It may not be an ideal way to start a new position, but Carrie Kelly made it work. Kelly was named the new executive director of the Arizona Association for Economic Development in March and started her new job in April, right as the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting Arizona. The change of venue (Kelly was previously the Executive Director of Downtown Santa Barbara) and the change in how business was getting done during the pandemic both happened at the same time for Kelly, and that may have been a blessing. With everyone having to pivot to a new way of meeting and working together, Kelly was on equal footing to all of the AAED members and leaders, and together, they made great strides in moving the organization forward through these challenging times.

AZRE Magazine met up with the new AAED executive director to ask her about her start in AAED and where she sees the Arizona economy going in the upcoming years.

AZRE: Describe the experience of coming into your role as Executive Director of the AAED during a pandemic?

CK: At the beginning of the pandemic, my family lived in California; and I worked as executive director of a downtown organization. That organization immediately jumped into relief mode and concentrated on business retention and marketing. We also worked with businesses to obtain funding to keep their doors open and provide a safe environment for patrons and workers. Within a week after accepting the position with AAED, my family packed and moved to Arizona quickly because there were discussions about closing the border between California and Arizona. I started my job with AAED in April and only had two weeks working at our office before we all shifted to working remotely. While this shift was initially challenging, working remotely actually benefited me in my new position. It was critically important for me to meet and get to know many people quickly. Navigating from one Zoom meeting to another, I was able to meet so many AAED members and partners more quickly than I could ever have met in person. Also, my work with the downtown organization at the pandemic’s start gave me a good understanding of our practitioner members’ issues in the very new and challenging business environment. 

AZRE: How did your AAED staff and the family of economic development professionals in Arizona help you during your first six months with AAED?

CK: I think it is very rare to step into an organization with a fantastic board of directors, engaged and involved members, and dedicated staff; and I was fortunate to find all these attributes in place at AAED. I think it is a testament to the leadership before me, and it allowed me to hit the ground running so that AAED could make a significant impact in Arizona at a time when all businesses were struggling. In my first month on the job, we planned and presented a campaign for Economic Development Week that recently earned AAED a Gold Award from the International Economic Development Corporation (IEDC). We have just completed AAED’s first three-year strategic plan, an accomplishment we are very proud of particularly because it was primarily developed remotely. Our Professional Development Committee also just finished a refresh of AAED’s economic development certification, AZED Pro; and the organization debuted a new Economic Development 101 series. Staff, Directors, and members have jumped in, pivoted, and brought new life to AAED. And we are just getting started! 

In addition to the incredible welcome I received from our members, I have felt so welcomed by this community.  Our public and private sector members are people who genuinely care about Arizona, its people, and its future; and it is a joy every day to work with these dedicated and accomplished professionals.  In my short time at AAED, I have also learned that Arizona’s economic development community is a wonderfully collaborative and supportive family, always willing to help one another.  I have enjoyed just being a “traffic controller”, giving direction and support and connecting people that will accomplish amazing things. 

AZRE: What attracted you to taking this position?

CK: This position fits my background very well. I worked for several years at a law firm assisting cities and towns with economic development issues. The legal background I gained in that position has been invaluable in my executive director positions. I have a master’s of public administration in nonprofit management and worked as a consultant assisting with fundraising, strategic planning, lobbying, and marketing.  All of that created an excellent foundation for this work to combine economic development, nonprofit management, advocacy, and public policy, fundraising, and people!  

I am also not new to Arizona, just new to Phoenix. I previously served as the Executive Director of the Mohave Community College Foundation before my family’s move to California and enjoyed my time in the Kingman area.  

AZRE: How has Arizona fared, from an economic development perspective, during the pandemic compared to our neighbors in the region?

CK: It is a reality that the pandemic has hurt the economy everywhere, and we have not yet seen the end. One of the reasons I was interested in coming back to Arizona was the resiliency of the Arizona economy. Since the last recession, there has been a concerted effort to diversify the economy, and we have seen the positive results of this compared to neighbors in the region. Coming from a different state, I have also been able to see the differences in response to the pandemic. In Arizona, our economic development professionals put such an emphasis on collaboration. Cities and towns have emphasized working with private partners, economic development organizations, Chambers, workforce organizations, and associations. Collectively, it is such a robust ecosystem; and that is key to a stable economy.     

AZRE: What is Arizona’s economic outlook for the next five years?

CK: Many factors play into Arizona’s economic outlook for the next five years, and we are in the middle of a pandemic with elections across the nation that could change the direction of the state and the nation. The level of interest in Arizona has not waned since the pandemic began. While this fact is very encouraging as we look at the next five years, the uncertainty of COVID is still very real, and not every community and business has a rosy outlook right now. As an economic development association, we have to emphasize our advocacy work and promote policies that help communities of all sizes. We need to find ways to empower and collaborate with our rural and tribal partners across the state. We also need to be discussing and addressing issues of equity and sustainability. Arizona cannot be at its economic best without uplifting all of our communities.