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This blog is ECDI's newest forum for promoting economic prosperity and improved quality of life for communities throughout Alabama. Please join us as we explore new possibilties for our communities and economies.

Auburn University: An Innovation and Economic Prosperity University

July 24, 2015

Joe Picture 2 2015The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), one of the nation’s top higher education associations, has recognized Auburn University for leadership in fostering economic growth, prosperity, and innovation. In June 2015, APLU named Auburn an Innovation and Economic Prosperity University, a designation that recognizes the university’s strong commitment to economic engagement and its work with public and private sector partners in Alabama and the region. The Economic & Community Development Institute, a partnership between AU Outreach and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, plays a central role in Auburn University’s economic engagement efforts and we are honored by this prestigious recognition. Auburn was one of 18 universities named in APLU’s third annual class of Innovation and Economic Prosperity Universities. It is the only university in the state of Alabama to earn the designation. APLU is a research, policy and advocacy organization dedicated to strengthening and advancing the work of public universities in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It has a membership of 238 public research universities, land-grant institutions, state university systems, and affiliated organizations.

APLU DesignationScreen Shot 2015-07-24 at 9.20.55 AM


Knowledge is Power: Preparing Leaders for Alabama Economic Development

April 3, 2015


Preparing Alabama leaders for economic development success is a responsibility that we take very seriously at Auburn University (AU). Effective economic development can transform communities and drastically improve the quality of life for individuals and families by providing them with quality, high-paying jobs. In fact, ensuring economic prosperity is one of the most important responsibilities for leaders at all levels of government. To successfully achieve these results, economic developers must possess knowledge of cutting-edge ideas, strategies, and tools.

The Economic & Community Development Institute (ECDI) is committed to providing Alabama economic developers with outstanding programs to enhance their professional development and to help ensure that those who succeed the current generation of economic developers are prepared for continued success.

Auburn University Intensive Economic Development Training Course

Every year, we look forward to conducting the Intensive Economic Development Training Course. We continually work to ensure that the Intensive Course is the top “Basic Economic Development” education program in the United States. Economic developers from all levels of experience attend the course and some even return multiple times. Participants include local, regional, and state-level economic development professionals; state, city, and county elected officials; and community leaders; as well as representatives of utility companies, chambers of commerce, industrial development boards, state agencies, regional planning commissions, and private industry. While our primary geographic market for the course is the State of Alabama, we also attract participants from neighboring states.


The story of the Intensive Course began in 1984 when several members of the Industrial Development Association of Alabama (IDAA; now the Economic Development Association of Alabama) approached the University of Alabama about offering a statewide economic development education program focused on industrial recruitment. After the University of Alabama turned down this proposal, Wilson Lee, an economist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service at Auburn University, took on IDAA’s request and designed Alabama’s “Intensive Industrial Development Training Course,” which was first offered in 1985. By the Course’s second year, Lee had developed an annual two-week course format, which continues today.

After Lee retired in 1998, the Auburn University Economic Development Institute (EDI) assumed responsibility for the course’s educational content, with Extension continuing to manage course logistics. When EDI merged with Extension’s Community Resource Development program in 2006, the newly-established Economic & Community Development Institute (ECDI) assumed full responsibility for managing the course.

In 2014, the Intensive Course celebrated its 30th year as Alabama’s primary economic development training course. The course has over 1,150 alumni, including a majority of the state’s most successful economic developers.

IEDC Accreditation

As the only two-week basic course in the U.S., we were reluctant to apply for International Economic Development Council (IEDC) accreditation for fear of changing our unique and successful model. However, in 2013, we decided to submit our application to IEDC, which was approved by both the IEDC Education Committee and the IEDC Board of Directors. The Intensive Course was accredited as an IEDC Basic Course beginning with the 2014 course year. While registrants who attend at least 90% of the two-week course are given credit as Intensive Course alumni, attendance at only the first week is required for IEDC Basic Course certification, the first step in the process of becoming a Certified Economic Developer (CEcD), the field’s highest professional certification. Now Alabama economic development professionals do not need to leave the state to take this first step. The AU Intensive Course is now one of 30 accredited IEDC Basic Courses in the United States.


From the Intensive Course’s inception, the primary sponsors have been Alabama Power Company, Alabama Gas Corporation, PowerSouth Energy Cooperative, and EDAA. Other organizations often help by sponsoring receptions, including Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood, Inc., the Alabama Municipal Electric Authority, Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, Sain Associates, Inc., and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

Course Faculty

Course instructors include many of the top economic development professionals from throughout Alabama. In fact, the success of the Intensive Course is a direct result of the talent and generosity of Alabama’s economic development community. In 2014, course faculty included: Greg Barker, Eric Basinger, Jim Byram, Greg Canfield, Ed Castile, Randy George, Valerie Gray, Brian Hilson, Horace Horn, David Hutchison, Devan Laney, Hilda Lockhart, Wiley Lott, Warren McCullars, Deborah McGill Smith, Ellen McNair, Ken Novak, Dus Rogers, Jim Searcy, Steve Sewell, Don Smith, and Bill Taylor. Many of these practitioner-experts are Intensive Course alumni.

In 2014, course participants heard from 57 different speakers and panelists over the two-week course. Bringing in this volume of speakers allows course participants to connect with many experienced economic development professionals, who are willing to provide advice and counsel to participants long after the course ends.

Course faculty members from outside of Alabama include some of the nation’s top economic and community development practitioner-experts:

  • Mac Holladay is the only person to have served three states as the head of a state economic entity.
  • Vaughn L. Grisham, Director Emeritus of the McLean Institute for Community Development at the University of Mississippi, has worked on leadership and community and economic development projects in more than 33 states and is the author of Tupelo: The Evolution of a Community.
  • Jay A. Garner, CEcD, was selected as one of ten outstanding leaders in economic development in the U.S. by Site Selection magazine and is also a past chairman of IEDC.
  • Ted Abernathy, CEcD, of Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, has 36 years of experience as an economic developer and is the former executive director of the Southern Growth Policies Board.
  • Sharon Younger is recognized nationally as a leading researcher in demographic and labor market analysis and is an instructor for the Economic Development Institute at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Tennessee Basic Course.
  • Laith Wardi, CEcD, pioneered the first web-based system for business retention and is a regular instructor on business retention for IEDC.

Course Format and Content

The course has a diverse format that includes presentations, expert panels, and class participation. Throughout the course, program facilitators and faculty members emphasize engagement, and students participate in both a real-life case-study exercise and a statewide economic development roundtable. Our intention is to provide opportunities for participants to hear the ideas and experiences represented within the classroom, in addition to those provided by featured course speakers and panelists. A major benefit of the course is the relationships established among classmates. Friendships that begin at the Intensive Course often last throughout an entire career.

The agenda for the first week covers all required topics for the IEDC Basic Course. During the first week, course participants learn how communities can prepare for, market, and attract new jobs and industries. Other key topics include: current trends in economic development; strategic planning for economic development; community leadership and development; workforce development and training; economic development ethics; business retention and expansion; economic development finance; real estate development and reuse; entrepreneurship and small business development; and managing economic development organizations.

The second week’s agenda is oriented toward Alabama-specific topics and resources. Topics include: the history of economic development in Alabama; Alabama’s government and economy; rural development; innovation; retail development; tourism; international trade and investment; small business development; incentives; and the role of utilities. The second week also includes presentations about the roles of the Alabama Department of Commerce, the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA), the Economic Development Association of Alabama (EDAA), and AIDT. Participants hear about economic development from the company’s perspective through a panel of business leaders from companies that located to Alabama. The week also includes a tour of the Hyundai Motor Manufacturing facility in Montgomery and a site visit to the Auburn Technology Park.

The course is well-regarded by participants. The 2014 participant rating for “overall value of the course” was 9.83 (out of 10). The previous three-year average overall participant rating was 9.7. The course is conducted at the Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center. The first week of the 2015 Intensive Course is scheduled for July 6-10. The second week is September 14-18. For more information, visit

Graduate Minor (Certificate) in Economic Development

Background and History

The Auburn University Graduate Minor in Economic Development was established in 1998, with EDI and EDAA partnering to create Alabama’s first graduate education program in economic development. Alabama economic developers saw that an academic economic development program could help meet the graduate education needs of current and future economic development professionals, policy-makers, and public or private-sector employees whose duties involve economic development. At the time the AU Economic Development Graduate Minor was created, very few universities in the United States awarded graduate certifications in the field. Even today, there are few graduate academic programs in economic development and those that do exist are relatively new.

Program Design

The Graduate Minor provides AU graduate students with an integrated, interdisciplinary education in economic development. Students may attach the minor to their degrees in: Agricultural Economics (MS and Ph.D.), Business Administration (MBA), Community Planning (MCP), Economics (MS), Education (MS), Public Administration / Public Policy (MPA and Ph.D.), and Rural Sociology (MS).

In order to meet the program requirements, students must complete the program’s core course, Economic Development and Competition, and attend the first week of the Intensive Economic Development Training Course. Both of these courses are offered each summer. Students must also complete two additional approved courses from a multidisciplinary economic development curriculum. Since its inception, this program has produced 50 alumni, 70% of whom have had jobs in community or economic development. Several of these former students currently serve the state of Alabama in key economic development positions.

EDAA Leadership Institute

 Educating Elected Officials and Other Regional Stakeholders

The EDAA Leadership Institute is an upcoming educational program targeted to state, city, and county elected officials; economic development organization staff and board members; industrial development boards; workforce development board members; utility company representatives; chamber of commerce staff and board members; regional planning commission staff, and county Extension coordinators. The program, scheduled to begin in 2015, will feature one-day courses focusing on key economic development topics. Planned core courses include: Basics of Economic Development, Workforce Development, Business Marketing and Attraction, Retail Development, and Community Leadership and Development. Other courses will be added based on interest and demand. The program will be conducted as a partnership with EDAA, whose Education Committee and Board of Directors have both approved the new initiative.

Coming to a Region Near You

Each course will be conducted multiple times in regional locations throughout Alabama. For example, one course could be repeated in Mobile, Dothan, Montgomery, Demopolis, Birmingham, and Huntsville. This would make it convenient for participants to attend each course and also allow for tailoring the agenda to fit regional assets and needs. Additional courses might be offered in other areas of the state, as demand arises.

Course Format and Certification Requirements

ECDI plans to include successful economic developers, business leaders, and elected officials from each region as instructors or panelists. While the general course content will be uniform throughout the state, we recognize that the issues in the Black Belt are often much different than those in the Tennessee Valley. Involving developers and officials from within the local region as course instructors and panelists will help to make course content relevant to each region. The format for each course will include presentations, expert panels, and participant engagement. Participants who attend four Institute courses and at least one EDAA Winter or Summer Conference will be awarded an “EDAA Leadership Institute Certificate of Completion” at the EDAA Summer Conference.

 Rationale for the Program

Some communities face avoidable barriers to successful economic development caused by community stakeholders who lack: understanding about the economic development process; clarity about appropriate roles; consensus about goals; and/or realistic expectations about what economic development can achieve. While the EDAA Leadership program has a number of target audiences, educating city and county elected officials is an important motivation for offering the Institute. At the 2014 EDAA Winter Conference, ECDI director Joe A. Sumners made a presentation outlining seven reasons why educating elected officials about economic development is important. He noted that local elected officials need economic development training so they:

  1. Have a broad (complete) view of economic development, including business recruitment and attraction, business retention and expansion, entrepreneurship and small business development, commercial and retail development, tourism and retiree attraction, and community development;
  2. Understand their role in developing (investing in) the physical and human infrastructure needed for economic development;
  3. Know the importance of having a structured and professional economic development program;
  4. Have realistic expectations about economic development (and the economic developer),
  5. Understand that economic development is a team sport;
  6. Understand the importance of taking care of (and involving) local business leaders; and
  7. Understand their role in the site visit and the imperative nature of confidentiality.

The EDAA Leadership Institute will focus on practical applications, rather than theory. The course format will provide opportunities for discussion and engagement, not just lecture. We hope to initiate regional conversations that lead to action and positive results – for business marketing and attraction, workforce preparation, retail development, and community leadership and development.

 Wrapping Up

The mission of ECDI is “to promote economic prosperity and improved quality of life for communities throughout Alabama.” Managing the Intensive Economic Development Training Course and the Auburn University Graduate Minor in Economic Development are important ways that we contribute to advancing that mission. We are excited about the opportunities presented by the new EDAA Leadership Institute. Of course, we are involved in many other educational activities not covered in this article, including statewide conferences, educational workshops, roundtables, deliberative forums, and a comprehensive series of broadband adoption training modules that are available to anyone at

We are committed to professional development for economic development because we think it can have a huge ultimate impact for our communities and state. Developing cutting-edge knowledge and skills is an essential first step in a process that leads to positive economic change. The tagline for the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) is “The Power of Knowledge and Leadership.” We are all familiar with the axiom ‘knowledge is power.” At ECDI, we know that this adage is true only if we put knowledge to work. If we can multiply our knowledge through engagement and collaboration, if we are able to focus that collective wisdom toward a common purpose, and if we are properly aligned with clearly-defined roles and responsibilities, then we have the power to affect change. Then we are powerful enough to truly transform our communities and our state. It all begins with knowledge.

A version of this essay appeared in the EDAA Journal, Vol. 1. Issue 3, Spring 2015.  The EDAA Journal is published by the Economic Development Association of Alabama.

Building the Infrastructure for Rural Prosperity

April 18, 2013

sumners2Community-based initiatives that foster citizen engagement and support workforce development are critical to the success of rural communities. An effort underway here in Alabama is a good example.

Called the Rural Alabama Initiative, the effort was launched in 2007 as a way to provide financial support for worthy economic and community development projects across the state. In the years since, Alabamians have been working together to improve their communities, providing a true success story for others to emulate.

This blueprint for growth begins with leaders who work together to develop a vision and realistic plan for change. In struggling rural communities, hope for economic prosperity is often pinned on the recruitment of a large manufacturing plant to “save” the town.

However, business retention and expansion, small business and entrepreneurial development, tourism, and retiree attraction are actually better determinants of strong local economies.

More significantly, local leaders often pay scant attention to building the infrastructure upon which strong local communities must be built. And yet our research over the years has indicated that this infrastructure must be in place if local economies are going to prosper and thrive.

For instance, a community with a strong civic infrastructure has many leaders. It mobilizes the knowledge, talents, and perspectives of every segment of the community and builds strong connections and partnerships among community stakeholders. Programs of government, schools, churches, the business community, and others, operate in concert with one another, rather than independently. And citizen leaders work together to address community concerns, to attract more leaders, and to boost community participation.

Human infrastructure is also important. Indeed, the number one issue in economic development today is workforce quality. Companies will not choose to expand or locate in a community without educated and skilled workers. The highest priorities for rural economic development include maintaining excellent schools and strengthening the local workforce development system with active collaboration among business leaders, K-12 educators, and community college stakeholders.

Rural leaders also understand the importance of the physical infrastructure. They know that roads, water, gas, electricity, and sewers are necessary to support economic growth. For many companies and industries, transportation of data, images, voices, and sound is at least as important, if not more so, than the transportation of goods by highway, rail, and air. Communities without access to high-speed Internet cannot compete in the 21st century economy.

One of the goals of the Rural Alabama Initiative is to help make sure that civic, human, and physical infrastructure is present in local communities across the state. The Initiative was designed and is managed by the Economic & Community Development Institute (ECDI), a partnership between Auburn University and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Over the past five years, RAI has committed over $1.3 million to fund 157 community projects statewide, helping communities in a range of areas including leadership, workforce development, entrepreneurship, tourism, the arts, planning and design, youth programming, technology, conservation, and small farming.

In the interest of building a stronger civic infrastructure, over 75 percent of RAI projects have supported adult or youth leadership development programs. These programs foster collaboration across community sectors, build the relationships needed to design and sustain holistic community growth, and bolster community pride and energy. RAI projects have also enhanced civic infrastructure via a new regional elected officials consortium, strategic planning sessions, and a community study circle on youth violence. In one of the state’s most rural counties, an RAI project supported the establishment of a new community center that focuses on maintaining local traditions and culture. Another project brought community residents together to develop ideas for new community landscaping following a devastating tornado.

A similar investment has been made in building a stronger human infrastructure. To that end, many RAI projects are geared toward workforce development, including career fairs, teacher trainings, workforce development academies, technology camps for high school educators and counselors, high school robotics competitions, Hispanic job-readiness programs, women’s job-readiness programs, entrepreneurship training, and business-education roundtables. One very successful project brings local high school faculty and administrators together with area business and industry officials to share information and better align school curriculums with the employment requirements of businesses.

RAI has also sought to strengthen physical infrastructure in rural communities. Though several RAI projects have focused on increasing computer skills and broadband use in rural communities, ECDI also aims to raise digital literacy in a much broader scope. One such effort is called “Connecting Alabama: Boosting Broadband to Bridge the Digital Divide.” Now being utilized in all 67 Alabama counties with the help of County Extension Coordinators, this effort seeks to educate rural residents and local leaders about the social and economic benefits and applications of broadband technology.

In the end, such investments in community infrastructure significantly boost the chance for economic success in rural communities. By enhancing civic leadership, workforce readiness, and access to broadband, communities become more attractive to both existing and potential residents and employers. Ironically, strategies emphasizing community development ultimately make small rural towns much more attractive in the competition for those large manufacturing plants they covet.

Today, even small communities must compete in the global arena. As the days of communities “chasing smokestacks” come to an end, towns across Alabama are successfully building the community capacity needed to meet today’s challenges and to take advantage of emerging economic opportunities – making the Rural Alabama Initiative not just a success story for our state, but an example for the rest of America as well.


Agritourism in Alabama

March 14, 2013

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Agriculture and tourism are two of Alabama’s largest industries.  While agriculture has been the traditional backbone of the state’s economy for generations, tourism is a relatively new industry, yet its economic impact was over $9 billion in 2010.  Imagine the possibilities if the two were to combine efforts.  Leaders in both industries are beginning to do just that in selected areas.  The result is agritourism.

Tourism is big business for Alabama, so when the topic arises, the image that often comes to mind is of mass-produced travel that attracts many travelers.  These images can discourage farmers and other small entrepreneurs from considering agritourism as a method for enhancing agriculture revenues.  However, the best way to view agritourism is to see it much like ecotourism: as low-impact, small-scale, and education-focused.

Agritourism is not new – it has had a significant history, both in Europe and in segments of the United States, such as the West and upper Midwest.  Europe has long promoted the farm stay, where travelers stay on a working farm for a holiday or vacation.  Minnesota was at the forefront of the agritourism movement in the early 70s, but interest soon waned.  By the late 90s interest had revived, primarily due to farmers’ need to earn additional income to be able to stay in agriculture.  Interest in this unique form of tourism continues to rise around the country, including in Alabama.  From the farmers’ and entrepreneurs’ points of view, agritourism offers a source of supplemental income and an educational tool to explain agriculture to non-farmers.  To tourists and tourism organizations, agritourism provides additional attractions and marketing opportunities.

Agritourism Defined

Agritourism is a commercial enterprise at any agricultural site, including horticulture and agribusiness operations, conducted for the enjoyment of visitors that generates supplemental tourism income for the owner.  The agritourism experience could involve the following activities:

  • Farm tours
  • Holiday visits/tours
  • Farm visits and stays
  • Hay rides
  • Roadside stands & marketsconveyor
  • Barn dances
  • U-pick operations
  • Photography/painting
  • On-farm sales
  • Camping & picnicking
  • Festivals & fairs
  • Mazes (corn, hay)
  • Agriculture-related crafts/gifts
  • Habitat improvement projects
  • Guided crop tours
  • Bird watchingcloseup
  • Garden/nursery tours
  • Wildlife viewing
  • Winery tours
  • Hunting dog training & competition
  • Historical agricultural exhibits
  • Trap & skeet shooting
  • Exotic animal farms
  • Fee fishing
  • Farm skills/farm work
  • Fee hunting
  • Petting zoos

Reasons for Growth of Agritourism

Small farm incomes across Alabama are slowly but substantially eroding due to poor agricultural commodity prices coupled with rising input costs.  The small farm is further threatened by the outside forces of globalization, industrialization, and development encroachment. To cope, many farmers are recognizing the need to diversify their products and supplement their incomes based on traditional agriculture.  Agritourism provides the opportunity to increase the potential for higher margin, on-farm sales of value-added products and services.  The types of activities available in agritourism are very broad and can be tailored to fit each individual situation.

cheeseguysAgritourism attractions afford many side benefits in addition to providing supplemental income for farmers and entrepreneurs. For example, farmers markets in metro areas keep thousands of acres of farmland in agriculture, giving local residents viewsheds and excellent water quality and enhancing wildlife protection.  Farmers markets also attract thousands of shoppers who spend money in local shops, bolstering the tax base and helping to maintain a viable downtown.

Following the tragedies of September 11, 2001, people are still traveling, but they travel more often by automobile and take shorter, more frequent trips closer to home.  This trend definitely favors agritourism.  Further, agritourism attractions fulfill tourists’ increased desire to learn more from their travels and to rediscover for themselves and their families their rural and agricultural roots.

Alabama Agritourism Partnership & Trail

Alabama now boasts a statewide effort to collectively market all of its agritourism assets.  In June 2003, the Alabama Agritourism Partnership formed to develop and market agritourism across the state.  Partners include the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, Alabama Tourism Department, Alabama Farmers Federation, Alabama Farmers Market Authority, and Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

One of the major products of the Partnership was the greenhouse2Alabama Agritourism Trail, a web based product.  The Trail was implemented with three primary purposes: to give farmers and agri-business entrepreneurs a venue for marketing their products statewide and nationally; to create an educational tool to explain agriculture to non-farmers, particularly younger generations; and to provide additional attractions and marketing opportunities for small communities, allowing them to develop a critical mass of tourist attractions.

To complement the Trail, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System created a publication titled Developing an Agri-Tourism Attraction in Alabama, designed as a practical tool to assist farmers and entrepreneurs in deciding if agritourism can enhance their incomes and to provide the basic information needed to develop an agritourism attraction.

Future Actions Needed

Agritourism is progressing in Alabama, but that growth will not be sustained without future actions.  To grow the agritourism industry to its potential in Alabama, the following steps are needed:  (1) continue the development of a comprehensive database of existing agritourism attractions in Alabama; (2) develop an Alabama agritourism association of attractions; (3) strengthen and expand the Alabama Agritourism Partnership; and (4) develop and implement a certification program to recognize agritourism attractions providing the highest quality agritourism experience.  Pursuing these steps will help to ensure that farmers, entrepreneurs, residents, and tourists alike reap the benefits of agritourism in Alabama.


Broadband, Digital Literacy and Rural Prosperity

February 12, 2013


In June 2006, Auburn University’s Economic & Community Development Institute (ECDI) hosted the Alabama Rural Roundtable. This event brought together about 60 key decision-makers and community leaders to talk about how to promote prosperity in rural Alabama. Roundtable participants identified three priority areas: 1) Leadership and Citizen Participation, 2) Education and Workforce Development, and 3) Communications Technology. While the first two issues are integral to improved rural prosperity, the focus of this blog is on the third priority identified by rural stakeholders – improving the rural communications infrastructure.

The electronic information highway has now joined electricity and roads as a core infrastructure. In the new global economy, community access to broadband is essential for economic prosperity. A study by the Brookings Institution shows that for every percentage point increase in national broadband penetration, employment expands by almost 300,000 jobs. For many companies and industries, transportation of data, images, voices, and sound is at least as important, if not more so, than the transportation of goods by highway, rail, and air. Communities without access to high-speed Internet cannot compete in the 21st Century economy.

Access to high-speed Internet is also vital to the success and well being of individuals throughout Alabama. People can save time and money by paying bills, applying for jobs, doing their taxes, and banking online. People can access social networks to strengthen their ties with faraway friends and family. Students can use high-speed Internet to improve their academic performance and prepare for future jobs. In many cases, persons without Internet access are unable to even apply for jobs or government benefits.

Unfortunately, only 56 percent of Alabama households have broadband access, ranking 48th in the nation. Only 47 percent of Alabama’s rural households have access to broadband. Clearly, improving the communications infrastructure must be a top priority for bringing prosperity to rural Alabama communities.

While cost and availability are huge barriers to broadband adoption, nearly half of America’s rural residents without a home broadband connection say they don’t subscribe because they have no need for broadband. This represents a tremendous opportunity for educational outreach to increase digital literacy. Raising awareness of the benefits of high-speed Internet and creating digitally-literate citizens is an important first step toward increasing the level of demand needed to expand the communications infrastructure into underserved parts of the state. The following section highlights many of these benefits.

Benefits of Broadband

Rural Populations
• Many business activities that require exchanges of large amounts of data, such as telemedicine and e-commerce, become feasible for rural communities.
• Rural businesses are able to expand their market reach across the nation and even the world.
• Youth and adult learners in rural areas can access the same Internet resources as students and workers in the most affluent suburbs, including online courses.
• Rural residents have direct access to healthcare services, and are not forced to travel long distances for medical treatment.
• Farmers are able to connect to other farmers for advice and gain real-time access to vital information such as crop prices, weather forecasts, and marketing opportunities.

Low-Income Populations
• Low-income residents can obtain advanced job skills, apply for jobs online, access health care resources, and apply for online assistance from social service agencies.

Senior Citizens
• Seniors can connect directly with their doctors for home-based health monitoring.
• They can monitor their bank accounts, pay bills, use online search engines, shop online, register for nutrition vouchers, and research government benefits and guidelines.
• They can stay connected to distant family and friends. They are able to send and receive emails or even have a video chat with grandkids.

People with Disabilities
• People with disabilities can participate in everyday activities such as employment, education, and social connections.
• People who are deaf, or hard-of-hearing, and those with speech disabilities can utilize live streaming video and instant text communication, liberating them from dependency on a traditional phone.
• People with physical disabilities can attend classes remotely, consult online with faraway medical specialists, telecommute, or apply online for jobs, eliminating the need for unnecessary or difficult commutes or trips.
• People who are blind or visually-impaired can search the Internet, understand videos, and communicate online using programs that read text and describe visual contents aloud in a synthetic voice or a Braille display.
• People who are deaf can use video relay services (VRS) to have phone conversations in sign language by means of an online interpreter.

Youth and Adult Learners
• Learners at every level of education, from kindergarten through graduate school, can enhance learning opportunities through online curricula and interactive Internet applications.
• Workers can gain vital skills training needed to secure employment and move beyond entry-level jobs, whether it be through getting a college degree online or completing an online worker training program.
• Busy parents can confer with their students’ teachers more frequently.
• Students can have access to superior teachers and experts from outside their region, as well as online resources including lecture videos, library databases, and teacher e-mail correspondence.
• Students or workers can form online social networks to share educational and training resources or work together on group projects.
• Adults with irregular or inflexible work schedules can access online educational opportunities.
• Industry specialists in remote areas can share their knowledge with a wider audience of workers.
• Young students can become competent with technologies they will need in the adult job market.

E-government and Civic Engagement
• Citizens can interact with government agencies more easily and participate more fully in civic life.
• Citizens can complete government forms online. This is faster and more convenient than hard copies delivered through regular mail. In fact, some forms are now only available online.
• Citizens and businesses can obtain information about government policies, procedures, benefits, and programs.
• Citizens can access many government services electronically, including business filings, online car registration, and analysis of Medicare prescription drug options.
• Citizens can communicate with their elected officials or other candidates through e-mail, online petitions, and social networks.
• Citizens can participate in public government meetings via two-way video streaming.
• Citizens can connect with like-minded individuals to organize politically, participate in online campaigns, and make their voices heard via online social networks or other civic engagement tools that are readily available online.

Health Care
• Telemedicine – the delivery of quality health-related services and information using telecommunications technologies – has the potential to greatly expand access, increase efficiencies, and reduce the costs of medical care.
• Patients can have access to remote diagnoses, treatment, and monitoring. This includes real-time transmission of medical imagery to enable remote interpretation of MRI, ultrasound, X-rays, and other diagnostic procedures – enabling rapid diagnosis.
• Doctors can work together as a virtual team with specialists located in any part of the world.
• Patient transfers, such as from a nursing home to a doctor’s office, can be significantly reduced though remote monitoring and online consultations.

Public Safety
• Police, fire and emergency medical personnel can react to crises more quickly, while facilitating cooperation among multiple public safety agencies.
• Public safety officers can quickly access online resources, connect to network-enabled devices, and rapidly transfer critical video and data files during emergency situations.
• First responders can receive local maps, and multiple responders from numerous agencies can view the same images and data simultaneously.
• Fire and police commanders can direct on–the-ground police and fire units using voice, video, and data-enhanced communications.
• Emergency workers can communicate across disparate networks, between jurisdictions, and across different agencies – critical capabilities at the scene of an emergency.
• Images and fingerprints of suspects, video clips of criminal activity, and layouts of target areas can be downloaded to police vehicle computers.

Boosting Broadband to Bridge the Digital Divide in Alabama

Overall_Marketing_Postcard_Page_1[1]The Economic & Community Development Institute (ECDI) and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System are currently leading a project to raise awareness about broadband benefits in Alabama. Other project partners include the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. Each of Alabama’s 67 county Extension offices is offering training courses to help residents learn more about the benefits and practical applications of broadband technologies.

ECDI has developed the following twelve training modules that describe broadband’s benefits and practical uses:

Introduction to the Internet and Broadband 101
E-Home: Managing homes, families, and finances
E-Community: Engaging community residents and organizations
E-Commerce: Strategies and tools for entrepreneurs and small business
E-Government: Making government more responsive and accessible
E-Learning: Tools and resources for learners
E-Learning: Tools and resources for educators
E-Global: Accessing international markets
E-Health: Tools and resources for patients and healthcare consumers
E-Health: Tools and resources for medical practitioners
E-Workforce: Learning skills and finding jobs
E-Public Safety: Resources for police, fire, and emergency service personnel

Each County Extension Coordinator will also facilitate a Connected Community forum in their county. This forum will engage a wide cross-section of community members in discussing opportunities and challenges related to broadband.

As more Alabamians understand and take advantage of the many opportunities offered through high-speed Internet, we will see citizens’ quality of life enhanced in addition to new economic opportunities for rural communities. ECDI and the Alabama Cooperative Extension are excited to be a part of this important initiative.

For an expanded version of this blog, click here. For more information about the Boosting Broadband to Bridge the Digital Divide project, contact ECDI at 334-844-4704 or email me at

Civic Engagement and Economic Development

July 18, 2012

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
– Margaret Mead

The economy is the dominant issue in the 2012 presidential election campaign between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney. It is also generally a dominant issue in any campaign for governor, county commissioner, and mayor because economic development has an immediate and direct impact on people’s lives. Jobs and corporate investment create wealth that citizens can use to purchase goods and start new businesses. Strong economies at all levels of government produce tax revenues, which allow governments to achieve their missions in education, infrastructure, citizen welfare, and service delivery. At the community level, when people hear the term “economic development,” they tend to think first about the recruitment of industry and jobs. But bringing economic prosperity to a community requires much more than just enticing a company to open a new plant in the local industrial park. Business retention and expansion, small business and entrepreneurial development, retail and commercial development, and tourism and retiree attraction, for example, are also important components of a diverse economic development strategy.

As we consider a framework for understanding economic development, we should not overlook its most important and fundamental element. That is, prosperous local economies are built upon the foundation of strong communities. Community economic vitality is largely determined by the quantity of leaders in a community and how, individually and collectively, they talk, decide, act, and interact with one another. This focus on community civic infrastructure contrasts with the prevailing view of economic development dominated by a focus on business recruitment, marketing, financial incentives, and industry location announcements. While industry recruiters certainly play important roles in the economic development of their communities, so do the high school coach, the hospital administrator, the plant manager, the Sunday school teacher, the city beautification council, and the citizen who organizes a town meeting.

Community Development and Cooperative Extension
For the past six years, I have directed the Economic and Community Development program area for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. So it is probably no surprise that I believe that community and economic development should be a high priority for Extension. Surveys of Alabamians always rank “the economy” or “jobs” as our state’s most important issue, along with education. So involvement in economic and community development elevates Cooperative Extension’s relevance in communities throughout Alabama.

One of the most common justifications for the continuing relevance of Cooperative Extension is that it provides research-based information. While this is an important contribution, clinging to this rationale seems somewhat precarious in the Internet era. With a click of a mouse, individuals can have access to the knowledge of any human being who has ever lived. Alabama Cooperative Extension does not have a monopoly on information, even in areas of unquestioned expertise like agriculture, youth development, and family and consumer sciences.

I believe that the true competitive advantage for Cooperative Extension is not just our wealth of expertise, but also our ability to build and sustain relationships in every county of the state. In my more than 20 years of working in Alabama communities, one of the most common deficiencies I find in communities is disconnectedness. That is, there may be many good programs conducted by government, schools, churches, the business community, and others. But generally these efforts operate independently, rather than in concert with one another. There is a tremendous need to connect fragmented community assets and initiatives and to engage citizens in working together to address community concerns. Cooperative Extension is perfectly situated to serve that role. In Alabama, we have 67 counties, with a Cooperative Extension office and Coordinator in each. Because County Extension Coordinators (CECs) are embedded in the community as a trusted resource, and because they are external to local stakeholder groups, they are in a perfect position to serve as neutral, trusted facilitators and bring people together to discuss and deal with local issues. Extension as catalyst and connector is extremely relevant and meets an enormous need, especially in our most challenged communities.

Of course, this is not a new idea. Bringing people and communities together to address local needs was a fundamental rationale for the creation of the Cooperative Extension Service in 1914 with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act. The purpose was to extend the university’s research into communities and to provide local people with knowledge, research, and expertise they could use to address local needs. In 1940, M.L. Wilson, the director of the national Cooperative Extension Service, described the organization’s central purpose as civic organizing and leadership development. According to Wilson (1940):

“Extension workers and others who are charged with assisting in the development of programs to meet not only current needs, but also the changed needs of the world, are vitally concerned with questions of leadership . . . Their primary job is to help the community analyze its problems in the light of all available information and so to organize itself that the necessary action can be taken.”

Community Leadership and Engagement
We agree with Wilson that a primary job of Extension should be community leadership and engagement. In 2006, one of my first actions as ECDI Director was to convene the Alabama Rural Roundtable, a gathering of about 60 state and local rural leaders. The Roundtable identified three major issues that required attention if we are to bring prosperity to rural Alabama. In order of priority, they were: 1) Community Leadership and Citizen Engagement, 2) Education and Workforce Development, and 3) Communications Technology. Using this input, we adjusted our strategic plan to make these our Institute’s top priorities. Community leadership has become a central focus of ECDI. We hired a community leadership specialist to manage our leadership program, developed the Rural Alabama Initiative mini-grant program, and assumed administration of the Alabama Community Leadership Network (ACLN). (We have also launched major initiatives in the areas of workforce development and broadband adoption).

Rural Alabama Initiative
The Rural Alabama Initiative (RAI) is an Extension-funded mini-grant program designed and administered by ECDI. The
 RAI grant program provides financial support to seed worthwhile rural initiatives that help boost a wide range of economic and community development initiatives. Over the past 5 years, Extension
has provided more than $1,300,000 in
RAI funding to support 137 projects across rural Alabama. Over 75% of these projects were to create or strengthen adult and youth leadership development programs.

Alabama Community Leadership Network
We are convinced that local leadership development programs can be catalysts for building stronger, more prosperous communities throughout Alabama. The Alabama Community Leadership Network (ACLN), which is housed in ECDI, connects, and provides resources for, adult and youth community leadership programs throughout Alabama. We see these local leadership programs as having great potential for advancing a collaborative leadership model, growing the quantity of leaders, increasing the capacity of citizen leaders to address the challenges they face, and thereby strengthening civic life and maximizing economic potential in communities throughout Alabama.

Citizen Engagement
Civic engagement is now integrated into all ECDI programs and activities – whether in education, research, or community outreach. We have conducted many training sessions in public deliberation and civic engagement and provided technical and financial support for County Extension Coordinators (CECs) who want to become more involved in citizen engagement. In partnership with the Southern Rural Development Center, ECDI managed the Turning the Tide on Poverty project where Extension Coordinators in Perry and Dallas counties took the lead in conducting community study circles on the issue of poverty. Four CECs recently participated in a project with the David Mathews Center for Civic Life to conduct deliberative forums in their counties. Over the next year, all 67 CECs will be conducting “Connected Community” forums to discuss and address local broadband adoption issues.

Community Questions: Engaging Citizens to Address Community Concerns
Over the past two years, I have participated in a working group that is discussing the impact of deliberative practices in communities as well as new and innovative ways to engage citizens and community leaders. The project, Citizens at Work: Engaging for Prosperous Communities, convened a group of organizations throughout the nation that provide planning, training, or technical support to community innovators. In addition to ECDI, the project-working group included representatives from the Kettering Foundation, Esquel Group, International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, National Civic League, New Mexico First, Southern Growth Policies Board, University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, and the West Virginia Center for Civic Life. With assistance from Linda Hoke of the Southern Growth Policies Board, I took on the assignment of developing a new instrument that may be used to engage community stakeholders and citizens as they address pressing community concerns. Community Questions: Engaging Citizens to Address Community Concerns is a question-based instrument for bringing citizens and stakeholders into a deliberative process to identify the heart of the problem, identify options for addressing the problem, weighing costs, benefits, and tradeoffs associated with each choice, designing a possible course of action, and engaging others in working toward a solution.

In the spirit of M.L. Wilson, we are committed to helping each Alabama community “analyze its problems in the light of all available information and so to organize itself that the necessary action can be taken.” We hope that Community Questions will be a useful tool as we take on this challenge. Our plan is to find multiple ways to utilize Community Questions in community leadership programs, community strategic planning projects, and to help citizens and stakeholders discuss and take collective action on specific local issues. The Southern Growth Policies Board has made Community Questions available for download from its website ( and earlier this year used a version of the instrument in hundreds of community forums throughout the South on the issue of workforce development.

Final Thoughts
Community leadership and engagement is the cornerstone for building strong and prosperous local economies. David Mathews, President of the Kettering Foundation, in summarizing the results of the Foundation’s history of research in the field of civil economics, wrote:

“What stands out in the high-achieving community is not so much the characteristics of the leaders as their number. . . The high-achieving community had ten times more people providing leadership than communities of comparable size. This [high-achieving] community is “leaderful”; that is, nearly everyone provides some measure of initiative. And its leaders function, not as gatekeepers, but as door-openers, bent on widening participation.”

We are convinced that thriving local economies are built upon the foundation of strong communities; that strong communities require engaged citizens and diverse, connected leaders; and that ECDI and Extension can have a role in fostering and facilitating critical engagement and stakeholder connections.

Desktop Archeology

February 17, 2012

It’s been way too long since my last post. I should have been writing about the ECDI project to bring broadband adoption training to all 67 Alabama counties, or our Stronger Economies Together (SET) project in five Alabama Black Belt counties, or my recent book chapter (with Amelia Stehouwer) about “The Politics and Economic Development of the Southern Black Belt”, or our upcoming Intensive Economic Development Training Course, or our Federal Road Initiative or Rural Alabama Initiative. But those topics will have to wait until next time.

I have a habit of taking quotes that I like and putting them under the glass top of my desk. I often see these words of wisdom and am encouraged by them. This morning I found myself digging through the files on my desk to read my favorite quotes. For this blog, I’d like to share the results of my desktop archeology.


                                                                                The Auburn Creed
I believe that this is a practical world and that I can count on only what I earn. Therefore I believe in work, hard work.
I believe in education, which gives me the knowledge to work wisely and trains my mind and hands to work skillfully.
I believe in honesty and truthfulness, without which I cannot win the respect of my fellow men.
I believe in a sound mind, in a sound body and a spirit that is not afraid, and in clean sports that develop these qualities.
I believe in obedience to the law because it protects the rights of all.
I believe in the human touch, which cultivates sympathy with my fellow men and mutual helpfulness and brings happiness for all.
I believe in my country, because it is a land of freedom and because it is my own home, and that I can best serve that country by “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with my God.”
And because Auburn men and women believe these things, I believe in Auburn and love it.

                                                                                                                                – George Petrie (1945)


                                                                                Two Wolves
An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies & ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, & truth.” The little boy thought about it a moment, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

                                                                                                                                        – Cherokee Legend


                                        I asked God for strength that I might achieve;
                                            I was made weak that I might learn to obey.
                                        I asked for health that I might do greater things;
                                            I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
                                        I asked for riches that I might be happy;
                                            I was given poverty that I might be wise.
                                        I asked for power and the praise of men:
                                            I was given weakness to sense my need of God.
                                        I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
                                            I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
                                        I got nothing I asked for but everything I hoped for;
                                            In spite of myself, my prayers were answered –
                                        I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

                                              – Prayer of an unknown Confederate soldier


If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too,

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, or being hated, don’t       give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good nor talk too wise;

If you can dream and not make dreams your master,
If you can think and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same,

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken, and stoop to build them up with worn out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch and toss, and lose and      start at your beginning, and never breathe a word about your loss,

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone, and so hold     on when there’s nothing in you, except the will which says to them — “Hold on”

If you can walk with crowds and keep your virtue, or talk with kings nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much,

If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run,
Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it, and which is more — you’ll be a man, my son.

                                                                                                                        – Rudyard Kipling


                                                        Sow a thought, you reap an act;
                                                        Sow an act, you reap a habit;
                                                        Sow a habit, you reap a character;
                                                        Sow a character, you reap a destiny.

                                                                                              – Anonymous

                                          Character is formed by making choices in one direction.


But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer; he is like a man who observes himself in a mirror and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.
                                                                                                                – James 1:22-24 (Revised Standard Version)