Auburn University Outreach’s Government and Economic Development Institute provides expert consultation and resources to restore communities amid COVID-19

Published: May 12, 2020
Updated: May 14, 2020
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Auburn University Outreach’s Government and Economic Development Institute, or GEDI, assists communities, especially underserved and under-resourced communities, by providing expert consultation and training resources to address significant local issues and to promote economic development and effective government policy.

One of the most profound impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is the hit on the economy, especially in areas already struggling economically. LaKami Baker, interim executive director of GEDI, discusses how GEDI’s outreach is critically important to the state as we look to restoring the economy and getting back to work and developing sound strategies to dealing with current and future public crises.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Alabama community economies? 

At the end of February, Alabama’s unemployment was at a record low of 2.7 percent with sectors such as leisure and hospitality experiencing record high wages. After the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March, Alabama’s tourism and manufacturing industries took a direct hit as the beaches were closed and factories idled. As of May 9, nearly 450,000 Alabamians have filed unemployment claims with the majority of the claims coming from the manufacturing, accommodations and food services, health care and social assistance, retail trade industries and other small businesses.

The shelter-in-place orders and the closing of “non-essential” businesses halted the growth the state was experiencing in tourism, aerospace and automotive manufacturing. While smaller businesses are struggling and seeing losses, many of the big box retailers saw early growth as Alabamians rushed to stock up on consumable items and engage in do-it-yourself projects to pass the time. April data is going to tell us a lot about the long-term effect of COVID-19, especially on our rural communities. Alabama, however, with its mix of industries is better suited than many states to rebound.

University Outreach has been at the forefront of Auburn’s coronavirus pandemic responses with its protective mask initiative, conversion of its base of professional and lifelong learning programs to online and promoting health safety with at-risk populations. Tell us about GEDI’s outreach responses in providing expert articles and other assistance to local governments related to the pandemic. 

GEDI has been active in getting information to small business, economic developers and city and county managers. Early on we offered webinars to address the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act to help get information out regarding the available resources. Our Human Resources Consulting unit has been releasing regular update articles to help city and county managers navigate the everchanging human resources challenges related to the coronavirus. We also have converted courses for our EDAA Leadership Institute Program online and integrated segments to address the COVID-19 crisis. For example, in the Building Workforce class, we developed a module to address building a workforce during a crisis and in another, developed a specialized module to address the impact of COVID-19 on retail. To help prepare our communities long-term, we have engaged leading economic developers in virtual chats to address the effects of COVID-19 on economic development.

You are chairing a university initiative focused on Alabama’s economic recovery called “Refueling the Economy.” Tell us about that effort and what university units are collaborating.

University Outreach, Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation are collaborating to design the initial structure for a portal to assist those outside and inside the university to locate economic development resources. However, we intend for this to be a tool that all units of Auburn University will eventually provide input and link relevant economic development resources and tools from their respective webpages. The website underdevelopment is titled, “Refueling the Economy: Auburn Economic Development Resources.”

The site is being designed to house economic development resources for business and industry, government and economic development organizations, workforce and training and community members. The site will house articles, webinars, online course offerings, links and other tools relevant to each respective audience. Although the initial content on the site is focused on COVID-19 and resiliency, the content will change over time to assist businesses, governments and communities recover from COVID-19 and refuel their local economy. The intent is for this site to be the first resource for those looking for Auburn economic development resources that can fuel an economy.

Moving ahead as the state’s economy restarts, what are some of the challenges you see for Alabama communities? How should they respond and what resources can Auburn provide to help?

The challenges I see for Alabama communities as the state restarts are initially related to uncertainties in their budget and making their community member feel safe. First, communities will need to assess the full financial impact of the coronavirus on their community and make adjustments in their budget due to lower revenue from sales tax, local recreational programs and tourism. The reality is that many of the small businesses that closed will not re-open. Although some small businesses have been able to receive assistance through the coronavirus stimulus packages, for many it is not enough. For those communities reliant on small business, it not just a temporary decline in revenue, it is a permanent loss. Those communities will be forced to replace that revenue in their community coffers. For the businesses that are limping, community leaders will need to determine how they can best support those businesses in returning to full capacity. In other instances, communities may need to help businesses re-invent themselves such as HomTex Inc. in Cullman, Alabama, which has shifted their focus on bed linens to cotton face masks.

Business and community leaders can reach out to Auburn for consulting and training assistance. Auburn can provide consulting and training on business processes, supply chain, strategic planning and new product development to businesses and communities. Auburn can offer entrepreneurial training to those communities looking for help jumpstarting their small businesses.

Another challenge for community and business leaders will be protecting their employees and ensuring citizens feel safe. While some communities have seen low rates of positive cases of the coronavirus and have had little to no deaths due to COVID-19, others are on the opposite end of the spectrum with very high rates. Many small towns are a close-knit community, so the sickness and the deaths are having a greater impact. Establishing return to work policies are essential for protecting employees and to help everyone feel safe. While the Department of Labor and CDC provides guidance, it is also necessary for local business and community leaders to assess their own organizations and communities to establish policies and procedures. Auburn has experts that can consult and offer guidance on wellness and human resource issues.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced communities to embrace technology, it has also exposed the gaps in technology across Alabama as well. Some cities and towns across Alabama have been conducting business and council meetings via Zoom and other online platforms. Technology is also being used to continue the education of our students. Whereas some area schools have a strong broadband infrastructure in place that allows teachers to engage and teach students online. Others, especially in rural areas, have been left out due to the lack of adequate broadband support across the state. Much praise is needed for the districts that were innovative in sending out Wi-Fi buses to remote areas to help the children stay up with their peers. However, it is 2020 and time for high-speed internet to be a basic utility in Alabama. Establishing strong broadband across the state not only helps education, it helps communities grow and Alabama work.