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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.

Economic Development Broadly Defined

June 15, 2011

I love economic development. It is a big, wide, wonderful field that plays a critical role in our society and affects people’s lives in a profound way. 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. As an academic, I like that economic development encompasses many different disciplines, including economics, business, political science, public administration, marketing and communications, sociology, community planning, education, and many more. As a practitioner, I like that it involves a diverse range of actors, including local governments and development agencies, chambers of commerce, non-profit community development agencies, private enterprises, consultants, state development agencies, and the federal government. Also, it takes place on varying geographic levels (neighborhoods, cities, metropolitan areas, states, multi- state regions, national, and international). As an area of study and work, it offers great challenges and abundant opportunities.

“Economic development” has been defined as “the process by which a community creates, retains, and reinvests wealth and improves the quality of life” (David Dodson, MDC, Inc.). When many hear the term “economic development”, they think about recruiting industry. But industrial recruitment is not the only, or even most important, determinant of a strong local economy. Bringing economic health and 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, tourism and retiree attraction, for example, generally receive short shrift compared to industrial recruitment.

More importantly, prosperous local economies are built upon the foundation of strong communities. Community and 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 the community and civic infrastructure contrasts with the prevailing view of economic development dominated by issues of business marketing, financial incentives, and recruitment. We often overemphasize marketing and sales (industrial recruiting) and pay too little attention to product development (improving the quality of life in the community). 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.

One thing I like about the definition of economic development used here is its emphasis on the concept of “quality of life”. Indeed, the ultimate goal of economic development is to improve the quality of life for the people who live in a community (state/nation). It is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Quality of life is also an important site selection criterion for many major employers. Companies are attracted to, and want to stay in, communities that are good places to live, work, and conduct business. Top quality schools, exceptional medical care, diverse recreational opportunities, good roads, clean water, effective public safety, and much more, make a location appealing. Therefore, preserving, promoting, and improving a community’s educational system, natural environment and community aesthetics, and civic life must be integral components of its economic development strategy.

Finally, it is important to note that not all economic growth is desirable. A proper conception of economic development must embrace the concept of “sustainability” — meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. That is, our goal should be to grow employers, jobs and incomes without compromising our natural and other assets.


A Tool for Community Engagement

January 19, 2011

If you’ve been reading my posts you know that I am a big believer in the power of civic engagement. I believe that public deliberation is a valuable tool for engaging citizens and for helping to unleash their power to change communities for the better. But I also feel that the use of National Issues Forums issue books, employed in one-shot forums, fails to fully realize the potential communities have for sustained deliberation and citizen mobilization to address important community concerns. Thus, one of my goals has been to create a new type of “instrument” that can be used to engage citizens. Please check out “Community Questions: Engaging Citizens to Address Community Concerns.” I developed this instrument, working with the Kettering Foundation’s Citizens at Work project. We think that this question-based instrument can be used by many types of organizations, for many types of purposes, in many types of settings.

Click the link below to view or download.

Community Questions: Engaging Citizens to Address Community Concerns

Alabama Communities of Excellence (ACE)

August 31, 2010

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:

  • Arab
  • Childersburg
  • Eufaula
  • Evergreen
  • Foley
  • Graysville
  • Hartselle
  • Jacksonville
  • Leeds
  • Livingston
  • Montevallo
  • Tarrant


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

Joe A. Sumners, Ph.D., Director
Economic & Community Development Institute
Auburn University & the Alabama Cooperative Extension System

What Does an Excellent Community Look Like?

April 11, 2010

The Alabama Communities of Excellence (ACE) – http://www.alabamacommunitiesofexcellence.orgprogram is the state’s finest example of cooperative effort.  The ACE Board of Directors includes representatives from the Alabama Development Office, Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, Alabama Power Company, Auburn University, the University of Alabama, the University of West Alabama, Alabama Association of Regional Councils, Alabama League of Municipalities, Economic Development Association of Alabama, Tennessee Valley Authority, PowerSouth Electric Cooperative, among others.  These partners work together to help small towns develop their communities and provide a strong foundation for future prosperity.  ACE partners have assisted 28 towns since 2003.  In addition to the valuable assistance provided to these communities in areas such as leadership, planning, and economic development, the program has created standards that other Alabama communities may strive for.  Developing these standards was one of our early challenges in the program.  That is, we wanted to describe what an “excellent” community looked like. In response, Linda Swann (Alabama Development Office), Bob Howard (Alabama Power Company) and I developed the following criteria to describe the characteristics we wanted to see in ACE communities.  This list can serve as a checklist as you assess your own community.

What is a Community of Excellence?


Community Leadership

  • The community has many dedicated, diverse, and energetic leaders.
  • The private sector, community and civic organizations, and faith-based organizations are consistently involved in local initiatives and projects.
  • The community has an active civic life with multiple opportunities for citizen involvement (e.g., town meetings, deliberative forums, concerts, festivals, community improvement projects).
  • Local government leaders are committed to strengthening community partnerships and engaging citizens.
  • Elected officials maintain good working relations and seek to constructively resolve differences.
  • Local government leaders build bridges and alliances with other jurisdictions and organizations to encourage economic development in the region.
  • City and county governments are committed to the training and professional development of local government officials and staff.

Leadership Development

  • The community/county has a formal, active leadership development program.
  • Local government, the chamber of commerce, the business community, and civic groups actively support the program and encourage employee participation.
  • There are adequate funds and staff to plan and conduct the program.
  • Program participants represent the diversity of the community (racial, gender, geographic, political, economic, etc.).
  • The curriculum includes instruction on basic leadership skills/strategies (e.g., planning, problem-solving, teamwork, interpersonal skills, conflict management, valuing diversity, etc.).
  • The curriculum adequately addresses economic development, community development, and community planning and design topics.
  • The program format is interactive, participatory, and innovative (i.e., not simply lectures and presentations).
  • The program has a youth leadership component.
  • The program provides the opportunity for real-world applications — connecting participants with community improvement plans or projects.


Vision and Strategic Planning

  • The community has an up-to-date strategic plan that provides a compelling vision for the future along with specific strategies for realizing that vision.
  • A large, diverse group of leaders and stakeholders participated in the process and support the plan (i.e., planning participants include a broad cross-section of the community).
  • A detailed action plan specifies how the plan’s goals and objectives will be implemented in the community (i.e., who will be involved, the time frame for accomplishment, needed resources, key milestones/benchmarks, and the expected results or product); and
  • A mechanism for ongoing review and revision is incorporated into the plan – both to evaluate accomplishment and to correct implementation problems.

Comprehensive Planning

  • The community has an up-to-date comprehensive land use plan that includes policies and strategies for land use, transportation, housing, community facilities, and resource conservation.
  • The community has specific plans for zoning, development regulation, and design/appearance review that are actively enforced.
  • All planning initiatives are consistent with community design standards and goals.



  • The community has an up-to-date, comprehensive economic development plan (either separately or as part of the strategic plan). The plan addresses business retention, expansion and recruitment; commercial, retail and small business development; and tourism and retiree attraction.
  • The economic development plan includes an analysis of the local economy — identifying strengths, potential opportunities, and the types of businesses that best fit the community.
  • The plan is fully supported by community leaders involved with economic development.


  • Local infrastructure is adequate to support the selected business targets.
  • The community is connected to the global economy through high-speed Internet.
  • The community has a quality site that is suitable for desired business targets, free of easements and/or encumbrances, and available at a fair market price.


  • The community (or county) has an economic development or industrial development authority/board/individual responsible for business recruitment.
  • A single point of contact is identified/designated for all economic development activities.
  • The organization has a structured and trained prospect sales team.
  • The staff (or officers) of the development organization regularly participates in state professional association activities.

Information and Marketing

  • The economic development organization maintains current, relevant information about the community and has a quality promotional brochure.
  • Available properties are monitored, listed in the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA) database, and updated regularly.
  • The organization/individual effectively markets the community to appropriate businesses targets and maintains regular contact with state officials and other economic development professionals.
  • The community/county hosts a website on the Internet with information appropriate to its targets.

Existing Business Program

  • The community has a formal and ongoing business retention and expansion program that includes:
    • Regular visits to business owners and managers,
    • A process for addressing problems identified by industry leaders,
    • An annual industrial and commercial recognition event,
    • A survey of labor wages and fringe benefits, and
    • Workforce education and training programs.

Commercial/Retail Business Development

  • The community has an active Chamber of Commerce or Business Alliance with at least a paid part-time executive.
  • The community maintains a comprehensive inventory of retail, commercial, and service properties, including spaces that formerly housed retail or commercial entities and those with that potential.



  • All schools in the community consistently achieve “academically clear” status with student standardized test scores at or above the state average.
  • The schools/school system:
    • Is Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) accredited,
    • Offers Career/Technical Education counseling and programs,
    • Coordinates formal parental involvement programs,
    • Provides Adult Literacy programs,
    • Participates in formal partnerships with local businesses,
    • Participates in the Alabama Reading Initiative or a similar program,
    • Participates in the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) or other enhanced math and science programs,
    • Provides leadership training for principals and superintendent,
    • Provides pre-kindergarten programs,
    • Provides quality teacher education and professional development opportunities (in addition to the state appropriated professional development days),
    • Offers appropriate curriculum for migrant populations that includes “English as a Second Language,” if applicable, and
    • Utilizes distance learning to connect the school to virtual classrooms.


  • Primary, dental, and mental health services are available to all age groups.
  • The community utilizes telemedicine to expand healthcare in areas with limited access to physicians.
  • The community has ready access to a hospital that provides an array of vital services, including emergency transport services and a 24-hour emergency room.
  • The community has access to long-term care (i.e., nursing home/assisted living facility) and home health services.
  • The community promotes wellness and prevention programs (i.e., health education, recreation and physical fitness).
  • The community’s healthcare leadership is committed to planning for future healthcare services and needs (e.g., recruitment and retention of health care providers and professionals, workforce development, and the development of strategies for funding healthy initiatives).
  • Public buildings are designated smoke-free environments.

Amenities and Aesthetics

  • The community supports a variety of amenities that contribute to enhanced quality of life (e.g., arts, entertainment, recreation).
  • Public property and buildings are well-maintained.
  • Attractive gateways are maintained at city entrances.
  • The community supports downtown enhancements and preservation of historic buildings.

Strategies for Small Town Success

November 29, 2009

Leaders in struggling rural communities and small towns often pin their hopes for economic prosperity on the recruitment of a large manufacturing plant to “save” their town.  In Alabama, our success in attracting large automotive plants like Mercedes-Benz, Honda, and Hyundai has fueled such a lust for industrial recruitment.  Many small towns are sure that their big break is just around the corner, if only they can come up with the right financial incentives and recruitment strategy.

An unfortunate consequence of relying on strategies that focus exclusively on industrial recruitment is that many communities undervalue, or don’t understand, the importance of other determinants of a strong local economy.  Business retention and expansion, small business and entrepreneurial development, tourism and retiree attraction, for example, receive short shrift compared to industrial recruitment.   More significantly, local leaders pay too little attention to building community and civic infrastructure.  Put another way, many small towns overemphasize marketing and sales (industrial recruiting) without adequate attention to product development (improving the quality of life in the community). But prosperous small town economies are built upon the foundation of strong communities.

Strategies for Small Towns and Rural Communities

Successful development strategies in small towns will typically include the following elements: 1) Developing strong and diverse community leadership that is inclusive, collaborative, and connected; 2) Identifying local assets and creating and carrying out a strategic plan based upon these assets; and 3) Joining with other jurisdictions to maximize economic resources.

1.  Community Leadership: Create leadership that is inclusive, collaborative, and connected.

“Leaderful” Communities.

Successful communities all over the United States understand the importance of an expansive view of community leadership.  The traditional notion of the community leader – often a mayor or other powerful “position-holder” — as chief community problem-solver has given way to a new, more dynamic model of the community leader as catalyst, connector, and consensus-builder.

Dr. David Mathews, President of the Kettering Foundation, in summarizing the findings of the Foundation’s research on community politics, writes:

“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.”

This new leadership model recognizes that leadership is not confined to a few elected officials and business leaders.  Rather, successful leadership requires mobilizing the knowledge, talents, and perspectives of every segment of the community.  Successful communities tend to be full of leaders.

2. Community Assessment and Planning: Identify all community assets and create a plan to take strategic advantage.

Strategic Planning.

There is an old saying that goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”  Citizen leaders and stakeholders in high-achieving communities know where they are going.  They understand that an era of rapid social, cultural, and technological change requires a proactive approach to addressing current and future problems.  They engage in a strategic planning process to identify what makes their place special and to decide how to cultivate and promote their unique assets – e.g., a river, a lake, a mountain, or a unique history.  The result of this process is a strategic plan that identifies community priorities and outlines specific strategies to make best use of available assets and to address local challenges. It becomes a road map for the future and a benchmark for community progress.

The benefits of strategic planning are not limited to the final product.  In fact, one of the most beneficial aspects of strategic planning is the process itself.  A successful strategic planning process brings together a diverse group of stakeholders, who address basic questions for the community:  “Where are we now?” “Where do we want to go?” and “How do we get there?” There are few other occasions when representatives from throughout the community come together for an extended period of time to discuss shared hopes, dreams, knowledge, perspectives, ideas, and concerns.  Broad-based strategic planning is a ‘mega-crossroad” and one of the best tools available for building and strengthening community connections.

3. Local and Regional Partnerships: Connect Local Stakeholders and Join Forces with Neighbors.

From Planning to Action: Connecting Community Stakeholders.

The process must not end with the creation of a strategic plan.  If so, it would resemble most other community planning efforts.  The result would be a plan that looks good on paper, but ends up collecting dust on a shelf.  To prevent this, the community should create an entity responsible for seeing that the major objectives in the plan are actually implemented.  This group, which should include representatives from government, business, education, and faith-based institutions, should meet regularly to monitor the community’s progress on the plan and make needed modifications to ensure that the plan remains relevant to community priorities and needs. 

The value of the group is not just that it checks items off of the list of community objectives.  It can serve as an important community “crossroad” where key community stakeholders have the opportunity to think, work, and act together.  Most communities have many excellent people, programs, and projects.  All communities have at least some institutional assets – city government, churches, schools, civic clubs, and Chambers of Commerce.  But far too often, individuals and organizations work independently, rather than in concert with one another.  The truly high-achieving communities are those that create crossroads where leaders from all of these community organizations and institutions can come together to accomplish shared community objectives.

Joining with other jurisdictions to maximize limited resources.

Because small towns and rural areas are sparsely populated, they lack a critical mass – of taxpayers, leadership, financial capacity, infrastructure, and skilled labor.  So if small towns are to survive, they must join forces and work together.  Small towns must learn to see their neighboring community as a competitor only for the Friday night football game.

While a holistic strategy for economic development is needed, attracting new businesses clearly should be one part of the overall approach.  However, small towns rarely possess adequate resources to be effective in the increasingly competitive arena of economic development.  Hiring a professional economic developer is an impossible dream for most small communities.  That is, unless they decide to partner with their neighbors.


Small towns, and larger jurisdictions for that matter, are best served by a holistic approach to economic development.  Industrial development may be an appropriate strategy, especially if done in partnership with regional neighbors.  However, it should not be the only strategy.  To be successful, small towns need to cultivate strong and diverse community leadership that is inclusive, collaborative, and connected.  They need to identify their unique assets, create and implement a strategic plan, and establish strategic partnerships among community stakeholders and with other jurisdictions. And they need to be proactive in creating community and regional crossroads — organizations, or structures, where leaders can connect on a regular basis to assess, plan, and work together.

If small towns aggressively pursue these strategies, they have excellent potential for success.  Many city-dwellers long for what people in small towns already have, and often take for granted: a slower pace of life, friendly people who know their neighbors, attractive open spaces and beautiful scenery, quaint shops, historic homes and buildings, parades, festivals, and streets that are safe and free of traffic congestion.  Many of our small towns still possess a sense of authenticity and charm that cannot be replicated in bigger cities.

These inherent quality-of-life advantages, enhanced by community leadership, planning, and partnerships, ultimately make the community more attractive to both existing and potential residents and employers.  In other words, investments in product development make the community much easier to market and sell.  The irony is that strategies emphasizing community development ultimately make small towns much more attractive in the competition for those large manufacturing plants they covet.


An expanded version of this article appears in the book, Building the Local Economy: Cases in Economic Development, edited by Douglas J. Watson and John Morris (Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 2008).

University Outreach in Communities: The Limits of Expertise

July 29, 2009

2593_1055795867771_1012062500_30159607_3449087_sUntil recently, the logo tagline for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System was “Your Experts for Life.” Many folks in Alabama Extension were not happy with the slogan and took steps to change it. But that tagline describes pretty well the traditional view of university-citizen relations. That is, we at the university are “experts” who enter a community to solve local problems — extending the knowledge and resources of the university to inform, assist, and educate. Under this traditional approach, universities have a stockpile of projects, programs, and initiatives that can be employed to solve whatever problems (often defined by someone from the university) they find in a community. There is a mostly one-way, producer-consumer relationship. Citizens, and, collectively, their communities, are viewed as customers who need the specialized expertise that only the university can provide. Despite a widespread movement toward a new “engaged” model of university-citizen relations, my guess is that this traditional model probably remains the dominant practice.

Lessons from Uniontown, Alabama

I understand this approach pretty well since I practiced it for many of my years working in outreach leadership positions at Auburn University. But my perspective changed beginning in 1999 when the Economic Development Institute was called to assist a small west Alabama community facing severe economic distress.

Our initial approach in Uniontown was to work through the mayor to help the community create a strategic plan for economic development and redesign a local community development organization. This was nothing new for us. Strategic planning and organizational assistance were among the cache of programs and services we regularly provided to communities throughout our state. But in Uniontown, our project was a complete failure.

The planning process never attracted very much citizen involvement. The few citizens who “participated” tended to be elderly friends of the mayor. They generally took a passive role and appeared reluctant to express their views. They tended to look to the mayor or the outside “experts” from Auburn for answers to community problems. (Of course, what we perceived as apathy might have simply reflected the fact that our customer service approach, which put them on the receiving end of our expertise, gave participants little chance to express their own needs or affect the process used to address them.)

Our planning and organizational assistance project in Uniontown had little impact, because this community needed something more basic than a plan or new organizational structures. Uniontown needed its residents to embrace their role as citizens. We had nothing in our bag of tricks that addressed this problem. So we decided to change our approach.

Humbled by our early stumbles, we decided to take a more passive role that focused on listening, facilitating dialogue, and responding to the needs of Uniontown citizens as they defined them. The results were extraordinary. As members of the Uniontown community discussed local problems, they began to realize their capacity for doing something about them. Talk was turned into action, and these actions led to results. For me, the most intriguing outcome was that more good things seemed to happen as we did less.

Connector and Catalyst

Based on our experiences in Uniontown, we changed our perspective on community outreach. We understand that we don’t have all of the answers. We know that citizens produce and create their own fate. We understand that, like Uniontown, many communities are not really looking for technical assistance, service, or education, but rather how to come together as a community. Expertise and specialized programs do not have much to say about that. Thus, the most fundamental community problems are not amenable to the solutions found within our usual bag of tricks.

Those of us in university outreach will have much more relevance if we substitute the role of “connecter and catalyst” for the role of “expert”. We need to understand that the most intractable community problems must be defined and attacked (if not solved) by the local citizens themselves. They have the innate power and capacity to be the solution to their own problems. Outsiders’ coming in to define and solve problems does not build community capacity or facilitate community ownership of problems. Indeed, it may have the reverse effect of perpetuating a continued feeling of dependency. What communities really need from us is to listen to how they define their needs, to help connect stakeholders with local assets and other resources, and to facilitate community deliberations and interactions.

Engagement, Community, and Economic Prosperity

As an economic development organization, Uniontown was a turning point in our understanding of the link between citizens, community development, and economic prosperity. Everything we say and do now reflects the basic idea that citizens are the community’s most important economic resource; 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. This contrasts with the prevailing view of economic development dominated by issues of business marketing, financial incentives, and recruitment.

The changes at ECDI are not reflected in new public deliberation or civic engagement programs and initiatives, although we are involved in such activities. The change is a more fundamental transformation of our organizational culture. It is a paradigm shift in how we view the field of economic development and our place in it. Civic engagement is now integrated into each of our programs and activities – whether in education, research, or community outreach.

One manifestation of our change in philosophy is a new emphasis on community leadership. ECDI is now the home of the Alabama Community Leadership Network (ACLN), which connects, and provides resources for, adult and youth community leadership programs throughout Alabama. We see these local leadership programs as having great potential for building more “leaderful” communities, increasing the capacity of citizens to address the challenges they face, and thereby strengthening civic life in communities throughout Alabama. This is the type of civic infrastructure upon which we believe prosperous economies are built.

We have redesigned our education programs to engage the Alabama economic development community in new ways — both in topics addressed and in course format. While we still address the traditional issues related to business recruitment, our focus is heavily oriented toward community development. Course formats are structured to be very interactive, employing deliberative forums, roundtables, and group exercises. This reflects our philosophy that ECDI staff and course instructors do not have a monopoly on good ideas or strategies. Engagement within our courses produces a healthy exchange of perspectives that is far superior to a lecture-only format. We also travel around the state conducting deliberative forums and roundtables on topics related to economic and community development.

Civic Mission versus Measurement and Money

One of the tensions that we have faced is between our commitment to a civic mission and the University’s demand for measurable results and the generation of extramural income. While we embrace accountability and entrepreneurial strategies, the things we value most are sometimes difficult to measure or less amenable to income generation. The economist Stephen Rhodes said, “Politics and public policy are more like love than math.” That sounds about right. We tend to be able to measure the things that are of the least importance. It’s easier to count the number of people who attend a training class than it is to measure the impact of a rekindled sense of civic efficacy among citizens of Uniontown. It’s pretty easy to make money by securing a contract for an economic impact study of a potential plant location. It’s harder to earn money by sparking a community’s interest in public deliberation and civic engagement. But which has the most value? Getting universities to truly align themselves around their civic mission will require finding a workable balance between the university’s civic purpose, on the one hand, and the demand for accountability and funding on the other.

Not “Your Experts for Life”

To summarize, we have learned the limits of our expertise. Nobody knows or cares about a community’s problems like the citizens themselves. And only they have the power and capacity to solve them. For those of us in university outreach, our most useful contribution is probably to serve as “connecter and catalyst” with the goal of increasing the community’s capacity to successfully address problems on its own.


Connections_2009This article appears in Connections
2009, the Kettering Foundation’s
Annual Newsletter.  The focus of this
year’s publication is “Democracy and
Economic Change.”  Please click the
link to the left to download a free PDF
copy of this publication.

ECDI: A Quick Tour

April 26, 2009


We’ll dig much deeper into our programs and activities later, but I’ll just start with a brief overview. ECDI was created in June 2006 when the former Auburn University Economic Development Institute (EDI) and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s Community Resource Development program joined forces. EDI, created in 1988, had developed a strong emphasis on both community and economic develop-ment, especially rural development, so the restructuring made sense. With the combined resources of Auburn University and Extension, we feel that ECDI is uniquely positioned to provide leadership for our state’s economic and community development.

Our mission is “to promote economic prosperity and improved quality of life for communities throughout Alabama.”ecdi_mission_blog1b This mission statement guides us in everything we do. Our strategic plan has four primary goals related to: 1) Education and Training, 2) Research and Communication, 3) Engagement and Consultation, and 4) Connections and Partnerships. Here is a thumb-
nail sketch of some things we do.

Education & Training: This year we celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the two-week Intensive Economic Development Training Course. With over 800 alumni, including most Alabama economic developers, this is one of the best basic economic development courses in the country. The Alabama Prosperity Forum is an education program that offers short (1½ day) courses focusing on topics where Alabama economic and community development professionals have asked for more training. Unlike many such courses, the format provides opportunities for maximum participant engagement, including discussion roundtables and deliberative forums. ECDI also administers the AU Graduate Minor in Economic Development, which attaches to Master’s degrees in Agricultural Economics, Business Administration, Community Planning, Economics, Education, Public Administration and Public Policy, and Rural Sociology. ECDI is the home of the Alabama Community Leadership Network (ACLN), which connects, and provides resources for, adult and youth community leadership programs throughout Alabama.

Research & Communication: Our publications on rural issues, including Beyond the Interstate: The Crisis in Rural Alabama and Crossroads and Connections: Strategies for Rural Alabama, have significantly influenced rural development discussions, policies, and programs in Alabama. Our Uniontown research on civic engagement, sponsored by the Kettering Foundation, is used as an education, training, and research tool throughout the nation – and world. The research report has been translated into Spanish for distribution in Latin America. ECDI also publishes the quarterly ACTION newsletter. ECDI has an excellent website, what we believe is the state’s best online resource for economic and community development. Available on our website, our interactive Alabama Economic Development Resource Directory is the state’s most comprehensive resource guide for the economic development community. Additionally, the links page on our website provides the most comprehensive one-stop portal for updated economic and community development websites from Alabama and beyond. Other key features of our website include an interactive calendar featuring Alabama economic and community development opportunities, issue-specific articles and resources, and much more. Please take a look.

Engagement & Consultation: We work with many communities throughout the state. Our goal is to help strengthen the capacity of communities to solve their own problems. We see our role as “listener, connector and catalyst” much more than “expert”. We buy into the philosophy that it’s better to “teach a person to fish . . .”  We help with community assessment and asset mapping, leadership development, strategic planning, economic and fiscal impact analysis, and tourism strategies, among other things. We administer the Rural Alabama Initiative, funded by Extension, which, over the last three years, has supported 97 community projects throughout Alabama, many focused on youth and adult leadership and workforce development.

Connections & Partnerships: With a small staff, we know that to have maximum impact, we need to leverage our resources by working with others. So creating connections is central to our way of doing things and our primary message for communities. We are the home of the I-85 Corridor Alliance, a regional partnership of government, civic, business, and educational stakeholders dedicated to promoting innovation, prosperity, and collaboration along Interstate 85 in Alabama. We are founding members of the Alabama Communities of Excellence program (ACE), a public-private partnership that seeks to build the community and economic development capacity of small towns throughout Alabama. I currently serve as president of the ACE Board of Directors. This is a fantastic program and the state’s finest model of collective effort. We are also very active in serving on commissions, task forces, and other economic and community development organizations at the state, regional, and national levels.

ECDI Staff: Effectively carrying out such a wide range of ECDI programming requires a talented staff. Each ECDI staff member contributes across the full range of our programs, but has a primary area of responsibility:

  • Amelia Stehouwer (Research and Communication)
  • Artie Menefee (Leadership Development)
  • Mike Easterwood (Grant and Project Management)
  • Tom Chesnutt (Tourism)
  • Allyson Martin (Education and the I-85 Corridor Alliance)
  • Markie Southerland (Executive Assistant).

This summary description of ECDI provides just a glimpse at who we are and what we do. I look forward to talking more about our programs and staff as we blog along.


ECDI Website

Intensive Economic Development Training Course

Alabama Prosperity Forum

Alabama Community Leadership Network

Beyond the Interstate: The Crisis in Rural Alabama

Crossroads and Connections: Strategies for Rural Alabama

Alabama Economic Development Resource Directory

Rural Alabama Initiative

I-85 Corridor Alliance

Alabama Communities of Excellence (ACE) Program