Development districts are regional planning and economic organizations owned and operated by the cities and counties of Tennessee. The nine development districts were established by the general assembly under the Tennessee Development District Act of 1965. The act was intended to provide the most effective and efficient means for cities and counties to organize to carry out general planning and economic development, as well as make the best use of federal, state, and other programs designed to stimulate economic development. The actual planning implementation was left to the local and state governments. In other states, development districts may be called regional councils, regional planning councils, or commissions, but approximately 95 percent of these multi-county regional planning agencies operate with similar structures to that of the Tennessee districts. The First Tennessee Development District in East Tennessee was the first to form under this law.
Each development district has a board of directors composed of county executives, mayors, the chief executive of any metropolitan government (such as Nashville/Davidson County), an industrial representative from each county, and one state senator and one state representative from each development district. Funding sources include dues paid by member governments, federal- and state-funded contracts, and an annual appropriation by the general assembly.
The development districts have always served as neutral meeting places for diverse interests within each district. In the 1960s many federal programs required coordination between two or more local governments. Today, the districts maintain a strong role in the coordination and communication among local governments and state and federal agencies. Local governments initially needed assistance in carrying out federal grant requirements in grant administration and accounting. Now, because the districts are required to adopt uniform accounting systems and are bonded, the organizational structure required for many programs is already in place and administration can easily be performed.
Differences in programs and services provided by each district exist primarily in response to the differing priorities of each board and the differences in resources in each area. Many functions have changed over the years as requirements for federal and state programs have changed.
The economic development staff of each district carries out many tasks originally envisioned by state enabling legislation. These include providing assistance to local governments in applying for and administering state and federal grants for infrastructure improvements such as water, sewer, roads, rail, housing, and community livability using the Tennessee Industrial Infrastructure Program (TIIP) and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). These programs are available through the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. The districts prepare and maintain long-range plans, strategies and policies for regional development including transportation; water and wastewater infrastructure; water and air quality; solid waste management; and open space and recreation planning.
Seven of the districts serve the elderly as Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs). These AAAs administer, monitor, and evaluate services to older people. State and federal funds support programs such as nutrition senior centers, home delivery of meals, transportation services, legal services, elder abuse programs, and the public guardianship for the elderly.
All development districts contract with the Tennessee Department of Housing Development (THDA) to provide housing technical assistance and data. The districts also prepare applications for Parks and Recreation grants administered through the Department of Environment and Conservation. All districts are official sub-state data centers for U.S. Census information, serve as regional review clearinghouses for federal loans and grants, and provide technical assistance to member governments and other state coordinating agencies.
Five development districts are Certified Development Corporations (CDCs) through the Small Business Administration (SBA) to make 504 small business loans in partnership with private lending institutions. Seven districts administer Revolving Loan Funds (RLFs) for small business loans through the Economic Development Administration with 50 percent matching funds from other state sources and the Rural Development Intermediary Relending Program (IRP). Districts also support economic development and orderly growth through promoting tourism, supporting 911 Enhanced Emergency Telephone Systems, providing transportation for special populations, and supplying technical assistance to local industries and businesses, including short line railroads.
Tennessee Development District Association FY 1996 Annual Report (1997); Frank S. So, Irving Hand, and Bruce D. McDowell, eds., The Practice of State and Regional Planning (1986)