At 3:30 on the Tuesday afternoon the president of a rural chamber of commerce hangs up the phone. She knows the proposal deadline is Friday, and the deal could bring hundreds of jobs and millions in investment to her desperately poor county. With a deep breath, she grins and thinks, “We’ve got this!”
Scenes like this play out across the Tennessee Valley every year, and it is the job of Aaron Stewart, senior program manager of rural strategies for TVA Economic Development, to make sure rural leaders are prepared to answer the call.
Stewart heads Tennessee Valley Rural Leadership Institute. The program is focused on helping the region’s most distressed communities—defined as those with populations of less than 5,000 or that fall in the bottom 25% in terms of unemployment, per capita income or poverty rate—by teaching leaders in small towns and rural communities the skills and techniques they need to attract the businesses and industries not only to survive, but begin to thrive.
Fighting the Good Fight
In 2015, the TVA service area saw a 15 percent increase in new and expanding companies in the region and a 20 percent increase in new and retained jobs. That means $7.8 billion in direct investment in the Valley in FY2015 alone.
“Rural and distressed communities need to fight for these jobs,” says Stewart. “Jobs are the engine that reduces poverty, drives the tax base, funds schools and libraries, increase quality of life and make communities click.”
TVA founded the Institute six years ago to combat the discrepancy between mid- to larger communities, which often have dedicated and well-trained economic development professionals and organizations, and smaller communities and rural areas, which are often filling in an economic development gap with chamber members or local power company officials wearing multiple hats.
“Economic development is an extremely competitive business,” says Stewart. “You have to build a mindset on how to be an effective and persuasive economic development leader. TVA Economic Development saw a real opportunity to make a difference by tailoring training for the needs of these multitasking professionals relying on volunteers, interested citizens, elected officials and businesses for support.”
The Tennessee Valley Rural Leadership Institute—an annual set of courses—offers four two-day intensive workshops on these topics:
1. Developing leadership and interpersonal skills
2. Communications and networking
3. Understanding TVA’s role
4. Creating a compelling incentive package
All three workshops have proven to be a big hit with participants.
Getting to Know You
Tennessee Valley Rural Leadership Institute uses personal assessment tools to shed light on interpersonal as well as intrapersonal relationships. “I loved that personality assessment in the first session,” says program alum Jamie Troutman, business development manager with the Cullman Economic Development Agency in Alabama. “I’ve used things I learned from that in my personal and professional life, and I try to think about it when I’m working with others. It really helps.”
The communications workshop covers sharing news good and bad, and includes media training. And of course, networking is a key focus—and that carries throughout the course of each class. “The Rural Leadership Academy has certainly allowed me to make many new business contacts who I now consider friends,” says Institute graduate James T. Bates, director of key accounts and economic development for Mount Pleasant Power System in Tennessee. “Sharing stories and common practices with colleagues has also given me many new ideas and allowed me to adopt more professional business methods. This makes me a more valuable team member in community development efforts.”
Troutman agrees. “My professional network expanded because of this program,” she says. “I met people in other states and regions that I would feel comfortable calling on for advice or ideas.”
Understanding what TVA has to offer and how each community can use TVA’s tools merits its own session—and the information is always well received, says Stewart. “TVA is here to help,” Stewart explains. “From technical services to market research to incentives to product development, TVA provides a tremendous realm of services that communities