His grandmother couldn't quite grasp what Chester R. Jourdan Jr. did for a living.

His grandmother couldn't quite grasp what Chester R. Jourdan Jr. did for a living.

"You go to meetings; you talk to people, but what is it you make?" she'd ask.

As it was back in Texas, so it is today in central Ohio for Jourdan, executive director since December 2006 of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.

"There's not a good 30-second elevator speech to explain what we do," he said in a recent interview.

In simple terms, Jourdan said, it's a little like the old ad campaign for the chemical company BASF, the one that used the tag line, "We don't make a lot of the products you buy; we make a lot of the products you buy better."

Regional planners don't deliver the services people expect from their local government; they try to make the delivery of those services more efficient, Jourdan explained.

Regional planning commissions, of which there are only about 500 in the United States, are at once nonprofit organizations and state and federal agencies, the MORPC executive director said.

Jourdan grew up in the small East Texas town of Jasper. His father, now retired, worked for a sawmill company for 33 years. His mother is preparing to retire from a job as bookkeeper for a retail store.

Jourdan is the first generation of his family to graduate from college, but he did two things right out of high school that delayed his pursuit of a degree: he got married and he joined the U.S. Army. It was during a peacekeeping mission in the Middle East, Jourdan said, that his eyes were opened to the truly significant role politics plays in human affairs.

Jourdan majored in political science and economics at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas, completing his undergraduate degree in two and a half years.

He intended to go to law school, but after being accepted into the graduate program at the University of Texas at Arlington, Jourdan landed an internship with the U.S. Department of Transportation. The internship eventually turned into a full-time job, briefly in Fort Worth and then in Atlanta and then in Washington, D.C. The Jourdans have also spent time in Kentucky and North Carolina.

In 2000, Jourdan became executive director of the South East Texas Regional Planning Commission. He succeeded a man who had held the post for 30 years, so coming to MORPC was a bit of dj vu; Jourdan's predecessor, Bill Habig, was executive director for 35 years.

Jourdan said he feels he brings lots of experience at the federal level and many contacts from his time with the U.S. DOT.

"That bodes and serves us well," he said.

In the time Jourdan's been at MORPC, the headquarters has been relocated from East Main Street to Liberty Street in downtown Columbus, and some positions have been cut.

"It's an understatement to say that we are living in a changing environment," Jourdan said.

In spite of those changes, and the challenges they bring, MORPC at 40 is doing just fine, the executive director feels.

"We're stronger than we've ever been," he said.

As the current economic crisis has grown wider and worse, Jourdan said it has become even more incumbent upon governments to operate with greater efficiency.

Collaboration across multijurisdictional lines is one way of doing that, and something MORPC officials can help bring about, he said.

Jourdan called upon the individual mayors of the cities, towns and villages in Delaware, Fairfield, Fayette, Franklin, Knox, Licking Madison, Marion, Morrow, Pickaway, Ross and Union counties to think not only of their immediate constituents but also as citizens of central Ohio.

"We have to meet the needs of today but also plan for the long term," Jourdan said. "We can chew gum and walk at the same time.

"We've got to come into the 21st century in terms of how we deliver government services."

kparks@

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