By AEO Staff

At AEO’s Summit on Regionalism earlier this month, Natalie Madeira Cofield, President and CEO of the Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO), sat down with Alejandra Castillo, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development, for a compelling fireside conversation to discuss the critical issue of equity in access to community investment resources. The dialogue underscored several pivotal points, shedding light on longstanding economic disparities and the need for a more inclusive approach to economic development.

Watch the Fireside Chat Here

Historical Context and Present-Day Challenges

Cofield and Castillo began by reflecting on how the COVID-19 pandemic exposed economic issues that have persisted for over five decades. These include changes in manufacturing and systemic disinvestment in certain communities. Despite the availability of funds and resources aimed at economic development, the communities that need these resources the most often lack the capacity to access or effectively manage them. This gap highlights the need for organizations like AEO to facilitate more equitable access.

Strategic Framework: People, Place, and Possibilities

The conversation emphasized that regional economic development should not be confined by geographic boundaries. Instead, it should focus on where people are, utilizing the unique attributes and opportunities of each location. This approach is encapsulated in the concept of “People, Place, and Possibilities,” which stresses the importance of tailoring economic development efforts to the specific needs and strengths of each community.

Advocating for a Coalition Approach

Both leaders agreed on the necessity of a coalition approach to economic development. True progress requires an integrated effort that engages a variety of community and regional anchors, such as community colleges, for-profit businesses, and workforce development agencies. This coalition approach ensures that economic development is not a sporadic effort but a sustained and deeply rooted initiative.

Cofield and Castillo advocated for a strategy that takes stock of community assets to identify key stakeholders and recognize who might be missing from the table. By doing so, communities can better harness their resources and create a more inclusive path to long-term success.

Ensuring Sustainability

A recurring theme was that economic development should be so ingrained in a community that it becomes impervious to changes in administration or external disruptions. This level of integration ensures that no single entity can derail progress, providing stability and sustained growth over time.

The conversation between Cofield and Castillo highlighted the imperative of equity in economic development. By adopting a coalition approach and focusing on the unique needs and assets of each community, AEO and their partner organizations play a crucial role in fostering inclusive and enduring economic growth.

To learn more, click here to watch the fireside conversation at AEO’s “Leveraging Regionalism to Empower Small Businesses” Summit held on May 2, 2024 at the National Press Club.