Trash Pandas Hosting Movies, Block Parties, Camps in Lieu of Baseball This Summer

MADISON — Just a couple months ago, Josh Caray planned on calling play-by-play baseball in the first season of the Double-A Rocket City Trash Pandas.

Instead, he’s helping the club Band-Aid what so far has been a lost baseball season across the nation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You look forward to a baseball season, covering games and being around players and managers and riding the bus and seeing different cities seeing different ballparks and, you know, getting better at your craft and things like that,’’ Caray said. “And then all of a sudden, one month out (from the season opening), and have that all taken away from you over something you can’t control is frustrating.

“But then you look at what’s going on across the country and across the world and I realize it’s really not that bad. And I also appreciate the fact that, in comparison, we are fortunately in a much better position than a lot of other Minor League Baseball teams.’’

In lieu of baseball, the Trash Pandas hosted their first “Block Party’’ at the sparkling new Toyota Field last weekend. There have been kids’ day camps the past two weeks and the first On-Field Movie Night, presented by Paragon Research Corp., takes place tonight at 7:15; gates open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for kids. The movie is “Angels in the Outfield” – the Trash Pandas are the Double-A affiliate of the Los Angelse Angels. Folks can sit on the field (blankets only, no chairs) or in the stands. Concession stands and the Junkyard team store will be open.

Upcoming events include a Trash Pandas Instructional Baseball Camp June 15 and 16 and another Block Party on June 19, featuring live entertainment and fireworks.

On July 3, the Fourth of July weekend kicks off with an Independence Eve Block Party. Block Party tickets are on sale now at TrashPandasBaseball.com/Events and the Toyota Field Ticket Office.

A July 4 features a patriotic extravaganza will feature the “biggest fireworks display in the Metro!’’ Tickets go on sale today at 9 a.m.

For each event, Pepsi Gates will open at 5 p.m. and Trash Panda Nation full-season ticket holders will gain early entry at 4:30 p.m.

“There’s nothing like fireworks blasting off in the summer surrounded by friends and family,” said team President and CEO Ralph Nelson. “We can’t wait to deliver our slice of Americana to this great region with our summer lineup that will knock it out of the park.”

Admission to each event is $10. Kids two and under enter for free, and there is no charge for parking.

In accordance with CDC guidelines, the facility will operate at half-capacity for all events.  Fans are encouraged to purchase their tickets in advance

The events are added to a slate of activities the organization has produced since the latest amendments to the state’s Safer at Home Order.

“We’re adjusting and doing the very best we can,” Nelson said. “I mean, we’ve got very, very talented people in our organization who oversee entertainment and promotions and things like that, so we’ve been able to make this into a positive situation and it’s been a very negative situation with regard to baseball.’’

 

Independent Radio Voices Facing Budget Struggles to inform Listeners

If Wes Neighbors is reading the tea leaves correctly, independently owned local radio stations might have a bright future if the coronavirus doesn’t cause much more financial headache.

Neighbors, a financial consultant by trade, owns 97.7 The Zone that carries sports talk and live events such as Auburn football, UAH basketball, and high school games. He said the trend he sees is moving in favor of local content.

“I’m finding that people are ready to go back to the local shows,’’ said Neighbors, who also co-hosts The Drive with Steve Moulton weekdays from 5-7 p.m. “They want to hear their contemporaries on the air. I almost think it’s going in that direction.’’

In addition to 97.7 there are three other locally owned radio stations in Huntsville: Mix 96.9, owned by Penny Nielsen; WEUP-FM 103.1 and 1700-AM, owned by Hundley Batts Sr. and his wife Dr. Virginia Capers; and WTKI 105.3-FM and 1450-AM, owned by Fred Holland.

“It’s been a learning experience,’’ said Neighbors, a stockbroker by trade. “I thought I’d do a show two to three months and here I am.’’

Holland of WTKI is also an on-air personality and is the longest-serving talk show host in North Alabama with his first program airing on the station in 1992.

According to the station’s website, his 6-8 a.m. show “Talk Radio for Real Life’’ is “the evolution of talk radio from merely debating political theory to offering a vehicle for solutions to life challenges.’’

Holland had stints at other stations. He even did sales for two years.

But the urge to get back behind the microphone was too great and he took a show on WVNN. In 2010, he thought owning a station sounded good.

“I kept driving by this place (WTKI) and decided to make an offer,’’ he said. “They took it.’’

With three employees, including himself, and one part-timer, Holland said he’s a jack-of-all-trades at the station. But, he’s still going strong at 68 years old.

“I got the bug when I lived in Ottawa (Ontario),’’ he said. “The voice of the Rough Riders, Ernie Calcutt, he lived down the street. He gave me a tour of the station and I was hooked.’’

Holland said one of the biggest challenges of operating independently is his staffing budget. The station has just three employees, including himself, and one part-timer.

“Anything that needs to be done, like replacing the toilet paper roll, I’m the one who has to do it,’’ he said.

   Batts is the “Old Pro’’ among the local owners. He and his wife, Dr. Virginia Capers, bought WEUP — the state’s first black-owned station — in 1987. The couple has since added two more AM and one FM stations.

WEUP began broadcasting as a 100-watt AM station in 1958 from a trailer on the grounds of Syler Tabernacle Church with a mix of gospel, sermons, news, and rhythm and blues. It now broadcasts 25,000 watts from its building on Jordan Lane.

Batts, who also owns the Hundley Batts and Associates Insurance Agency, was inducted into the Alabama Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2019.

“I’m excited that someone would even put my name in as a candidate because I know the ABA does its research before they even give you a ‘hello,’ ’’ Hundley told the ABA at his induction. “So, I’m just tickled pink.’’

Neighbors said other than his relative lack of experience — he’s owned the station for just one year — budgeting is also a concern as it is for all independent stations. And not just during the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home order that recently was lifted.

“I would think one difficulty is the economics of scale,’’ Neighbors said. “If you’re a major station, there are deals you can make. If you’re with Cumulus you can get Tennessee football through Learfield and Learfield also has Alabama football. They might not have to pay as much for one or the other.’’

Another hurdle independents have to jump is they get very little advertising outside of the city from where they broadcast.

“We get some sales out of Guntersville and some out of Scottsboro and of course we love having those people,’’ Neighbors said from his downtown office not far from WTKI’s studio. “But our majority of sales come from a probably 10-mile radius of where I’m sitting right now.’’

In the midst of the pandemic, his station has lost some sales and has seen an economic downturn that mirrors the market — 35 percent from mid-March until the re-opening. He also said the station was working with advertisers during the current financial crises, his staff brainstormed ideas so they “wouldn’t have to talk about the virus every day,’’ and that some sponsors have “stepped up.’’

While acknowledging it was “hard to make money when there are no sports’’ Neighbors said his staff put in the necessary work to keep things moving forward.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve done well,’’ he said, “but I’m pleasantly surprised.’’

 

 

 

U.S. Space & Rocket Center Reopening to Public

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is reopening to museum members Friday and to the general public Saturday. The Rocket Center has been closed since March 13 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

To maintain social distancing, visitors will enter at the Rocket Center’s Davidson Center for Space Exploration. The Davidson Center, Rocket Park and Shuttle Park will be open, but some exhibits and all simulators will remain closed.

The traveling exhibit, “Playing with Light,” in the original museum building will be open.

Enhanced cleaning measures are in place, and other safety measures include:

  • Timed tickets are required for admission.
  • One-directional paths are laid out through exhibits.
  • Plexiglass shields are in place at visitor service and ticketing desks.
  • Masks are strongly recommended for visitors and required for staff.

Reopening hours are Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The museum will be closed Mondays for cleaning.

To purchase tickets, visit rocketcenter.com.

2019 ‘Banner Year’ for Huntsville/Madison County Tourism

The Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau has been given quite a reason to celebrate.

According to the 2019 economic impact report recently released by the Alabama Tourism Department, the Huntsville and Madison County area achieved the state’s highest percentage increase in travel and tourism revenue over the past year, reaching $1.62 billion in sales.

The area also secured the number two spot in county visitation rankings, bringing in roughly 3.7 million visitors and leap-frogging fellow Alabama tourism hot spots Birmingham, Mobile, and Montgomery.

2019 saw the economic impact of travel and tourism to Madison County reaching its highest levels ever, providing nearly 19,000 jobs, and saving residents roughly $925 in taxes as a result of travel expenditures.

These figures represent a 15.2 percent increase in traveler spending on hotels, restaurants, shopping and transportation.

In addition to the explosive growth the city has seen over the past year, the CVB attributed much of the 2019 increase to the successful efforts of partners such as the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, and the Alabama Bicentennial Commission in promoting two key events for Huntsville – the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and the Alabama bicentennial. Celebrations around these anniversaries were major tourism drivers for the area.

“2019 was truly a banner year for the Rocket City,” said Judy Ryals, president/CEO of the CVB. “Not only did Huntsville continue to see growth in our hotel, dining, and entertainment options, but so many of our community partners rallied together to offer top-caliber events and programming around two nationally significant events – the Apollo 11 50th anniversary and our state bicentennial.

“It’s not every year that we get to enjoy such a global spotlight on our city. We worked hard and leveraged that attention to the best of our abilities, and it’s wonderful to see the return on those efforts.”

Madison Mayor Finley: Events to Fill Baseball Void at Toyota Field – When Allowed

It might not be Rocket City Trash Pandas baseball, but Toyota Field might soon be hosting events.

That’s according to Madison Mayor Paul Finley, who at Wednesday’s COVID-19 press briefing said, as soon as it’s allowed, plans are to open the new stadium to an array of events.

The Trash Pandas were scheduled to open their first season in Double-A on April 15 before the novel coronavirus intervened. There has been no decision regarding the start or cancelation of the Minor or Major League Baseball seasons.

“Regardless of whether baseball happens, or doesn’t happen, we’re getting ready to start doing a lot of really positive things,’’ Finley said. “A lot of people will be able to come to that venue and use it whether its camps for kids for baseball, whether it’s a wine and cheese festival, whether it’s movies in the park — we’re going to start having events there and doing it in a way that makes good sense when it comes to distancing and sanitation and so forth.’’

Finley also pointed out this is National EMS Week and said for those on the frontlines “we’re very appreciative of what they do.’’

On another note, he said masks would be available for anyone without one who attends graduation ceremonies for James Clemens and Bob Jones at Madison City Stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Huntsville plans to hold graduations June 25-26 at the Von Braun Center’s Propst Arena. Madison County schools have set graduations for July 15-16.

Masks will be required at all ceremonies and distancing will be in practice.

As of late Wednesday, there were 13,052 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state and 285 in Madison County. There were 522 deaths in Alabama related to the disease and four in the county.

Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson said there were less than 10 patients in local hospitals being treated for the virus.

“We are remaining vigilant,’’ she said. “We’re watching the numbers as the community reopens.’’

Hudson continued to stress social distancing, hand washing, and cleaning heavily used surfaces.

She also said that while stay-at-home orders were in place most people were around 1 to 5 people in a household. Now that people are returning to work, that core group is more like 20 people. That 20, she pointed out, would average around three people in the household so now each worker is exposed to a possible 60 contacts.

“The more we open it the more germs can come our way,’’ she said, “which is why we focus on six feet apart.’’

Hudson also emphasized that all health care facilities are open and urged anyone who is not well to visit the emergency room.

“Don’t stay home if you’re sick,’’ she said. “Don’t delay essential care.’’

 

From Government Contracting to Broadcast TV: ProjectXYZ Has Always Been About Diversifying

It was just sitting there. Huntsville businessman Larry Lewis created a business entity called ProjectXYZ, but he had a government contracting job that kept him busy.

So, ProjectXYZ just sat on the sidelines waiting for someone to define it.

Larry and Kim Lewis: “ProjectXYZ was always about our intent to get involved in a variety of businesses and to diversify.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

In 2002, Lewis was dating Kim Caudle. Looking for a way to make extra money to support herself and her daughter, Caudle was working a fulltime job at the hospital and doing consulting work for the healthcare IT industry at night and on weekends. She was struggling because, despite her background in the business, large health care companies preferred to do business with another business, over an individual.

“ProjectXYZ gave me the company cover I needed for the first five years,” said Kim Caudle Lewis, the company CEO.

She and Larry have since married and in 2007, when the company Larry worked for was sold, he came over to work with her as president of the company.

Larry and Kim merged her IT skills on the health care side with Larry’s 30 years in the government contracting business, to expand their government IT work.

“Larry said, ‘We can go out and knock on a hundred hospital doors and get small contracts,’” Kim said. “’Or, we can concentrate on the government side and get larger contracts.’

“So, that’s what we did. We expanded the government contracting side of the business.”

In 2008, ProjectXYZ won its first big government contract – providing IT services to the Army’s Network Enterprise Center at Fort Gordon, Ga.

“I was very excited,” said Kim. “We were chosen as the prime on that contract and not a sub, so that built up our prime contracting capabilities. It also allowed us to build out our infrastructure, which further proved to the government we can do big government contracts.

“Plus, all the health care work we had done was outside Huntsville so that contract kept us focused here in Huntsville.”

For most government contractors, such success would be the end of the story but, for ProjectXYZ it’s just the beginning.

The Lewis’ have a partnership with Darnell “Super Chef” Ferguson and his Super Chef restaurant in Tuscumbia. Ferguson is known for his “Urban Eclectic” cooking style and has won competitions on the Food Network, while appearing on many popular TV shows including “Today,” “Rachael Ray” and a variety of shows on the Cooking Channel, the Travel Channel and HLN.

ProjectXYZ is in the planning stages to bring Ferguson’s restaurant concept to Huntsville this year.

They are also looking to venture into a retail business this year and Larry is launching a new investment company. But the biggest acquisition ProjectXYZ is working on is local TV station WTZT in Athens.

Early last year, Larry became intrigued by the fact there were few black and minority-owned television stations in the country. He started doing research about what it would take to buy one.

“We were actually looking to buy a larger station,” said Larry. “It was going to be a considerable purchase for us, but as it turned out, we were simply not able to stay in the game.”

Four months later, the Lewis’ received a phone call from Jamie Cooper, North Alabama’s longtime morning anchor and owner of WTZT-TV, a low-power Class A station known as ZTV11.

“Jamie wanting to talk to us about something and we suspected it was not about buying advertising,” said Larry. “Jamie had affiliated the station with COZI TV and negotiated with the cable companies to get on most (but not all) of the major cable carriers in North Alabama. That added a lot of value to the station.”

Not only that, but WTZT is only using one of four channels available, so there is plenty of room for growth if they expand those other four channels. They will have the option of affiliating one or more of the channels with a syndicated network like COZI, or they can keep them for customized programming.

“We are currently awaiting FCC approval and they said it would take 45 to 90 days to approve the transfer so we can take ownership,” Larry said. “We are hoping, in terms of time, to have that approval by the end of March and begin rolling out new programming by summer.”

He said they will continue to work to get the channel on all major cable carriers in the area, and Jamie Cooper will continue his live TV show and shoot new material to keep his “Country Rover” show on the air, a show he has been doing for 30 years.

“COZI provides 32 hours a week of programming and that leaves the rest to us,” said Larry. “I do a lot of stock trading and investments and people ask me about it all the time, so I would like to have some local financial programming; a sports show; community shows that focus on economic development and entrepreneurship; as well as information about nonprofit organizations and what they are doing throughout the area.”

He said once they take ownership of the station, they will be open to outside ideas.

“We want people to know it is the only locally owned TV station in North Alabama and the only minority-owned station in North Alabama,” Kim said. “We will cover happenings all over North Alabama, not just Athens or Huntsville or Decatur.”

The Lewises have been prominent business owners and long-time advocates for small businesses. Kim was selected to be the Young Professional member of the Huntsville/Madison Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors. Shortly thereafter, she was named to the executive committee and is now immediate past chair of the board, having served in that post all of 2019.

The couple purchased the BizTech building in 2014 and, in 2016, Larry became CEO of BizTech, Huntsville’s first and most successful technology business incubator.

“Project XYZ was always about our intent to get involved in a variety of businesses and to diversify,” said Kim. “The company has morphed over the years and its true we have a big investment in the defense industry, but we are continuing to venture out into all sorts of projects, in several industries, with different verticals.”

‘Feed your Rhythm;’ New VBC Dining Venue to Host Job Fair

In anticipation of its grand opening in March, Rhythm on Monroe will be hosting a job fair Feb. 3-4 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

As the Von Braun Center’s new dining venue, “Rhythm on Monroe brings a unique dining element to the boom in downtown Huntsville and the greater Tennessee Valley,” said Rhythm’s General Manager Stephen Ryberg. “We want everyone to ‘find their Rhythm’ and ‘feed their Rhythm’ at the corner of Monroe and Clinton.”

In partnership with Spur Staffing, Rhythm’s job fair is sure to hit a high note with locals in the service industry.

“We plan to hire between 75 and 100 team members and look forward to interacting with prospective candidates at the job fair,” said Ryberg.

Rhythm – aptly named for the variety of musical performances hosted at the Mars Music Hall – shows great promise as a full-service restaurant, featuring locally sourced ingredients and fresh urban fare.

The expansive menu will be developed and executed by Chef Andrew Vogt.

The rooftop bar will have a wide assortment craft brews, wines, and handmade cocktails. On the rooftop, guests can enjoy warming up by the fire pits, along with the evening sun as it sets over Big Spring Park.

“Rhythm will be the perfect spot for a preshow dinner, after-show cocktails, or just a great dining spot when you’re out and about,” said Steve Maples, VBC’s Executive Director.  “This is an exciting time, not only for the Von Braun Center, but for the Tennessee Valley.

“The City of Huntsville is developing at a rapid pace and is constantly attracting out-of-market visitors and enhancing the quality of life for local residents.  Adding a full-service restaurant to our entertainment center in the heart of the city is an important step in continuing that growth, and we could not have made this happen without the support of Mayor Tommy Battle and the City of Huntsville.”

Rhythm on Monroe is scheduled to open in March.  Available positions include culinary crew, hosts/hostesses, bartenders, servers, food runners and dishwashers.

It is recommended that those interested in attending  register online at http://bit.ly/RhythmJobFair.

Rocket City Trash Pandas are Hiring

MADISON – If you’ve wanted to work for a professional sports team, here is your chance.

The Rocket City Trash Pandas, the Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels, are holding a job fair Saturday, Jan. 25, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Bob Jones High School cafeteria. The school is at 650 Hughes Road in Madison.

“We are building a team of passionate, energetic, and driven individuals to deliver the best experience in Minor League Baseball,” the team said in a statement.

The Trash Pandas will be hiring for more than 100 positions in more than 30 game-day roles. Positions include ticket takers, ushers, servers, bartenders, vendors/hawkers, concessionaires, warehouse, cooks, housekeeping, production room, camera operator, concessions stocker, parking lot attendants, promo team member, game-day runner and more.

Candidates are urged to bring a completed application to the job fair. Applications can be found at www.trashpandasbaseball.com.

Anyone looking for an internship can also interview at the job fair and are encouraged to bring resumes.

Representatives of the Trash Pandas will be on hand to provide information and answer questions.

The Trash Pandas’ home Opening Day is April 15 against the Mississippi Braves at Toyota Field. Season tickets, mini plans and group outings are on sale now. Visit www.trashpandasbaseball.com or call 256-325-1403.

Hotel Indigo Coming to Huntsville’s MidCity District

A truly unique addition to MidCity District will be coming.

Hotel Indigo is joining the growing lineup at the $850 million mixed-use development in Huntsville at the intersection of University Drive and Research Park Boulevard, RCP Companies announced. This is a first-to-market hotel brand for the area and is developed by Chattanooga-based ViaNova Development.

Construction is scheduled to begin this spring and the targeted opening date is mid-2021.

Just as no two places are alike, no two Hotel Indigo properties are the same. Each hotel draws inspiration from the local neighborhood, culture and popular trends in food, drink and design to create a warm and vibrant atmosphere.

The Hotel Indigo Huntsville – MidCity will be the first Hotel Indigo property in North Alabama. With more than 100 hotels across 19 countries, Hotel Indigo is a branded boutique from InterContinental Hotels Group.

Every hotel is uniquely designed to capture the essence of the neighborhood with curated artwork and seasonal menus reflecting the local character and culture.

“Hotel Indigo offers guests an immersive experience that is truly reflective of the local community,” said Max Grelier, co-founder of RCP Companies. “By celebrating local art, music and food, Hotel Indigo delivers a genuine boutique hotel.

“Hotel Indigo’s commitment to the local culture is truly aligned with the MidCity District mission.”

Located along Nunnuhsae Park Drive, the 120-room five-story Hotel Indigo will provide guests with expansive views of the 40-acre public park and adjacency to Topgolf and the 8,500-capacity amphitheater.

In addition to the boutique hotel, the property will feature a restaurant offering locally sourced options, a comprehensive craft/beer cocktail menu, and indoor and outdoor spaces for gathering.

“ViaNova Development is extremely pleased about the opportunity to become one of the cornerstones of such an exiting and dynamic development,” said Vyomesh Desai, managing partner. “The growth in Huntsville has been amazing and we are proud to join the community …

“We are looking forward to bringing a truly boutique experience that embodies the cultural assets of the ‘Rocket City’ to the MidCity development.”

Recently ranked as the fourth-largest commercial real estate project in the U.S., MidCity Huntsville features first-to-market concepts in retail, dining, entertainment, residential and hospitality, including Topgolf, REI Co-op, Dave & Buster’s, High Point Climbing & the Adrenaline Zone, Wahlburgers, and world-class music venues.

Project XYZ to Purchase Jamie Cooper Television

ATHENS — A Huntsville-based technical solutions company is planning to purchase the area’s only locally owned television station.

Project XYZ is purchasing Athens-based Jamie Cooper Television, a Class A station broadcast on WTZT-TV.

Kim and Larry Lewis own Project XYZ, which provides expertise in the research, design, development, integration, and sustainment of innovative solutions in engineering, logistics, information technology, and alternative energy.

Gloria and Jamie Cooper have co-owned the station since 2003. Founded Nov. 2, 1988, the station is known under the branding ZTV-11 with the slogan “Local and lovin’ it!” and can be seen on numerous cable systems. The long-running morning show, “Cooper & Company,” will continue to air as well as the “Country Rover Classics.”

“We want to share what’s truly happening in the community, and we see a need for more local programming in this area,” said Kim Lewis. “We want to help meet that need.”

Gloria Cooper said she is looking forward to working with Project XYZ as they grow the station.

“We feel extremely blessed to have the opportunity to work with Kim and Larry Lewis as they grow ZTV-11 to new heights,” said Gloria Cooper.  “Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and we’re all staying ‘local and lovin’ it’.” 

 WTZT will continue to broadcast local programming, as well as programming from COZI TV, a division of NBCUniversal. The network airs classic television series from the 1950s to the 2000s.

The new ownership agreement is pending approval by the Federal Communications Commission.