Watters' Vision of AERN Remained a Constant

By Kirsten J. Barnes

Annette Watters came to The University of Alabama as a freshman in the mid-1970s and until May 31, 2012, never left.

"I've been with the university since the late 1970s," said Watters who has earned a bachelor's and two master's degrees from The University.

Although she has worked in several areas of the university, since 1980 she has worked for the Culverhouse College of Commerce. The college runs the Center for Business and Economic Research, which operates the Alabama Entrepreneurial Research Network, where Watters served as director in addition to her duties as director of the Alabama State Data Center, a federal partnership program with the United States Census Bureau.

AERN was started 11 years ago based on an idea by her then co-director Paavo Hanninen, who also worked for the College of Commerce.

"I was just in the right place at the right time to be a mother to this program," Watters said. "I think maybe it had something to do with my personality. I am extraverted enough that I like to meet people and do things outside of the campus and I'm also introverted enough to write the grants and do the paperwork and keep the accounts. It was the perfect mix for me."

The program targets entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs in 17 rural, economically challenged counties throughout Alabama. Until her replacement is named, Outreach Coordinator Mary Patterson will oversee the program.

Patterson said she is glad to have been able to work with Watters.

"It has been a rewarding experience to work with Annette for the past year and five months, and to help her accomplish the goals of AERN," Patterson said. "She is dedicated, detailed and prompt in her responses to the needs of the rural partners and entrepreneurs; and I was always impressed at the many hats she wore within the College of Commerce and Business Administration."

Today the program, which started in four counties, operates partner agencies in the following areas: Bibb, Butler, Chambers, Choctaw, Dallas, Fayette, Greene, Macon, Marengo, Marion, Monroe, Perry, Pickens, Sumter, Tallapoosa, Washington and Wilcox counties.

"My favorite part has been getting to know people in rural Alabama," Watters said. "The interactions I've had with people who are tying real hard to make their communities a better place has been very rewarding."

Recently, Watters gave a presentation at the AERN Annual Meeting where she noted the recent accomplishments of the program. Having a background in collecting data for research, Watters' presentation focused on specialized information afforded those who take advantage of AERN. She cited nearly 900 jobs that had been created or saved using resources provided by AERN and the availability of more than 700 reports on industries, markets, economic trends, and other areas.

"There have been new jobs that have been created and there has been documentation of jobs that have been saved which has a discernible economic impact in the rural areas," Watters said. "There's been a lot of education that has gone into that. I think a good many more people in rural Alabama are now smarter about what it takes to run a successful small business in Alabama because of this program."

Most of the community agency partners are local Chambers of Commerce or libraries. Each partner agency is provided a toolkit of resources to encourage and assist potential and existing local entrepreneurs. The toolkit includes business reference materials, business planning software and computer technology.

Allison Tucker is the director of the Sumter County Alabama Chamber of Commerce, which houses one of the newest partner agencies that Watters assisted in establishing.

"She's been very easy to work with," Tucker said of Watters. "If I had any questions, I would just call Annette and she was really quick to respond. I haven't had any problems."

Sheryl Smedley, director of the Selma-Dallas County Chamber of Commerce, feels the same way about Watters and her efforts to assist the directors in finding resources and providing local business owners with options.

"I can't say enough about Annette," Smedley said. "If I got in a pinch or if somebody called and said they needed something, I could always go to Annette."

It's assisting the chamber directors and the individual business owners that Watters said she would miss the most.

"I will miss the interaction I have with our partner agencies in the different counties," Watters said. "I really like the people I have met in rural Alabama."

Watters can be sure her mark will be felt on the program for years to come.

"Her heart was truly in AERN, and she worked tirelessly to find funding for the program and to assist rural business owners with information and research to help them be successful." Patterson said. "Annette is a great leader and always enjoyed mentoring the success of rural businesses by bringing the University of Alabama's expertise to the community level.  As she retires, we realize the contributions she has made to the University of Alabama and to the quality of life in distressed rural counties."

In fact, before she retired one of her last tasks was securing a grant that will add two new partner agencies.

"We have a grant that will enable Lamar and Hale counties to come in," Watters said. "I'm glad to be leaving, knowing that this has been accomplished."

Although leaving the program, Watters knows she and Hanninen have laid a strong foundation for others to build upon.

"I hope that AERN can expand in a couple of different ways. I hope we can continue to add counties that are interested and that want to belong to this network, but I also hope we can integrate into the engaged scholarship of the University of Alabama in a permanent and deep way," said Watters, referring to a scholarship philosophy, which connects the development of sustainable community programs to research. "I think there are a lot of cross campus partnerships that we can forge if we get the momentum right. I think there are a lot of possibilities."

For now, Watters said she is looking forward to retirement and the chance to catch up on projects long neglected because of a busy work schedule.

"I think I might learn to cook three nutritious meals a day," Watters said. "Whatever I do it will be here in Tuscaloosa. My husband's not retiring."

Watters has been married to John Watters, who also works for UA, for 42 years. The couple has one daughter, Allison Watters, who is a UA graduate and works as a public relations practitioner in New York.