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Ilka McConnell: The Human Side of Economics

Ilka McConnell AB '98, MPA '04, PhD '13 began her role as director of economic development for Athens-Clarke County in April, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began hammering local businesses.(Photo by Arielle Doneson/Special)

Ilka McConnell has earned three degrees from UGA: one in anthropology, another in public administration, and a third in adult education. For McConnell, a long-time Athens resident, each discipline has opened up various opportunities. Most importantly, though, all three center on human connection.

McConnell serves as director of economic development for the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government. She took on the role in April, just as the COVID-19 pandemic exploded across the country.

“I’m a person who always thinks that in challenges lie opportunities. I knew this position would be a large undertaking, but I love Athens. This is where I’m raising my family and have put down roots,” she says.

A former Archway Partnership director with UGA’s Public Service and Outreach program, McConnell AB ’98, MPA ’04, PhD ’13 now works with community partners, leaders, and businesses to help expand and strengthen Athens’ economic footprint. Her team not only supports local businesses and helps attract new ones, they also promote workforce development through training and educational programs.

One such program in development is Athens Community Corps, which will provide training to residents in high-demand skills and careers within the ACC government. The inaugural cohort will include workers who have been displaced due to COVID-19 and will focus on civic and sustainability projects including cemetery restoration and invasive species removal. As the program grows, the vision is that it will expand to offer training in other high-demand, well-paying areas such as CDL, skilled trades, and IT networking.

“The government has been working hard to get resources out to the community and make sure that our most vulnerable neighbors are well taken care of. It’s important that people don’t just have information but also have access and connections when they want to explore their options,” McConnell says.

Engaging the Athens community to help strengthen its economy comes with challenges, especially during a pandemic. But McConnell remains optimistic, believing that the heart of the Classic City lies in its diverse and active communities.

“Really, it comes down to the people” she says. “People are so adaptable and amazingly resourceful. And they need to be involved in creating solutions that they feel part of and that they are excited to see happen.”