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Cornell Wesley: Native Son Now Heads City’s Economic Development Efforts

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Cornell Wesley, Director of the City of Birmingham's Office of Innovation and Economic Opportunity. (Sike Images)
By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times

Few know Birmingham—its streets, its schools, its churches—as well as Cornell Wesley, the recently named director of the city’s Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity (IEO).

Wesley, the youngest of three children, grew up in the North Titusville community and attended Glen Iris Elementary School — where he was part of the first class to be bused in — Center Street Middle School, and A. H. Parker High School. As a teen he was called to preach and delivered his first trial sermon at his home church, South Elyton Baptist Church, before leaving his hometown for Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

Since that time, Wesley has worked across the nation, including states like Arkansas and Oklahoma, but he’s back home now and looking forward to his job with Birmingham’s IEO, a position he started on January 11.

“I’ve really taken my time to get reintroduced to Birmingham because it looks very different than it did when I left for Morehouse as a kid,” said Wesley, 38, during a phone interview. “I’m taking time to get to know [those who work in the IEO office], the lay of the land, and what has changed—what new infrastructure has been invested, new buildings and high-rises, and all those sorts of things.”

He added, “I’ve taken the time to reintroduce myself to Birmingham and really learn all the unique things that have been presented and are part of its growth.”

The Department of IEO serves as the principal economic development arm of the City of Birmingham and is responsible for creating economic vitality through innovation and inclusive growth.

Wesley said, “The opportunity presented itself to me to return home. This is a full-circle experience that will enable me to take all of the successes I’ve had outside of Alabama and bring them back home to my state and my city to [improve] my community.”

Leap of Faith

Wesley graduated from Morehouse in 2005 and went on to earn a Master of Divinity degree from the Interdenominational Theological Center, a consortium of five predominantly African American denominational seminaries located in the Atlanta University Center (AUC), near Morehouse, Spelman College, Morris Brown College, Clark Atlanta University, and the Morehouse School of Medicine. He then took a position with Bank of America.

“I thought I was going to be a banker for my entire career,” he said. “I had an enormous amount of success in that industry and stayed in Atlanta for the bulk of my career until I had somewhat of a Damascus Road experience, [referring to the dramatic event in the life of the Apostle Paul that transformed him from a persecutor of early Christians into one of the most influential leaders in the Christian church].”

“I really wanted to have the legacy conversation internally about what I wanted to be known for, and that was not necessarily being engaged in profit generation for someone else. I wanted more impact,” added Wesley, who took a leap of faith and left his last banking job at Fidelity Bank in Atlanta for Arkansas.

“I left Atlanta, 6 million people, and went to Jonesboro, Arkansas, where there were only 80,000 people,” he said.

In 2014, Wesley assumed the position of Manager of Financial Services and Economic Development for the nonprofit East Arkansas Planning and Development District. After 11 months in that role, he got an opportunity to work for the U.S. Department of Commerce in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in the Regional Office as an Economic Development Representative; he was the first African American hired for that position in 23 years.

“In the five years I was in that role, the department had documentable successes … that amounted to about a $1.5 billion impact in that region. … Tons of jobs were created and retained, and [our team] cut our teeth on what really works from an economic development standpoint,” he said.

Wesley left that position in 2019 to start his own firm, Emblem Strategies (www.emblemstrategies.com), an economic development consulting firm that he still oversees.

Birmingham Native

The North Titusville native was raised by his father, John, who worked for the Birmingham Board of Education, and his mother, Frankie, who was a homemaker.

“They were both very entrepreneurial in their respective lanes, so I had really good models early to figure out things from a business perspective. As an adult, I draw from their example,” he said. “Growing up in that urban core obviously presented its own set of unique challenges, but it was always a very welcoming community. The people knew each other, so you couldn’t necessarily get away with anything because somebody knew your mom or dad.”

At Parker High School, Wesley played trumpet in the marching band during his freshman and sophomore years and played football as a linebacker during his junior and senior years.

“I was a starter on the football team, serving as a captain with three or four other guys. We were the first [Parker High] football team to go to the playoffs in about 10 or 15 years,” he said. “I was on the team that tragically lost their quarterback due to a car accident, so I think we … brought somewhat of a rebirth to the athletic department. I played baseball my senior year, [too], and was involved in drama [activities] … and all of the ancillary adolescent things as well. It was just a really great time and a really great class.”

Wesley accepted his call to the ministry at the age of 18 and was ordained by his uncle, Dr. Michael Wesley, pastor of Greater Shiloh Baptist Church in Southwest Birmingham.

“It was jarring because I was [wondering], ‘Why do I feel like I’m being called to preach?’” Wesley said. “I didn’t want to be called or want to be preaching. For me to accept something like that and admit that this was something outside of my control was truly a divine call and pull to do that even at an early age. It was a great training ground for me years later.”

Wesley graduated from Parker in 2000 and went on to Morehouse, where he majored in economics and finance; performed with the marching band, jazz band, the school’s world-renowned glee club; and was initiated as a member of the Psi Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated. He also was a member of the Student Government Association (SGA), under the administration of then Morehouse SGA president and now Birmingham Mayor Randall L. Woodfin.

“He was a year ahead of me, and I served as the SGA’s Director of Spiritual Affairs,” Wesley recalled. “I was serving under [Mayor Woodfin’s] administration even in undergrad. He has always had a heart for people, community, and transformation. That was apparent on campus, and that is apparent now.

Music Lover

In addition to holding certifications in management, economic development, and entrepreneurship from the University of Oklahoma and the Council of Development Finance Agencies, Wesley is currently pursuing a Master of Business Administration degree at Mercer University. As an ordained minister, he served as interim pastor of Fairview Baptist Church in Clayton County, Georgia, while he was still living in Atlanta, and he has been an associate minister at several other churches. He also is an active member of his fraternity and has plans to join a local chapter in Birmingham.

Amid all of his academic, professional, and personal pursuits, Wesley remains an avid lover of music and the arts.

“I’m still a musician, so I still pick up a trumpet and play,” he said. “I’ve developed an affinity for a good scotch, a good cigar, and a good golf game, as well. I love to play golf, though I don’t watch it too much—unless Tiger Woods is playing, of course. I still love football, basketball, and baseball and sports in general, but I probably spend more time around music and the other arts.”

Back Home

Since returning to Birmingham as director of the city’s Department of IEO, Wesley has been on lots of meetings and calls.

“Foundationally speaking, I want to understand and wrap my arms around the mayor’s platform and vision for Birmingham, while using that to inform my vision as I’m walking and traversing through the community,” he said. “I’m understanding where this department fits into the implementation of that vision and making sure it is done in such a way that ensures the historical integrity of the many communities we want to serve.”

The growth process can be challenging, though, Wesley said: “We want growth, but we don’t want it at the expense of the community. We want Titusville, Smithfield, West End, and all the other [neighborhoods] to remain who they are, but we want to help them become the best versions of themselves, as well.”

For Wesley, helping those communities be the very best versions of themselves involves him really getting reacquainted with those communities.

“I’ve been riding through those areas, touching and feeling them, getting familiar with them again, seeing where the blight is if there is blight, seeing where the opportunity is if there is opportunity, and documenting those things,” he said. “I’m a practitioner. This is not theoretical for me in that I’m scratching the surface. I know how to execute and ensure that transformation takes place. I know how to bring job creation. I’ve done this at a high level for other cities, and now I get to do this for one city—my city.”