When Karen Sawyer Conard became the executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission (MVPC) in January 2017, the organization was poised to write its five-year CEDS update. As a new leader, she says she and staff “didn’t have the burden of doing the CEDS in the same way as in the past” and wanted to create a meaningful and thoughtful process that would unite the region around a common vision. That process would go on to take 12 months, involve many meetings (including those held in unconventional locations), and forge a conversation around equity and resilience that hadn’t taken place before at such a regional scale.
Early in the process, four working groups were formed around emerging themes identified in the region – City/Town Centers, Manufacturing, National/Cultural Resources, and Transportation. These groups consisted of 80 public and private sector participants with a mix of backgrounds and interests who over the course of the year and through numerous working sessions drove the development of the CEDS plan. One of those participants was Nate Robertson who at the time served as the city of Haverhill’s Assistant Director of Economic Development. Early on, Robertson recognized how important it was to be a part of the CEDS planning process. “You couldn’t afford not to be a part of those CEDS conversations because of the relevancy of the issues we discussed. We have small municipalities in our region and no county government so we work closely together by the nature of how we are structured.” In March 2019, Nate joined MVPC as the organization’s Community and Economic Development Planner where he is now tasked with leading the implementation of the plan he had helped to shape as a stakeholder.
MVPC took two unique approaches to plan the CEDS – one was conducting a variation of the standard required SWOT analysis and the other was holding meetings in non-traditional settings to improve outreach and participation. Rather than conduct a SWOT, the planning team instead carried out a SOAR analysis that explored the region’s Strengths, Aspirations, Opportunities, and Risks with the four established groups and the CEDS committee. “The SOAR model became something that we felt was more ‘glass half full’ and less negative in tone,” says Sawyer Conard. Robertson agrees: “We opted to use a SOAR analysis because it is more forward-thinking. By looking at results folks were able to better articulate where we wanted to be in five years and think about ways to measure that.”
The SOAR analysis allowed participants to look at key themes facing the region and ask how economic resilience and equity considerations could best be incorporated to address these issues. The Merrimack Valley has had to respond to boom and bust cycles since its early days when the economy was centered around its textile mills along the riverfront. In the 1990s, the region worked to become more resilient by diversifying its economy – an effort that still continues to this day and influences how the region approaches economic development. Similarly, the topic of equity was one that the CEDS planning participants were extremely sensitive to and aware of during planning conversations and in the writing of the plan. Though the Merrimack Valley economy is generally strong, the region also has visible income inequality and is home to one of the poorest and one of the wealthiest communities in the state of Connecticut. Making resilience and equity key drivers that shaped how the CEDS was discussed and written ensures that the projects identified and the goals set are relevant to the region and will continue to drive the conversation about how to make the Merrimack Valley a more prosperous and inclusive place for all residents.
Meeting location was also a key part of MVPC’s outreach and engagement strategy. Instead of convening in standard conference rooms and offices, meetings were held in unique settings across the region, such as on the floors of manufacturing facilities, in vacant storefronts, at coworking spaces, and in business incubators. One meeting was even held in a factory building in the middle of winter that hadn’t yet had its heating system turned on. “There was a real interest from property owners who had underutilized space to meet with economic development folks en masse. Our CEDS process was a vehicle for those meetings to happen,” says Robertson. Hosting meetings in these spaces provided both exposure for these properties and also better informed the working groups about what was happening with the regional economy and how to address local challenges and needs.
In summary, MVPC staff and stakeholders recognized the benefits of having a thorough planning process and taking the time to come together in working groups over the period of a year. This approach has led to better outcomes and generated regional buy-in so that the result has not been just the production of the CEDS document, but also the creation of a motivated cohort of individuals ready to take ownership of the plan and see it through to implementation. Because of the deep relationships forged and trust built during the process, the stakeholders who participated in the working groups are well-positioned to support with implementation efforts. “We went out of our way to build a committee of people not just to provide input but to help with implementation,” says Sawyer Conard. “We will reengage this group and people expect they will be asked to participate.”
The CEDS document is the guiding document for our region’s economic development and planning future. The priorities identified in the CEDS identify the region’s assets and priorities; however for our region the CEDS is much more than just the document. The process of producing the CEDS engaged and galvanized a vast swath of stakeholders in the Merrimack Valley Region, allowing them to communicate, collaborate, and share best practices with one another. This process helped foster a regional community of stakeholders that had not existed or worked together before. The CEDS process got our communities to share their common goals and work with each other in a more collaborative way to achieve those ends.
Economic resilience is a topic that is all-too-familiar with many of our partner communities in the Merrimack Valley. For hundreds of years the predominant economic development model was based off of recruiting and retaining a few dominate industries which left the region to the whims of boom-and-bust cycles. Since the 1990s the region began to move away from that model and focus on attracting and retaining a more diverse portfolio of industries of smaller sizes. Having lots of smaller employers over a large variety of regions makes our regional economy more nimble and resilient within the changing winds of the larger economy. Focusing on small businesses, physical infrastructure, downtown development, and protecting natural resources are all priorities identified in our CEDS document and make for the bedrock of a more resilient region, both economically and environmentally.
Having an accurate cross section that was representative of the larger community was a priority in our CEDS process and also a challenge. We worked closely with various nonprofits in the communities to ensure that traditionally underrepresented and impoverished groups had some representation at the table. We were able to demonstrate the value in this process because employment and housing are especially important among populations of people who are traditionally underrepresented. This served the dual purpose of making the conversations more attractive to the business community who are experiencing real challenges in attracting and retaining a workers. Because of the inability to attract enough workers businesses have a real interest in working with historically underrepresented groups.
Another method we used was to host meetings in different places throughout the communities. We held meetings on the floors of manufacturing facilities, in coworking spaces, and within neighborhoods. We found that people looked forward to visiting these places much more than the traditional round table in a municipal office. There was also a real interest from property owners who had underutilized space to meet with economic development folks en masse. Our CEDS process was a vehicle for those meetings to happen.
We have had some staff turnover in the first year of our CEDS implementation, but that hasn’t slowed us down. A number of big projects have moved forward. In the cultural and natural resources world, we have teamed up with a community foundation to undergo a massive cultural asset mapping process. This process will get traditionally siloed stakeholders together to talk about our strengths as a region and how we can build on them. We see this is being much more than just a list of cultural assets, but rather a key group that helps drive economic development throughout the region by strengthening community ties and making our communities more desirable and enjoyable to live in and visit. MVPC is also involved on two boards that oversee the transformative redevelopment of downtown areas in our post-industrial mill cities. There has been several of transit-oriented mixed-use dense development in both communities that have helped knit back together the urban fabric.
Click here to access additional case studies in the CEDS Spotlight series
This case studies series is presented through NADO’s Stronger CEDS, Stronger Regions program, funded through a generous grant from the US Economic Development Administration.
Regional Development Researcher Andrew Coker joined the NADO team in March of 2023 after spending two and a half years as the Regional Economic Resiliency Coordinator at West Central Arkansas Planning and Development District. Andrew holds a bachelor’s degree from Hendrix College and a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.
At NADO, Andrew conducts research on the newest economic and community development best practices from Economic Development Districts across the country. He helps produce easily digestible information on complex regional issues through case studies, tip sheets, and research reports. Andrew also hosts training and professional development opportunities including conference sessions and virtual webinars for member regional development organizations.
Andrew is one of our Missouri-based team members and enjoys reading and training for his next triathlon.
Jack Morgan came to the NADO team in 2022 after seven years with the National Association of Counties (NACo) as a Program and Senior Program Manager. Prior to NACo, Jack was a Policy Analyst for Friends of Southwest Virginia. Jack holds a bachelor’s in geography from Emory & Henry College and a master’s in geography from Appalachian State University.
As a NADO Senior Program Manager, Jack leads capacity-building and peer-learning work supporting energy communities in economic transition, regional resilience, and recreation economies. He also helps with the EDA-Austin training program Emerging Leaders.
Jack is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) and is a member of the American Planning Association (APA) in the Regional & Intergovernmental Planning division. He also serves on the Emory & Henry College Alumni Board.
Taking road trips, reading non-fiction, and indulging in top-notch barbecue and coffee round out Jack’s days. He loves maps, mountains, and of course, all things sports.
Karron Grant joined the NADO team in 2023 as Administrative Specialist and is the first face (or voice) you’ll see or hear when reaching out to NADO. As Administrative Specialist, Karron manages our database and coordinates NADO event operations. He ensures members’ needs are met, contact information stays current, and NADO’s office is running efficiently.
Karron came to NADO after four years in the classroom teaching at The New Century School and Old Mill Middle North where he received the Patriot of the Year award. He attended Towson University and the University of Maryland Global Campus and holds a bachelor’s in international studies and humanities.
Visiting art galleries and museums, playing basketball and bowling, and taking in movies and music are some of Karron’s interests and hobbies.
Deputy Executive Director Laurie Thompson has been with NADO for 25 years. Laurie helps keep the NADO and NADO Research Foundation wheels turning through management of the daily operations of the Research Foundation, securing financial resources and overseeing grants management, and helping execute NADO’s Annual Training Conference each year.
Laurie holds a bachelor’s in public affairs and government from Mount Vernon College and a master’s in health services administration from The George Washington University. Prior to NADO, Laurie spent time as a Field Specialist and an Eagle Staff Fund Director at First Nations Development Institute.
When she’s taking a rare reprieve from her NADO work, Laurie enjoys traveling domestically and internationally to visit friends and family.
Jamie McCormick joined the NADO team as a Policy Fellow first in 2019, then moved into her current role as Legislative Associate in 2021. As Legislative Associate, Jamie keeps NADO members apprised of any policy and regulatory issues and communicates NADO’s policy priorities to federal stakeholders and partner organizations. She is also the first stop for members with inquiries on policy issues. The planning and executive of NADO & DDAA’s annual Washington Conference is also managed by Jamie.
Jamie holds a dual bachelor’s in political science and international relations from The State University of New York College at Geneseo and a master’s in international development studies from The George Washington University. In addition to her roles at NADO, Jamie also worked as a Legislative Assistant for the Northeastern Retail Lumber Association.
Outside of her NADO work, Jamie is an active volunteer with the VOLO Kids Foundation and a fundraiser for YMCA youth programs. She is also NADO’s resident baker regularly providing treats for those in NADO’s D.C. office. Traveling, taking her pup on walks, and hiking in the northeast keep Jamie busy.
Brett Schwartz began at NADO in 2012 as a Research Fellow after earning his J.D. from the University of Baltimore School of Law. The following year, he was promoted to Program Manager and has now been leading as an Associate Director since 2018. Brett is responsible for managing NADO’s Economic Development District Community of Practice (EDD CoP), as well as researching and monitoring the latest trends in regional economic development and resilience, including best practices for the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS). With more than a decade of experience on the NADO team, Brett is a dynamic relationship builder helping connect and build capacity among the national network of regional development organizations.
Brett also holds a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and a master’s from Trinity College Dublin, as well as a certificate in mediation training. He’s a member of Catalyst Grantmakers of San Diego and Imperial Counties and was a participant in the 2021-22 Field Trips to the Future Cohort.
Brett is one of NADO’s West Coast team members residing in San Diego, CA where he enjoys spending time outdoors, attending concerts and festivals, and soaking up life as a parent of two young children.
Communications Manager Katie Allison joined the team in 2023 to lead the strategic communication efforts of NADO. Katie creates and develops print and online materials, communicates NADO’s updates to members via weekly emails, and maintains content for nado.org and NADO’s social media channels. She also works with different departments to generate new ideas and strategies to effectively describe and promote the important work NADO is doing for EDDs and RDOs across the country.
An experienced nonprofit communications professional, Katie has worked for organizations in western North Carolina for nearly a decade. She holds a bachelor’s in communications from Wingate University where she was a four-year student athlete. Katie has also completed Vision Henderson County, a comprehensive leadership development program that promotes informed and committed civic volunteerism.
Katie stays busy trying to keep up with her two young sons whom she enjoys exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains with. Traveling to new and favorite places and cheering on the Atlanta Braves are some of their favorite pastimes.
Senior Program Manager Ciara Ristig has been a member of the NADO team since 2021, and helps with NADO’s EDD Community of Practice, EDD staff capacity building and other grants on a range of subjects, including equity and solar energy. Before NADO, Ciara worked as a Planner for the County of Santa Barbara and an Assistant Project Manager for REM Consult. Ciara holds a bachelor’s in urban studies and French from Bryn Mawr and a master’s in urban studies from Ecole d’Urbanisme de Paris.
When she’s not traveling, you can find her outrigger paddling and serving on the board of the Blue Sky Center in New Cuyama, CA, near her home base of Santa Barbara.
Carrie Kissel has been a member of the NADO team since 2005 when she began as a Research Fellow. She later moved into the roles of Program Manager in 2006, and then Associate Director in 2011. Carrie holds a bachelor’s in anthropology from Ball State University and a master’s in public anthropology from American University. As Associate Director, Carrie oversees NADO’s work in rural transportation and rural wealth creation. She provides technical assistance and support to rural regions on transportation and economic development issues and develops training and peer exchange events on transportation issues and rural wealth creation as an economic development strategy.
Carrie is a member of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and secretary of TRB’s Rural Transportation Issues Coordinating Council. She is also a member of the American Anthropological Association and the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology.
Reading, gardening, hiking, and kayaking are a few of Carrie’s hobbies, and she organizes and facilitates a DEI/social justice-focused book club in her community.
Melissa Levy has worked at NADO as a Regional Development Researcher since February 2023 and is the Principal Consultant at her own firm specializing in wealth-based economic development consulting. With a career spanning nearly 30 years, Melissa brings a breadth of knowledge to her role as a Regional Development Researcher. Melissa provides in-depth research, coaching, and training on regional economic resilience, rural wealth creation strategies, and economic development.
Melissa is a North American Food Systems Network trained AgriCluster Resilience and Expansion (ACRE) facilitator and a WealthWorks coach, facilitator, and trainer. In addition to her professional work, Melissa serves on the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Council, on the board of the Hinesburg Community Resource Center, and on the Hinesburg Economic Development Committee.
A true outdoorswoman, Melissa enjoys cross country and downhill skiing, paddleboarding, hiking, biking, and kayaking, as well as yoga, and teaching Tai Chi.
Program Manager Krishna Kunapareddy began her role with NADO in February of 2023 after 14 years of service at Boonslick Regional Planning Commission in Missouri. Krishna manages NADO Research Foundation’s Planning and Environmental Linkages and Center for Environmental Excellence projects. In addition to researching and writing, Krishna also conducts virtual workshops on innovative tools and techniques related to transportation planning.
She holds an undergraduate degree from Andhra University and a master’s from JNT University in India, as well as a master’s in city and regional planning from the University of Texas at Arlington. Krishna is also a certified Smart Cities Academy Practitioner and holds the Location Advantage certificate from geographic information system software company ESRI.
In her spare time, Krishna volunteers with Mentors4College helping high schoolers better plan for their post-high school paths. She is also a dedicated advocate for documented H4 Dreamers.
Krystal DeLeon joined the NADO team in October of 2020 as Database & Grants Manger, but in January of 2022 transitioned to her current role as Operations Manager. Krystal keeps NADO running through behind the scenes work of invoicing, solving any database issues that may arise, producing membership reports, and much more. Her organizational skills and thorough knowledge help the NADO team operate more efficiently across all departments.
Prior to NADO, Krystal was the Conference Services Coordinator for State Services Organization. She is a Certified Meeting Professional (CMP), a licensed realtor, and holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Liberty University. When she’s not keeping NADO’s operations in order, Krystal enjoys running and rock climbing, and adventuring with her husband and son.
Senior Program Manager Bret Allphin joined NADO in April of 2022 bringing with him a wealth of knowledge after a 20-year career with Buckeye Hills Regional Council in Marietta, Ohio. In addition to his bachelor’s in political science and master’s in public affairs, Bret is licensed Geographical Information Systems Professional (GISP). He is NADO’s go-to team member for all things mapping while also supporting members with transportation and economic development technical assistance services.
An avid sports aficionado and former collegiate athlete, Bret enjoys cheering on his Cincinnati Reds, hitting the trails on his mountain bike, and improving his golf game whenever possible. Bret is an involved community member in Marietta dedicating much of his spare time to serving on local nonprofit boards.
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Joe McKinney serves as Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). Headquartered in Washington DC, NADO provides advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s 500+ regional planning and development organizations.
Joe has thirty-one years of experience having served in city, county, regional, national association, and government management since 1991. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy Analysis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a candidate for a master’s degree in Public Administration from UNC-Chapel Hill.
McKinney has provided congressional testimony on numerous occasions regarding the importance of regional development organizations in helping shape the nation’s economic growth. He is nationally recognized for promoting innovative solutions in areas such as planning and economic development, workforce development, transportation and transit, and aging services.