Faculty and Staff

ECDI's staff of competent and committed professionals works together to promote economic prosperity and improved quality of life for communities throughout Alabama.


Joe A. Sumners, Ph.D., Director

Joe A. Sumners is Director of the Economic & Community Development Institute at Auburn University. He is the author of numerous publications on the topic of rural economic and community development, including Beyond the Interstate: The Crisis in Rural Alabama (January 2003) and Crossroads and Connections: Strategies for Rural Alabama (October 2004). He wrote a chapter (with Amelia Stehouwer), “Politics and Economic Development in the Southern Black Belt,” for The Oxford Handbook of Southern Politics (Oxford University Press, 2012). He has coordinated a multi-year Kettering Foundation research project in Alabama’s Black Belt and published articles that focus on the link between civic engagement and community economic prosperity. He recently authored the publication, Community Questions: Engaging Citizens to Address Community Concerns.

He is a member of the Auburn University graduate faculty and teaches the graduate seminar, “Economic Development and Competition,” as the core course in the University’s Graduate Minor in Economic Development. He previously taught at the University of Georgia, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Stephen F. Austin State University.

He has over 20 years of outreach experience working with communities and local governments in Alabama, with extensive experience assisting communities with strategic planning and civic engagement initiatives. He served as a technical advisor to the Alabama Task Force on Economically Distressed Counties, Alabama’s Black Belt Action Commission, and Alabama Rural Action Commission. He is a founding Board member of the Alabama Communities of Excellence Program and is on the Board of Directors for the David Mathews Center for Civic Life. He received his BS (summa cum laude) and MA degrees from Auburn University and his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Georgia. He is married to Lynn Sumners and has two children, Lacey Updegraff and Tucker Sumners, and two grandchildren.

CLICK HERE for a one-page biographical sketch of Dr. Sumners.

J. Thomas "Tom" Chesnutt
J. Thomas Chesnutt, Ed.D., Tourism Specialist

Since 1990, Tom Chesnutt has served on the faculty of Auburn University and in Extension's Community Resource Development section. When Extension CRD merged with EDI in June 2006, Tom became part of the new ECDI staff.

Tom has thirty years of teaching, consulting, and practical experience in tourism and leisure services. Prior to joining Auburn University, he was an associate professor at Marshall University and the University of Alabama, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and Chief Academics Section and Survival Field Officer with the US Air Force.

As a Tourism Specialist, a few of his programs include the Alabama Agritourism Trail, Alabama-Mississippi Rural Tourism Conference, Outdoor Alabama Partnership, Alabama Scenic River Trail, and Alabama Trails Commission.

In his current role, Tom provides community and state decision-makers with information and direction on tourism as an economic development strategy. He serves on the advisory board of the Alabama Tourism Department and on the boards of the North Alabama Agri-Plex, Black Belt Heritage Area, and RiverWay South. He was appointed by the Governor to the Alabama Scenic Byways Advisory Council, and also serves on the Tourism and Marketing Committee of the Governor's Black Belt Action Commission.

In addition, Tom co-coordinates Extension’s Rural Economic and Community Development Program Priority Team and serves as Editor of Extension’s quarterly ACTION Public Issue Information for Alabama Communities Newsletter. Tom is a native of Pintlala, Alabama. He received his BAE degree from Auburn University, his MA from Lehigh University, and his EdD from the University of Georgia.

R. Michael Easterwood
R. Michael Easterwood, Senior Outreach Associate

Mike Easterwood serves in the capacity of project management specialist at ECDI, where he has worked since 1994. In this position, he administers the Rural Alabama Initiative and Extension Resource Conservation and Develop-ment grant programs and is responsible for securing extramural funding for ECDI.

Mike has held numerous responsibilities during his tenure at ECDI, including: working with communities to develop strategic plans for economic development, leading community training sessions in writing and developing grant proposals, conducting economic development research, and coordinating the graduate minor in Economic Development. He has also played an active role in supporting the Alabama Communities of Excellence program, which awarded him with the Outstanding Volunteer Award in 2009.

Prior to working for ECDI, Mike served as Development Director with AU's Center for Governmental Services from 1985 to 1994. He served as a Research Specialist with the Bureau of Governmental Research and Service at the University of South Carolina from 1981 to 1985. In addition, he was Development Director with the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission in Anniston from 1971 to 1981.

Mike was born in Tallapoosa County. He received his BA degree from Auburn University in 1971 and earned graduate degrees from Jacksonville State University (MPA) and the University of Alabama in Birmingham (MA/Urban Studies). He and his wife, the former Patsy Wilbanks from Goodwater, Alabama have two daughters, Casey and Kristen.

Dennis Evans
Dennis A. Evans, Ed.D., Community Development Specialist

Dennis Evans has been a Community Development Specialist with ECDI since 2009. His major responsibilities include ongoing support for community leadership efforts and facilitation of field training with the Boosting Broadband project to enhance internet connectivity for counties across the state. An Extension System employee, Dennis is also a faculty member in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology in the Auburn University College of Agriculture.

Prior to joining ECDI, Dennis directed a highly regarded executive development program for emerging leaders in the state's food and fiber industries, a joint venture of Extension and AU's College of Agriculture and School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. He was honored with an international award as outstanding director in 2006. Dennis has also served Extension in Program Evaluation and Accountability at the headquarters office, as District Agent for Community Resource Development, and as leadership specialist in the former Community Resource Development division. Prior to his thirty plus years in Auburn, Dennis was a state specialist with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service at Athens.

Originally from Louisiana, Dennis earned his Bachelor's degree from Northwestern State College (now University) in Natchitoches and his Master's and Doctorate degrees from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He also earned an MBA degree at Auburn University Montgomery while working in Extension. Dennis and his wife Carol reside in Auburn and have two grown children, Jenny and Michael.

Arturo S. Menefee
Arturo S. Menefee, Ph.D., Leadership Development Specialist

Artie Menefee has served as ECDI's Leadership Development Specialist since January 2007 and has worked with Extension since June 2002. In 2008, he authored ECDI's leadership curriculum, Engaged Leaders: Better Communities.

He is former Chair of the Alabama Communities of Excellence Associates Council and won the 2008 ACE Outstanding Volunteer Award. Artie is former President of the Greater Peace Community Development Corporation and a board member of the Alabama Rural Health Association. In addition, he has served on Governor Riley's Task Force to Strengthen Alabama Families and has worked with Congressman Artur Davis and his staff to help develop Alabama’s Black Belt communities.

Artie has worked closely with state and local administrators to coordinate a variety of community programs, including: the Alabama Southern Rural Access Program, the Medical Reserve Corps, the East Alabama Regional Solid Waste Disposal Authority, the State Data Center Affiliate Program, the Lee County Public Transit System, as well as other regional projects. He played an integral role in the establishment of an entrepreneurship-training program to assist non-custodial fathers in Lee County, and he continues to empower local citizens by conducting capacity building programs for the betterment of community residents.

He received his Masters of Public Administration with a graduate minor in Economic Development (2002) and his Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration (2009) from Auburn University.

Jennifer Ryan
Jennifer Ryan, Communication and Training Specialist

Jennifer Ryan joined the staff of the Economic and Community Development Institute as Communication and Training Specialist in 2015. Jennifer holds both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Communication and Public Relations from Auburn University and has been working in communication, marketing and training since 1990. Jennifer started working with non-profit, education organizations in 1992 and served as the Manager of Marketing and Occupational Safety and Health at the National Safety Council in Orlando, Florida for over 7 years and as the CEO and Executive Director of the American Red Cross Chapter in East Alabama for nearly 12 years. She was most recently employed as the Branch Manager for Regions Bank in downtown Auburn.

Jennifer has also held leadership positions with the Public Relations Council of Alabama, The Society for Human Resource Management, The Downtown Auburn Merchants and Property Owners Association and the Auburn Chamber of Commerce. She has extensive experience in program development and design, government and community relations, marketing, branding, crisis communication, social media and internal and external communications. Ryan served on the American Red Cross President’s Advisory Council, the American Red Cross Advanced Public Affairs Team and as a national spokesperson for the organization. She has been deployed numerous times for Red Cross disaster response and relief.

Jennifer’s duties and responsibilities include planning, developing, and managing educational events and courses and developing and maintaining ECDI's online educational content and programming. Jennifer is originally from Mobile. She currently lives in Cusseta, Alabama with her husband Gerald, an Opelika native, and their son Austin.

Markie Gardner Southerland
Markie Gardner Southerland, Administrative Associate

Markie Gardner Southerland is responsible for overseeing ECDI's administrative and financial activities. In this position, she provides support for the ECDI staff, making their jobs possible.

She began working at Auburn University in 1982 and has worked in Liberal Arts, Engineering, Education and Outreach. By working in a variety of disciplines and units across campus, Markie has gained a greater understanding and appreciation of the three purposes for which AU was founded: Instruction, Research and Extension.

She has also worked at Columbus State University, the Hughston Orthopedic Clinic and Synovus Financial Corporation, giving her experience in education, medical and corporate settings.

Markie attended Columbus State University, majoring in English. She is married to Bobby Southerland.

Amelia Hall Stehouwer
Amelia Hall Stehouwer, Research and Training Specialist

Amelia Hall Stehouwer is responsible for ECDI's research and communication activities and its graduate minor in Economic Development. She also serves as Assistant to the Director.

Since joining the ECDI staff in August 2004, she has served as Graduate Research Assistant, Outreach Assistant, Training and Research Coordinator, and Research and Communications Specialist. In these positions, Amelia has: coordinated and acquired funding for community outreach projects (2004-2007); revised and managed the Intensive Economic Development Training Course (2005-2007); designed and managed the Alabama Prosperity Forum (2006-2008); conducted economic and community development research (2004-present); written and designed ECDI publications and articles (2004-present); administered the first 47 Rural Alabama Initiative grants (2007); facilitated roundtables and deliberative forums; managed ECDI's communications and marketing efforts; and supported the creation and development of strategic partnerships between ECDI and members of the economic and community development and AU communities.

Before working with ECDI, she worked as volunteer coordinator, grantwriter and office manager for Lee County Alabama Habitat for Humanity, where she currently serves on the Board of Directors, from February 2003 to August 2004 and completed undergrad-uate internships with the Alabama Poverty Project and Greater Birmingham Ministries.

She is a member of numerous professional associations and seven academic honor societies. Her ongoing research interests include poverty, development, and prosperity in Alabama and the US South - and the economy, politics, and development of the Southern Black Belt.

Amelia graduated with high honors from Samford University in 2002 with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology (and a minor in Christianity, Women and Leadership Studies) and Auburn University in 2006 with a Masters of Public Administration (and graduate minor in Economic Development). She and her husband, Seth and daughter Morgan, live in Opelika, her hometown.

Last Updated: February 23, 2015