Power to the People: A History of TVA as an Economic Development Pioneer

Economic development today includes many different priorities – not only business attraction, business growth and workforce development, but also addressing current issues such as child care and housing shortages, DE&I efforts, improving all levels of education and a variety of other work smashing barriers to living our best lives.

But how did this field that helps make life better for so many people get its start? A good portion of that credit is thanks to an early major player in our industry – the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Many think of TVA as just an electric power utility, but did you know it was initially created as an economic development program by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression? More specifically, a workforce development program, though that terminology didn’t exist in the 1930s. 

New techniques for instruction material, class for teachers in Rutledge, Tennessee, Aug. 1970

During the Great Depression, the United States’ unemployment rate peaked at 25% and President Roosevelt identified the South as the number one “problem region” of the U.S. for poverty and economic distress. His solution was a “New Deal” for the American people: a package of federal relief measures and programs aimed at providing employment and government assistance to the millions of Americans in the rural south who lived in poverty, sometimes referred to as the “Forgotten Americans.”

In 1933, President Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, which laid out the three tenets of TVA’s mission: caring for the environment, encouraging economic development, and of course, producing affordable, reliable electric power. TVA does this work alongside local power companies in a seven-state service territory that follows the course of the Tennessee River, including parts of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. For nearly 100 years, TVA’s impact has shaped many aspects of life in the American South. 

If you’ve ever fished for trout in Blue Ridge, Georgia, enjoyed a hike (or at least pretended to) near the Appalachian Trail, or channeled your inner-Olympian with a thrilling whitewater raft ride down the Ocoee River, you may not have realized it – but you have TVA to thank.

TVA likely stocked that lake with trout and created those trails as part of their recreation programming, and they whipped up those whitewater rapids with scheduled releases from their series of hydroelectric dams. 

You may have friends or family employed by one of the hundreds of automotive companies TVA helped recruit to the Southeast. Or your great-grandparents’ farm may have been saved by the erosion control techniques taught by TVA to southern farmers in the 1930s. 

If you live in the South it may not be top of mind, but as you flip on the kitchen lights in the morning and power up the blender for your superfood smoothie, you’ve likely benefited from the creation of TVA …  just like the generations before you.


According to the National Archives, after the TVA Act was signed into law, “the most dynamic change in Valley life came from the electricity generated by TVA’s hydroelectric dams. Electric lights and modern appliances made life easier and farms more productive.” These newly constructed dams also brought electricity to rural areas for the first time, resulting in an influx of industries that provided thousands of new jobs, many of which were held by women.

Quality of life in communities along the Tennessee River transformed almost immediately. In 1934, journalist Lorena Hickok traveled the country, reporting on the state of the nation for the federal government. In June of that year, just over a year since the TVA Act was signed into law, she traveled to Florence, Alabama, to record her impression of the newly created TVA and its impact:

“A Promised Land, bathed in golden sunlight, is rising out of the gray shadows of want and squalor and wretchedness down here in the Tennessee Valley these days. Ten thousand men are at work…. working five and a half hours a day, five days a week, for a really LIVING wage. Houses are going up for them to live in – better houses than they have ever had in their lives before. And in their leisure time they are studying – farming trades, the art of living, preparing themselves for the fuller lives they are to lead in that Promised Land.”

While we southerners may take issue with Hickok’s description of “squalor and wretchedness” (bless her heart), her dispatches from the field paint a vivid picture of the Valley’s transformation during those pivotal first years of TVA’s efforts.


Boys agricultural and industrial meat cutting class, Clarksville, Georgia, Sept. 1937

But TVA wasn’t just about providing low-cost, reliable power for residents and businesses. In a precursor to supporting workforce training, TVA extension programs helped farmers learn new soil erosion techniques that would increase crop production and change the lives of Valley residents for generations to come.

In the early 1930s, TVA sent educators out to rural farms in the Southeast to teach farmers how to harness the newly available electricity to power irrigation systems and pump water to their fields, as well as to teach them about fertilizers now being mass manufactured. TVA trainers even assembled demonstration kitchens so that people living along the Tennessee River could learn how to use the new electric appliances in their kitchens.


Nearly 100 years after its inception, TVA continues its innovative approach to workforce training and development with the roll-out of talent-related programs to support the communities in their service territory. In much the same way that education and training went hand-in-hand with the infrastructure being built in the 1930s, TVA’s latest initiative, Workforce Invest, creates pathways to upskill local residents as a way to support bringing new investment and infrastructure to communities. 

Workforce Invest is an application-based, grant-matching program designed to enhance the quality of the Valley’s workforce by supporting educational and workforce development improvements and to aid in preparing a community’s workforce. 

Teachers visit Upchurch Test Demonstration Farm, Paris, Tennessee, June 1946

Alex Sadler, Training & Development Consultant for TVA Economic Development, says Workforce Invest is a first-of-its-kind program that aims to increase economic development competitiveness, support existing and target industry sectors and address critical talent needs for prospective, expanding and existing businesses and industries in the Tennessee Valley.

“The TVA region abounds in geographic and economic opportunity. This new program will leverage funds to develop a highly trained and qualified workforce to meet current and future market demands,” Sadler says. “Our hope is that Workforce Invest will serve as a catalyst to expand access to employment and training to individuals who have barriers to employment.”

The types of projects that TVA plans to support with funding will address a clearly defined market need, improve and develop existing workforce training programs, create awareness of emerging career pathways, and address critical talent supply needs for local labor markets and industries. 


When President Roosevelt announced the TVA Act, he told the nation the project would set an example not just for this generation, but for all generations to come. Indeed, TVA set a precedent that economic development work changes lives, just as it has transformed so many lives by not only (literally!) empowering homes and businesses, but by empowering individuals with the knowledge and skills needed for economic mobility. 

Nearly a century later, Roosevelt’s “great national experiment,” the Tennessee Valley Authority, continues the legacy of changing lives by giving Power to the People.

Originally published as an article on, here.

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