Knowledge is Power: Preparing Leaders for Alabama Economic Development

Originally contributed to the EDAA Journal, Winter 2015 by Joe A. Sumners, Ph.D., director of the Economic & Community Development Institute (ECDI), a partnership between Auburn University and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Amelia H. Stehouwer, ECDI Research and Education Specialist.

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. We appreciate the Economic Development Association of Alabama (EDAA) for providing us with the opportunity to provide a brief overview of a few of our economic development education programs.

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:

  • J. Mac Holladay is the only person to have served three states as the head of a state economic entity.
  • Dr. 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.
  • Dr. 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.

Graduate “Certificate” in Economic Development

ECDI is in the process of obtaining Auburn University approval to replace the graduate minor with a “Graduate Certificate” in Economic Development.  Converting to a graduate certificate opens access to those who are not pursuing a graduate degree program at Auburn University.  Primary audiences for the new certificate are the state’s economic development community, as well as students from outside of the state.  This goal can be achieved via new distance learning options.  ECDI plans to offer its core economic development course, as well as the first week of the Intensive Course, through distance education.  Four of the current elective courses are already offered via distance.  Thus, a student who needs to complete the entire graduate certificate via distance education could do so.  In addition, we are seeking University approval to add new online elective courses to the proposed Graduate Certificate curriculum.

Another reason for converting to a certificate program is to enhance the credentials of our future students (both graduate students and others who want to add to their undergraduate degree), making them even more competitive in today’s marketplace.  While all of our bordering states (Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida) offer graduate certificates in economic development, there is currently no similar graduate certificate program being offered in Alabama.
Auburn University has already approved ECDI’s preliminary proposal for the new certificate program, and ECDI is awaiting approval of its official graduate certificate proposal.

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 five 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 and Certificate in Economic Development. 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 “Knowledge is Power.”  At ECDI, we know that this statement is true only if we can 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.