Alabama Communities of Excellence (ACE)
While sorting through some old files, I recently ran across an old EDI activity report from May 2000. That report referenced a meeting with Nisa Miranda (University of Alabama), Bob Howard (Alabama Power Company), and Warren McCord (Alabama Cooperative Extension System) to discuss ideas about how our respective organizations might work together to strengthen Alabama’s smaller communities. We would frequently cross paths in these communities as we carried out programs related to planning, leadership, and other aspects of community development. We wondered if there might be some way to combine forces, thinking that much more could be accomplished by working together. Eventually we decided that other key players should be at the table for these discussions – such as the Alabama Association of Regional Councils, Alabama Development Office, and Alabama Department of Economic & Community Affairs. After about two years of discussion and planning, the Alabama Communities of Excellence (ACE; a non-profit corporation) was created in 2002 with a goal of combining the collective expertise of its partner organizations to build the capacity of the state’s smaller communities to become “Alabama Communities of Excellence.”
The Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the Auburn University Economic Development Institute were founding members of ACE. That commitment has never wavered. When ECDI was created in 2006, participation in the ACE program remained a top priority. I have served on the Board of Directors since ACE was created, and served as Chairman of the Board and President from 2007 to 2009. Arturo Menefee, ECDI Leadership Development Specialist, was selected as the first President of the ACE Associates Council – the group that organizes community assistance teams. He also serves on the ACE Executive Committee and heads the committee that supervises ACE leadership development assistance. Mike Easterwood, ECDI Project Management Specialist, served as the first state coordinator of ACE. ECDI staff members have served as ACE captain or co-captain for the cities of Demopolis, Valley, Headland, Guntersville, Haleyville, Graysville, Brewton, and Eufaula and have participated as team members in nearly all of the 28 ACE communities. In addition, County Extension Coordinators have participated on several ACE community teams.
The first eight communities were selected in 2003. Since that time, the following 15 cities have been certified as Alabama Communities of Excellence:
- Demopolis (2005)
- Guin (2005)
- Haleyville (2005)
- Monroeville (2005)
- Brewton (2006)
- Guntersville (2006)
- Valley (2006)
- Atmore (2007)
- Fayette (2007)
- Gulf Shores (2007)
- Heflin (2007)
- Millbrook (2007)
- Thomasville (2007)
- Jackson (2008)
- Headland (2009)
Twelve other communities are currently in various stages of the ACE program:
THREE-PHASE ACE PROCESS
The Alabama Communities of Excellence (ACE) process involves a comprehensive three-phase approach to economic and community development for cities with populations between 2,000 and 18,000. Communities with eligible populations must compete and submit an application in order to be considered for the ACE program. The two primary criteria used in selecting ACE participants are: 1) level of commitment to the ACE program, and 2) the community’s capacity to support the ACE program.
Phase I of the ACE program focuses on Assessment, Phase II focuses on Leadership Development and Strategic Planning, and Phase III focuses on Implementation. During Phase I, the local ACE team prepares a comprehensive report card detailing the community’s assets and weaknesses. The report is presented to community leaders along with recommended strategies and actions. During Phase II, each community must establish a leadership program, prepare an up-to-date strategic plan, and identify a local ACE coordinator. Issues addressed during Phase III include comprehensive planning, commercial business development, education enhancement, infrastructure, health and human services, retiree attraction, tourism, economic development, and quality of life. Each of the three phases must be completed in order for the community to graduate and be designated as an “Alabama Community of Excellence.”
Upon graduation, each community receives an “Alabama Community of Excellence” sign to be posted at the city’s gateway, an ACE grant to be used for a priority economic and community development project, and a certificate signed by both the Governor of Alabama and the President of ACE. To maintain the Alabama Community of Excellence designation, a community must be recertified every three years.
Throughout each of these phases, ACE partners work with each community to successfully achieve their goals. The ACE program would not be possible without the funding, hard work, and participation of the ACE partner organizations. ACE partners include both public and private organizations. The ACE Board of Directors includes representatives from:
- Alabama Association of Regional Councils
- Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA)
- Alabama Development Office (ADO)
- Alabama Farmers Federation (Alfa)
- Alabama Historical Commission
- Alabama League of Municipalities
- Alabama Municipal Electric Authority
- Alabama Power Company
- Auburn University Economic & Community Development Institute (representing the Alabama Cooperative Extension System)
- Economic Development Association of Alabama (EDAA)
- Goodwyn, Mills, and Cawood
- Regions Bank
- Tennessee Valley Authority
- University of Alabama Center for Economic Development
- University of West Alabama
- USDA-Rural Development
Collectively, these organizations represent a unique and powerful partnership possessing the expertise, public and private resources and commitment to help address many community development needs in the selected ACE communities.
The Economic & Community Development Institute is an enthusiastic advocate and supporter of ACE because it perfectly embodies our philosophy. Everything we at ECDI say and do reflects the basic idea that community vitality is determined by the quantity of leaders in a community and how, individually and collectively, they talk, decide, act, and interact with one another, and that community development lays the foundation for economic prosperity. The ACE program puts that philosophy into action in communities throughout Alabama. After eight years of experience with ACE, we can identify two traits common to excellent communities: 1) they possess many committed leaders, and 2) they have strong “connections” among citizens, groups and institutions throughout the community. This confirms what we understand about high-achieving communities – they are full of leaders who are willing to work with others to identify all local assets and try to connect these assets in ways that multiply their power and effectiveness.
We are very excited about the potential for the ACE program, not just because of its beneficial impact in selected communities, but because it creates new standards of excellence that all Alabama communities may strive for. We are also excited about ACE as a model for how assistance organizations can work together in a common effort to help build capacity at the local level – an occurrence that is too rare in Alabama. ACE is currently the state’s best model of cooperative effort for economic and community development, and ACE partner organizations see tremendous benefits from the relationships formed through this joint effort. It has created a synergy and strength that none of us acting alone could have imagined.
ECDI looks forward to many more years working with ACE and many more Communities of Excellence throughout Alabama. For more information about ACE, go to http://www.alabamacommunitiesofexcellence.org.
Joe A. Sumners, Ph.D., Director
Economic & Community Development Institute
Auburn University & the Alabama Cooperative Extension System