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By Robert Connors
Managing Editor 

Bennett Reflects on Years of Change

Development Services Director Returning to Roots at Polk County

 

Last updated 2/2/2023 at 11:15am

Robert Connors

A relaxed Mark Bennett recently spent some time reflecting on the many changes he has seen during his 33 years of service as a planner in Lake Wales and Polk County.

It was a relaxed Mark Bennett who shared his thoughts about the many changes both ahead and behind in Lake Wales and Polk County recently. Bennett is stepping down as director of the City of Lake Wales Development Services department after an eventful 30 months in a role he called "challenging, demanding, stressful."

During his time at the helm of city planning Bennett has dealt with a wave of annexation requests as owners of declining citrus properties weigh their options for the future and turn to development potential.

Bennett, 56, has accepted a "less stressful" position as a senior planner for Polk County, where he will actually be returning to familiar ground: Bennet began his career as a Polk County planner in August, 1989 as a Planner 1. "I was making $18 thousand a year, and glad to get it," he said, after having been originally hired as a student trainee making $4.25 an hour.

"It was hard to leave," Bennett said of his decision. "I think the world of James," he added.

James Slaton, Lake Wales city manager, hired Bennett away from Haines City shortly after he himself was hired, and has worked closely with Bennett during the past two years. "The City is moving right direction," Bennett said, crediting Slaton's hands-on approach. Slaton has himself recently begun a study of planning, which is foreign territory for most city managers.

Bennett is a disabled veteran of 30 years of military service, having "enjoyed an all-expense-paid trip to Baghdad," he said. The Army had also given him a chance to study geography, which he used as a basis for his entry into planning.

"The Army paid for my geography degree because the most dangerous thing in the Army is a second lieutenant with a compass," he said.

Bennett, a Lake Wales resident, is proud of his work in the city, which he described as including a balancing act between those seeking to grow the community and others who would prefer to keep the small-town ambiance it has always offered.

"It's been very exciting and rewarding to be able to help shape" the future of the city, Bennett told LakeWalesNews.net, saying the "city is moving in the right direction."

Bennett pointed at Lake Wales Envisioned, a pending city-wide planning process, as evidence to support his views, saying that it's "a great opportunity to decide what it wants to be," saying that there hadn't previously been any true long-range planning. The Envisioned process will be led by Dover Kohl & Partners, the same firm that successfully sought pub lic participation and input in designing the award-winning Lake Wales Connected plan.

Bennett cited "three things" he wanted to accomplish during his time as planning director, and listed them as "being ready for growth, redeveloping the Northwest Neighborhood, and revitalizing downtown."

Expansion of the planning department to handle the growth proposals was a priority he achieved a year ago. The other two are now underway as part of Lake Wales Connected. He pointed at the new downtown development standards as a critical step to assure that new structures in the area conform with the nature of the area, rather than utilizing modern architecture that doesn't fit in.

Mark Bennett's last day at Lake Wales Development Services will be February 10.

In his new role Bennett will be working under Polk County Senior Planner Chanda Bennett, a coincidence of last names that has often been the source of confusion for the two planners. "Several years ago I was serving on the Lake Wales Zoning board with Charlene Bennett (Chanda's mother) and someone called city hall to complain" that two relatives were on the same board, he said.

In addition to the employment change, Bennett has also begun working toward his doctorate in International Development at the University of Southern Mississippi. That study involves "programs and policies on economic growth, and the very different rates of growth in different countries," Bennett said. He cited as determining factors such things as "stability, and the rule of law," saying that such growth is measured by the GDP, or Gross Domestic Product of each country. "We are blessed." he said.

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