Supporting Rural Community Vitality: The Freshwater Coast Rural Entrepreneurship Alliance

Guest post written by Wilder Ferreira
Clemson Cooperative Extension, Agribusiness Program Team, [email protected]

A sustainable rural development project should educate students – the next generation of farmers, ranchers, business innovators, and landowners – about entrepreneurship opportunities available to them. A comprehensive entrepreneurship project consists of several components, including the collection and dissemination of information on a variety of local markets, support from community and municipal improvement projects, and the recruitment of investors and donors from private and public sources for new business ventures and economic development initiatives.

A pilot project introduced in the Freshwater Coast region of South Carolina (Abbeville County, McCormick County, and southern Anderson County) comprised all of the aforementioned components and created an atmosphere of entrepreneurial development, community strength, and leadership creation throughout the region. This initiative was sponsored by Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service, the Freshwater Coast Community Foundation (FCCF), and West Carolina Rural Telephone Cooperative (WCTEL).

Project Overview

The Freshwater Coast Rural Entrepreneurship Alliance consisted of a variety of events, trainings, and resources to provide support to local organizations and community members.  This included workshops for businesses and entrepreneurs, several community meetings organized to assess the region’s needs, business plan contests,  career development teams to promote workforce development, and assisting boards, municipalities, and economic development teams to support efforts in improving the region’s economic and social conditions. The groundwork for change was established in the first five years of the project, from 2015 to 2020.

During the planning phase, financial resources were identified and requested through grants and donations to promote activities for rural development in the region.  Coalitions with multiple stakeholders were then established to put in place entrepreneurial and workforce development programs that encouraged business creation, expansion, and retention. During the implementation process, many organizations collaborated to increase participation in the events and educational activities.

The dissemination of information was made possible by working with the WCTEL executive team, FCCF board members, Clemson Extension agents, Future Farmers of America (FFA) students, Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) students, community development specialists, town employees, elected officials, county employees, chambers of commerce, high schools, middle schools, local businesses, and local colleges. More than fifteen hundred people benefited from numerous events. Figure 1 displays a meeting in McCormick County to disseminate information about entrepreneurial opportunities.

Figure 1. Meeting at McCormick High School (All photos courtesy Wilder Ferreira)

Investment in New Leaders

A rural development project may be best suited by using a model to find and nurture young entrepreneurial leaders. This project’s ideas ranged from featuring community-based enterprise planning, marketing, and branding of rural enterprises to promoting professional/business relationships among students, municipalities, and business owners. Increased community participation was needed to initiate collaboration among local schools in leadership and entrepreneurship. These collaborations were able to catalyze a commitment to small businesses, agribusiness, and nature-based enterprises by local students. Therefore, a selection of partnerships encouraged local schools to establish entrepreneurial activities, and as a result, more than 200 students participated in business plan contests promoted by the Freshwater Coast’s rural development project.

New leadership was important to build a network of enthusiastic advocates and financial supporters among entrepreneurs of all kinds to sustain the growth of the initiative. Figure 2 shows Amanda Morgan, a new leader identified by the project, giving a presentation about community health issues in Abbeville County.

Figure 2. Amanda Morgan at the Rotary Club in Abbeville

Through this community and economic development model, the new rural alliance was able to actively identify and pursue new areas of entrepreneurship and innovation by establishing structured mentorship/apprenticeship opportunities. These opportunities were developed by inviting successful entrepreneurs to give lectures that led to mentoring relationships that expanded upon existing strategic relationships. New areas of entrepreneurship and innovation were also developed by exploring the use of continuing education programs at the local community college for mid-career entrepreneurs and executives, helping integrate innovation and entrepreneurial learning. More than 300 businesses and growers benefited from the mentoring and educational programs, with 50 new local, small businesses established and an additional $3 million in sales.

Internship Projects

To quickly start the project, college interns were hired to participate in a multitude of initiatives throughout the region. Interns were invited to help coordinate local farmers’ markets once a week, work with community leaders to create youth programs, write newsletters,  build marketing campaigns, and promote senior wellness programs. Interns also created presentations to post on Facebook and other social media platforms. A few interns were asked to interact with different populations and analyze their social and economic environment. This assessment helped visualize a better future for rural communities.

During a five-year period interns learned new personal and business skills, which allowed them to work diligently to assess and provide solutions to problems at hand, rather than simply typing in data and drafting reports. Figure 3 shows Cody White, an intern from Clemson University, giving a presentation on a feasibility study that he completed during his internship.

Figure 3. Cody White at the Abbeville County Extension Agricultural Building

Feasibility Studies

Rural development projects should emphasize the creation of new, potential business ideas. A valuable feasibility study focuses on the careful identification and assessment of all the essential innovative aspects for business and community success.  Depending on the project, local and regional market assessments may be generated. Interns helped coordinate feasibility studies with the help of economic developers, the Greenwood Area Small Business Development Center, and entrepreneurs. The Freshwater Coast’s rural entrepreneurship project helped support more than $5 million in community and business development projects. The overall business revenues of these investments will surpass $40 million in the next 25 years for the entire region.

A feasibility study proposal primarily outlines the general business model (i.e., how the business will make money), the technical processes, size, location, type of inputs, and the timeline projection. The timeline projection details how long a project will take from the inception until it is up and running at capacity. The feasibility study proposal must include the size and scope of the industry, the major competitors, the demand for the product or service, the capital needs, expected expenses, and profitability.  SCORE’s Financial Projections Template was used to help assess the feasibility of an enterprise during this project.  See Figure 4.

Figure 4. Example of a financial feasibility report using the SCORE Financial Projection Model


Rural development projects are vital for communities to thrive socially and economically. Choosing a viable model through internships, youth leadership, and new business development is critical for a rural community to become and remain vibrant. A rural coalition backed by local champions, such as the Freshwater Coast Community Foundation’s leadership team, and influential decision makers can help facilitate the planning and execution of programs. The first step is to assess the needs of the community. This assessment will inform community priorities and drive community-supported action to create an impactful project that serves the community and educates the next generation of business leaders.

For more information: Contact Wilder Ferreira, Clemson Cooperative Extension, Agribusiness Program Team, [email protected]


Contact Joe D'Antonio

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 execution 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 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 her family’s 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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2023 Impact Awards

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For award-winning projects, the information provided below may be used verbatim to inform project descriptions that will be published in the 2023 NADO Impact Awards materials and included on the NADO website.

Please submit at least one photo showing your project in action. Please keep file size to a minimum (<2Mb) and use JPEG format. If uploading multiple files, ZIP files prior to submitting. If you have trouble uploading images they can be directly emailed to Brett Schwartz at [email protected]. Include the project title they correspond to in the subject line of your email.

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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.

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