent changes brought about by the implementation of a new transportation planning process and its emphasis on greater technical support. A strategy was developed to incorporate that support within the Information Center of the agency to efficiently serve all agency programs and outside users of our planning and information services. Eventually this information role led to the development of the website. An important role in writing and administering Community Development Block Grants also continues. New grant programs added in 2000 were the Rideshare Coordination Program and the US 31 Corridor Preservation Project. Rideshare continues and other transit projects have become part of overall efforts to benefit residents beyond the Metropolitan Planning Organizations.

Another name change occurred in January 2004 with the adoption of Southwest Michigan Planning Commission. However, the change was not fully implemented with a new logo, stationery, and website until April 2007.

Beyond our Borders

Watershed planning for the St. Joseph, Dowagiac, Galien and Paw Paw Rivers has led to collaboration with neighboring counties and national environmental organizations. Oversight of Heritage Routes US 12 and I-69 have been assigned to SWMPC as well as development of a nine county non-motorized map and plan. The Commission participates in Great Lakes watershed activities as well as economic and transportation endeavors of interstate interest.