Huntsville Has A Lot to Offer in Off-the-Wall Christmas Gift Ideas

Deck the halls and walls and fill the stockings while you’re at it. Make the lists, check them twice, and shop local. No disputing it, Huntsville is rife with retail and the local treasures listed below barely scratch a dent into what the Rocket City has to offer.

For those of you who are stumped for gift-giving ideas, here’s a good starting point. From traditional “family and friend” presents to “Dirty Santa” and “White Elephant” gifts, there’s something for everyone.

Lewter’s Hardware

222 Washington St NE, Huntsville, AL 35801

(256) 539-5777

Hours: Mon-Fri: 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat: 7:30 a.m.-noon

Lewter’s time-honored motto, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it” still holds true. The shelves at Lewter’s are filled with an infinite selection of tools, home improvement, and pretty much anything known to mankind to embellish one’s nest. Spoiler alert: Lewter’s also carries toys; a very quirky selection, at that.

Looking for a scatologically inspired stocking stuffer? Lewter’s has a can of Big Foot Scat for only $5.99. It’s a great way to keep the young’uns giggling and entertained for a spell.

What better way to pass the time – or gas for that matter? Windbreaking, as it’s referred to in polite circles, has taken on a life of its own in Toyland. As part of the “Fartist Club,” Ripping Randy and his pals, Farty Flip, Munchy Max, and Windy Wendy are here to show you how it’s done. All that’s required is $10.99 and 2 AAA batteries to get that office Dirty Santa party started.

“This is the first time we’ve had these,” said Dianne Douglas, merchandise buyer for Lewter’s. “Sometimes, the guys tease me when things like this come in.”

Railroad Station Antiques

https://www.railroadstationantiques.com

315 Jefferson St N, Huntsville, AL 35801

(256) 533-6550

Hours: Mon-Fri: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun: 1-5 p.m.

Railroad Station has a dynamic assortment of merchandise. There are Gurgle Pots and Chirpy Tops for home entertaining. Unique items such as decorative concrete crosses, dragonfly tiffany lamps, and many other one-of-a kind items fill up the three stories of vendor space.

 

Turkish Treasures & Inspired at Cyn Shea’s

https://turkishtreasures.com/

https://cynsheas.com › inspired-gifts

415 Church St NW Suite E-5

Huntsville, AL 35801

(256) 527-2488

Hours: Mon-Sat: 10am-3pm

Inspired

Located in Cyn Shea’s, Inspired is filled with an enticing collection of unique gifts from local, regional, and global artisans.

Turkish Treasures is a store within a store. A retail version of a nesting doll, if you will. Turkish Treasures features handmade gifts from Turkey and Central Asia.

Both Inspired and Turkish Treasures feature sustainable products made by artisans and companies that “give back” to their local communities.

Little Green Store

https://thelittlegreenstore.net

820 Monte Sano Blvd SE, Huntsville, AL 35801

(256) 539-9699

Hours: Mon-Sat: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Open Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas

The Little Green Store and Gallery features a dazzling assortment of locally created art, pottery, and handmade jewelry. They also carry products by the socially conscious company Blue Q, makers of quirky socks, potholders, and more.

A solid collection of Houston Ilew’s “Spirtiles” are also available. The glass on copper enameled collectibles are beautifully designed; each “tile” has a theme with an accompanying phrase.

Art & Soul Inspired Home

2313 Whitesburg Drive, Huntsville, AL 35801

(256) 270-7363

Hours: Mon-Thur: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fri-Sat: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Looking for gifts for that special guy? Art & Soul carries Duke Cannon Supply Company men’s products. With eye-catching names like “Mr. Perfect” Grooming Kit, “Bloody Knuckles” hand repair balm, and “Offensively Large” lip balm, the goods are guaranteed to deliver quality, along with a chuckle.

Along with men’s grooming goods, rock the holidays in style! Art & Soul also has a collection of quippy door tags that will ring in the season with a big laugh.

Green Pea Press/The Pea Pod at Lowe Mill

http://greenpeapress.com/

2211 Seminole Dr SW, Huntsville, AL 35805, Studios 111-122

(256) 679-7288

Hours: Wed-Thur: Noon-6 p.m.; Fri: Noon-8 p.m.; Sat: 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Green Pea Press embraces the quirky, whimsical side of Huntsville . The group’s collective imagination makes for interestingly designed wearing apparel and products that celebrate our city, our state, and the denizens who inhabit it. Be an ambassador! The apparel makes a great gift for out-of-town family and friends.

 

Vertical House Records

theverticalhouse.com

2211 Seminole Drive, SW, Huntsville, AL 35805

(256) 658-2976

Hours: Weds-Fri: Noon-8 p.m.; Sat: Noon-5 p.m.

News Flash! Vinyl has never really disappeared and it’s back with a vengeance. Vertical House offers a wide selection of 33 1/3 playable discs; from Bobby Sherman to Alice Cooper and all points in between. Don’t have anything to play them on? There’s an assortment of turntables in stock, as well.

Located in the Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment Center, Green Pea Press/The Pea Pod and Vertical House Records are two of the many local artisan-retailers in the collective. Be sure to check out the other Lowe Mill artists while checking off your holiday gift list.

Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment

www.lowemill.net

2211 Seminole Drive, SW, Huntsville, AL 35805

(256) 533-0399

Hours: Weds: Noon-6 p.m.; Thurs: Noon-6 p.m.; Fri: Noon-8 p.m.; Sat: 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Trash Pandas Emporium

https://www.milb.com/rocket-city

365 The Bridge Street, Huntsville, AL 35806

(256) 325-1413

Hours: Mon-Sat: 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun: Noon-6 p.m.

Baseball bling is in, especially when the mascot is a raccoon with an attitude! Haters can hate, but quirky team names are here to stay. Just a thought: it sure beats a name like “Wind Surge.”

All team name grousing aside, the Emporium has an assortment of goodies from the big-ticket jerseys and hats to stocking stuffers like nail files, clippers, and decals. There’s even a stuffed unicorn!

Gifts from the Trash Panda Emporium will delight those rabid baseball fans, who are eagerly counting the days until the season opener.

 

Huntsville Prepares for the Future: Parking Problems or Problem with Perception?

Change is hard but it has never stopped Huntsville from rising to a challenge.

In the same way we adjusted to becoming the Rocket City in the 1960s; to becoming a booming defense industry maven in the 1990s; and a five-county regional economy over the past decade; Huntsville is looking yet again to the future and sometimes – just sometimes – we get a whiff of frustration as the construction holds up traffic, a red light seems to be holding longer than it used to, or there does not appear to be enough parking at a popular new shopping venue!

Parking spaces have become precious commodities.

As Huntsville continues to grow and expand, city planners are trying to get ahead of the headaches seen in large, fast-growing metropolitan cities by redesigning it as they go for the future, and a central tenet of this strategy involves Land Use.

Land Use is the management and modification, or “urbanization” of a natural environment into residential, commercial, and public “urban open” sectors.

In the past, especially in the past 50 years, Land Use has been geared toward making room for urban sprawl and commercialization at all costs. Shopping centers have focused on gigantic asphalt parking lots where drivers battle constantly for the closest parking spot. Stores sit back off the main thoroughfare to accommodate it, while anxious holiday drivers follow on the heels of customers exiting the storefront like automotive stalkers until they reach their vehicle, either sniping the spot or deciding to try for one that’s closer.

Most of the time however, these parking fields are more than half empty, always built larger than required, leaving an asphalt eyesore and a tremendous waste of land.

In the past few years, Huntsville city planners have been studying Land Use analyses to help reshape Huntsville’s character and to better manage Huntsville’s land and natural environment to fit a more contemporary view of how people live, work and play.

The Shops at Merchants Walk and Shops at Merchants Square on Bob Wallace Avenue are based on “New Urbanism.” While the tenants and some customers perceive there to be insufficient parking, Merchants Square was designed to sit close to the street with some ground-level parking, backed up by a three-floor parking deck.

Jessica Partington, property manager for RCP Properties which developed both shopping centers, said the overwhelming success of the developments has put the need for additional traffic and parking solutions front and center.

“The Shops at Merchants Square has been wildly popular, which is something we will never be upset about, but perhaps a bit more popular than we anticipated,” she said. “When Chuy’s opened, it was a record-breaking opening for them nationwide and no one anticipated how popular it was going to be.

“Of course, we are not upset by that but with that came some unexpected challenges.”

She said that as of now, the parking ratios required for that venue are not showing they are under-parked in terms of code compliance, but there are a couple of things at play.

“Employees are required to park on the upper level of the deck but because there is not what most people perceive as being much parking at ground level, we find that people don’t always go all the way up the deck,” she said. “And on weekends, we find there are parking spots at that last hook in the parking deck and up top that people miss.”

Partington said there is a lot of construction work during the day and construction vehicles in the deck that take up a lot of room and are taking up some spaces that would normally be available.

“But we are nearing the end of that, so it won’t be a problem much longer,” she said. “Also, Aspen Dental will have their own ground-level parking and when they are finished, people can park there at night and on weekends when the problem seems to be worse.”

According to Kelly Schrimsher, director of communications for Mayor Tommy Battle’s office, Huntsville is experiencing some growing pains that can be easily addressed by changing people’s perception.

“The Shops at Merchants Square and the Shops at Merchants Walk on Bob Wallace Avenue are the perfect example,” Schrimsher said. “There is actually plenty of parking. You just have to look at it from a more efficient Land Use perspective and tie it to where the future will be taking us.

“We are rethinking parking requirements to better fit a model for the not so distant future where people are walking more, are driving more electric cars, where more people are using services like Uber, and where people will walk outside the store or restaurant and ‘dial their car’ to come pick them up. Although it may sound farfetched now, it is not so far away from reality.”

Rendering shows an example of a crosswalk idea for Bob Wallace Avenue.

The city is also working on a couple of solutions they believe will help alleviate the Bob Wallace traffic and parking issues as well.

“We are building a decorative pedestrian crosswalk from the much larger parking lot at the Shops at Merchants Walk that will be visually appealing and substantial enough to slow the traffic down on Bob Wallace so people can safely cross back and forth,” said Shane Davis, director of urban and economic development for Huntsville. “The city is acquiring material quotes for the intersection improvements and expect to have it completed in early January. It will also really dress up the area.”

Made of “stamped thermoplastic material” with a brick, stone and slurry concrete design, Davis said it will provide for improved pedestrian crosswalk safety, more driver awareness at the intersection, and overall improved aesthetics of the area.

Over the next year, visitors to that part of the city will also see sidewalks up and down both sides of Bob Wallace from the Parkway to both shopping centers, and down the road there are plans for an equally decorative crosswalk across Memorial Parkway at the Bob Wallace intersection.

“The city also has a plan to connect Regal Drive on the Parkway Place side next to Belk, to the Shops at Merchant Square,” said Partington. “Those through-roads will alleviate some of the traffic flow and allow people to walk a little bit, which we are doing more of in Huntsville.”

“It is a little bit of educating people and preparing them for what we know is coming in the future,” said Schrimsher. “Downtown Huntsville residents have been going through this same evolution since its revitalization began.

“The days of fighting for a parking spot right in the front door and every individual business having their own asphalt parking lot is being phased out and shared parking is being phased in,  If you live downtown, strangers may park in front of or near your home. And they are using parking decks and Uber rather than driving their car everywhere.

“But people who choose to live downtown in areas like Twickenham Square and Avenue Huntsville, do so for the convenience, the amenities, and the pedestrian-friendly environment. They do not have to jump in the car to drive to the grocery store or a restaurant or to have their hair cut or grab a cup of coffee. If they live in these areas, they adjust to it and even enjoy it.”

According to the city’s statistics, Huntsville is a sprawling city overall, but it has population density pockets such as downtown of more than 5,000 people per square mile, making it comparable to cities such as Pittsburgh, Pa., and St. Paul, Minn.

Interestingly, Five Points is an excellent example, originally developed in the early 1900s as a “streetcar suburb” that was not designed for the automobile and is still, today, easily walkable because of it.

Compare that to Cummings Research Park, which was established in 1962.

Designed for driving, originally, there were no restaurants, retail or residential originally allowed within the park.

That began to change when, 1982, the city purchased land and it evolved into Cummings Research Park West. In 2007, Bridge Street Town Centre was developed and it now includes more than 80 restaurants and stores and two hotels. An apartment building has since opened and a third hotel will open soon.

Some sections of Research Park East are being rezoned for small, very condensed multi-use developments, multistoried and sitting close to streets so as not to waste land. The parking will be enough, but it will not be a sprawling field of asphalt.

Tenants can expect some retail-like coffee shops and cafes, and perhaps even hotel rooms on the upper floors to alleviate having to jump in your vehicle for every errand.

Residents are already seeing bikeshares in Cummings Research Park for quick and emissions-free runs.

There are more pedestrian-friendly multi-use developments such as the Village of Providence, downtown’s Twickenham Square, Town Madison along I-565, and MidCity on the old Madison Square Mall property, following a popular trend across the U.S. where people are demanding less pollution, less asphalt, less traffic and more outdoor-friendly landscaping, easier accessibility, and more walkability.

“We recognize that our residents need more mobility options, especially when it comes to urban development,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. “With each new project, we look to create safe and unusable connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists as well as public transit and motor vehicles.”

Huntsville Business Journal Sitdown with Success: Bill Roark

Sitdown with Success is a feature of the Huntsville Business Journal spotlighting local entrepreneurs and their path to success and advice for future entrepreneurs.

It’s easy to see why employees on Torch’s campus, that is home to Torch Technologies and Freedom Real Estate and Capital, LLC, are so happy.

We sat down and spoke with Bill Roark, Torch’s co-founder and Freedom Real Estate’s CEO, and it was clear to see that employees are a top priority of the 100 percent employee-owned companies.

Bill Roark on his key to success: Good people. I’ve been able to surround myself with really good people. (Photo/Steve Babin)

And it is because of the employees and management’s vision and direction that Torch Technologies was one of the Top 100 Fastest Growing Companies in America, according to Entrepreneur Magazine, and on multiple selections on the Inc. 5000 list recognizing the Fastest Growing Private Companies in the U.S.

How did you get started in the business?

Torch Technologies was founded in 2002 and I stepped down as CEO from Torch at the end of 2018. Torch and Freedom are sister companies and under the umbrella of Starfish Holdings for which I am chairman of the board. Freedom Real Estate was started, mostly in the beginning to be an alternative investment for the profits Torch Technologies was making. It was a way to diversify a little bit and it’s been very successful.

What obstacles did you face/how did you overcome them?

Early challenges were cash flow.  The company grew very quickly and started to hire people.  We had to have cash to pay them.  We initially used my home equity line of credit, but as the company continued to grow, we took on some angel investors.  We were fortunate to get good investors who were supportive of the company and were not invasive into the operations.

How are you able to keep your business relevant?

We are constantly updating and changing things to respond to a changing market.  Every year assess exactly where the company is.  We also look at where we want to be two years from now.  We then develop a detailed plan to make the changes to make that happen.

To what do you attribute your success?

Good people. I’ve been able to surround myself with really good people.

Early on, I reached out to a lot of folks I had worked with in the past that I knew who were good and those people knew others who were good. We generally get people who fit our culture that want to be here; that want to be doing what we are doing. The people and the culture are really what have driven us.

One of the key things is that everyone has a stake in the outcome.

Everybody is an owner. If the company does well, then they do well. There’s motivation for them to have the company do well.

When the employees are the owners, they benefit from the success of the company.

What is important to your company culture?

Being good stewards of the community.

That has been with us since the early days. We try to always give something back to the community and grow that as we grow. Some of the big projects that the company will take on are decided on the executive level, but we have created a community within the company that decides how to spend the company money.

Any employee can volunteer and help with Torch Helps, the employees decide which community charities are selected.

Several years ago, we considered leaving south Huntsville, but the mayor encouraged us to stay and asked us to help revitalize South Huntsville, so we did. We started buying buildings such as the Freedom Center and Office Park south.

We have spent close to $20 million revitalizing old buildings in southeast Huntsville and bringing them back to a premium where people would want to be in them again.

What advice do you have for future entrepreneurs?

Learn as much as you can about the business area you want to go into.

If you want to start a business in engineering, you will need to get a college degree, a few years of experience and get some customer relationships such that you have the influence to be able to bring the contracts to the company that you start and the experience to justify bringing in those contracts.

It’s important to build relationships with companies that can help you and with government personnel that would be willing to provide the funding.

Also, for decades, we had that belief that everyone needs to go to college to be able to do business. I don’t think that’s as true anymore. There are lots of good trades out there and there’s a shortage of people to work those skilled trade jobs.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Tis the Season to Shop Small Business

Crisp air and the crunch of leaves underfoot seem to suggest that fall has finally arrived in Huntsville, and along with that seasonal shift arrives the promise of the holidays just around the corner.

Cured and Company features charcuterie gifts. (Photo/Olivia Reed)

For many Huntsvillians, the harried pace of the holidays translates to long lists and the merriment of multi-tasking.

Family, full-time jobs, travel commitments, and social engagements crowd the calendar, and modern day “smart shopping” can typically translate to online shopping carts and expedited shipping.

Although big-box retailers such as Amazon and Target can offer a fast fix in the holiday crunch, community leaders advocate that in the long run supporting small business is synonymous with smart shopping.

“As a consumer, you have purchasing power,” said Bekah Schmidt, Executive Director of South Huntsville Business Association. “If you chose to purchase a product for cheaper at a big box retailer instead of shopping local, you send that purchasing power to support a different economy.

“And, while you may see a return in the short run, when you have a strong local economy, you have a strong quality of life.”

Small Business Saturday is Nov. 30 nationwide and, as the date approaches, Huntsville small business owners strive to remind locals that not only do small businesses offer unique finds, they also offer an experience that can’t be found from filling an online shopping cart.

Whether it’s for corporate clients, holiday host/hostesses, teachers, or just friends and family, gift giving can be tricky, and small stores can offer insight, ideas, and inspiration that is harder to come by at big box chains.

This vision of a more personalized purchasing experience was part of the inspiration when Stephanie Lowe and Emily Rogers, co-owners of Cured and Company, created their custom charcuterie board business.

“We know the holidays are a time for gift giving and many people like to gift food for corporate clients,” said Lowe. “We created this business around the idea that food brings people together, and when you are going to someone’s house to a party, instead of bringing wine or liquor, a box of charcuterie is a fabulous gift.

“It’s something special and unique and pretty. And it’s also delicious.”

Like many other small business owners, Lowe says they are creating special items just for the holidays, including wrapped gift boxes of artfully arranged meat and cheese that can serve up to six.

Stylish presentation is another reason shopping small makes for a more unique gift.

Gina Garrett, owner of South Huntsville gift shop Sweet Pineapple, said although they offer complimentary gift wrapping year-round, their holiday packaging is especially beautiful.

Sweet Pineapple offers cozy sweaters by Barefoot Dreams, Ronaldo Jewelry, and a huge selection of candles and other home goods. (Photo/Olivia Reed)

“It’s hard to order something online and it arrive beautifully wrapped,” she said. “And online shopping can be really overwhelming. Once you start scrolling online, you feel like you need to scroll thorough every single thing to see all of your options.

“It’s nice to be able to just walk into a shop where a lovely display has been curated for you.”

Sweet Pineapple offers cozy sweaters by Barefoot Dreams, Ronaldo Jewelry, and a huge selection of candles and other home goods at price points that Garrett says will fit any budget.

For little ones, The Toy Place in Five Points is another spot where in-store service is a key part of the shopping experience.

“There is no algorithm for the investment that a small business makes in its customers,” said owner Susan Blevins. “I take pride in being able to offer guidance to anyone who walks through my door, especially someone who is buying a gift for a child and needs help finding the right item.”

For art enthusiasts and foodies, Harrison Brothers Hardware on the downtown square has become a staple for seeking special and whimsical gifts like gourmet cookware, books, art, fine crafts, and children toys.

TKH Leather Goods by Thad Hooper can be found at OTBX.

And much of Harrison Brother’s merchandise is by local artisans and authors.

Just blocks away from the square, OTBX (Olde Towne Beer Exchange) will offer crate gift bundles with craft beer selections, fun novelty t-shirts, Timbrook toys, and even custom leather goods by local artisan Thad Hooper.

With endless options for unique gifts, exceptional customer care, and the added bonus of supporting a strong local economy, shop owners insist that shopping small isn’t only smart, it’s also a chance to slow down and actually enjoy the season.

“People want an authentic experience,” said Schmidt. “They want to go to Clinton Row and get a cup of coffee at Honest Coffee and then browse the stores like Roosevelt & Co. and In Bloom and Elitaire. This isn’t a new phenomenon, but as a society we are going back to it.

“People crave that authentic find, and that’s exactly what you get when you shop local.”

 

 

Madison’s Best in ‘buss-iness’: The Physical Therapist, The Technology Specialist, A Shared Kiss, and Two Awards

MADISON — The 2019 Madison Chamber of Commerce Best in Business Awards may have been the most romantic awards presentation ever.

It is tradition that the winner of the previous year’s Best in Business Award in each category present the trophy to the winner of the current year’s award.

However, when Stephanie Johnson, owner of Compass Physical Therapy, presented Michael Johnson, owner of Mosaic Audio Video Integration, with his Small Business of the Year trophy this year, she also gave him a big kiss, much to the oohs and ahhs of a flabbergasted audience!

Michael and Stephanie Johnson keeping Best in Business awards in the family.

“Boy, I wish I had won that award,” someone in the audience piped up to uproarious laughter.

Few in the audience realized at the time that Stephanie and Michael Johnson are married, and both own award-winning small businesses in Madison. Earlier that evening, Stephanie accepted a trophy for the Best Medical Practice – less the kiss of course!

“I was thrilled to have been nominated but I never expected to win because the Small Business of the Year category is very competitive,” said Michael Johnson. “I was excited and honored to have won among so many deserving businesses here in our community.”

Johnson has been in the home automation business for more than 20 years but, five years ago, broke away to form his own company. Specializing in whole home and office automation including smart lighting, motorized window shades, multiroom music and audio, home theatre, cameras and surveillance, as well as Wi-Fi networks for both home and office conference rooms, Johnson said he wears the nickname “The Speaker Guy” as a badge of honor.

“People automatically think about what we do in terms of surround-sound and home theatre, but that is just a small part of what we can do,” he said. “If it’s technology-based electronics and automation, Mosaic Audio Video Integration can help you design and install it.”

In addition to residential, Mosaic does commercial work for companies in Research Park. He said Huntsville and Madison are great markets for technology-based systems because it is a well-educated community where people are in tune with what is available.

Stephanie has been a licensed physical therapist for nearly 15 years but bought the business six years ago, renaming it Compass Physical Therapy in 2017. She specializes in physical therapy for children ages 1 to 18 and includes rehabilitation for special needs children, traumatic pediatric injuries and rehab for school athletics and other injuries resulting from physical activities.

“Alabama is a ‘direct access’ state so anyone can come in and get evaluated without a doctor’s prescription; however, some insurance may require that you get some form of medical preauthorization,” Stephanie said. “If needed, we communicate with the doctor after they come in and let them know what is going on.”

Compass Physical Therapy is also engaged with the local schools. Madison Schools have health advisory boards in which they invite professionals in engineering, IT, and the medical fields into their classrooms to talk to students who are interested in those fields. Stephanie speaks to students and fields questions from them about prepping a career in physical therapy.

“Compass also accommodates student observation hours in the physical therapy field,” she said. “Students interested in pursuing a career in physical therapy, or who may be looking to go to college or physician’s assistant’s school, need observation hours.

“The high schools are aware that we host students here so they can get their observation hours. It can help advance their professional careers.”

She said they also take on student interns when they can. “It’s our way of helping perpetuate the next generation of physical therapists.”

Michael’s expertise is on full display at Stephanie’s practice.

“Music and special lighting are important to inspiring and keeping children engaged during the rehabilitation process,” Stephanie said. “Michael has installed smart lighting and music in some of our work areas that can be adjusted from a tablet-like remote.”

From a business owner’s standpoint, she said her favorite feature is the one-button access to opening and closing her business every day.

“In the morning when I arrive, I usually have my hands full and all I have to do is push one button and the door unlocks and opens,” she said. “It turns on the lights and brings up our favorite TV station in the waiting room. When we leave at night, I push one button and it turns off the lights, sets the thermostat, and locks the door behind me.”

“Stephanie’s work with special needs children has a profound effect on people’s lives. She comes home at night talking about how she helped a baby learn to walk today,” said Michael. “I implemented home automation technology in the master bathroom of a wealthy homeowner that day, so I like to believe that good stuff rubs off on me just a little.”

Clearly it does. Three years ago, the Johnsons began hosting a joint annual fundraiser called Blues, Brews and Booze in which they choose a local charity for which they raise money. Among those charities are Kids to Love, Clothe Our Kids of North Alabama and BeArded Warriors.

“It’s important because the local Madison community has been so great to us,” said Stephanie. “We try find ways we can give back to the community and reach out to people who need help, It has grown from just a handful of supporters three years ago to over 4,000 participants this year.”

Both of the Johnsons give a shout-out to the Madison Chamber of Commerce.

“The Chamber brings Madison small businesses together for networking opportunities, and they really get the business community talking to each other, making it easier to work together when needed,” said Stephanie.

“Madison is a friendly Chamber, involved and engaged with all businesses in our area,” said Michael. “We get together on a regular basis to network and help each other grow. It really is a community effort and we are fortunate the Madison Chamber is so supportive of small business.”

Naming of Toyota Field was a Two-Year Drive in the Making

Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong, Madison Mayor Paul Finley, TMMAL President David Finch and Trash Pandas President/CEO Ralph Nelson. (Photo/Steve Babin)

MADISON — On a sunny, let’s-play-three day that begged for baseball, even though the calendar had turned mostly toward football and beyond, the Rocket City Trash Pandas got a name for their new home yard hard on the Huntsville-Madison city limit lines.

Toyota Field will usher in the inaugural season of the Double-A Southern League team in April 2020.

Toyota Field is a name for that’s been in the works basically as long as the team, and stadium, have been an idea.

Team President and CEO Ralph Nelson, along with local dignitaries, announced the name on Columbus Day at the stadium that is still under construction.

But the ship of what the stadium would be named, however, set sail about two years ago.

“The day after Thanksgiving in 2017 my wife, Lisa, and I were driving in the hills of Vermont to cut down a Christmas tree,” Nelson said.

The phone rang and it was David Fernandez, then the president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama.

“In the first minute, he said, ‘Let ‘s figure out a way to put Toyota’s name on your ballpark.’”

They did, and, after two years of crossing t’s and dotting i’s and other legal discussions, Toyota Field was born and became official with the announcement.

Rendering shows the Toyota Field name on the video board neat the Rock Porch in right field. (Photo/Steve Babin)

“It’s incredibly rare for a global corporation to acquire the rights to a minor league stadium,” Nelson said. “But as I’ve said so many times, this is not the minors. This community expects and deserves a major league operation. Toyota Field is very major league.

“In that first call, David told me he wanted Toyota team members to look with pride at their company name on a prominent community landmark. I told him unless he can buy the rights to that rocket ship (at the Space and Rocket Center), he’s come to the right place.’’

Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama employs 1,400 workers in Huntsville and is expected to add 400 more in the near future.

Among those speaking at the naming ceremony were Madison Mayor Paul Finley, Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong and David Finch, current president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama.

“Toyota Field is the new centerpiece of the region that showcases economic development, job growth and quality of life,’’ Finch said.

A “fence” of huge concrete baseballs greet visitors to Toyota Field. (Photo/Steve Babin)

The field’s entrance on the first base side will feature an area overlooking the park and will be called Bill Penney Toyota Plaza. Below is a grassy berm where fans can sit and watch the game. The stadium is ringed with roughly 5,000 seats with a capacity of 7,500. There’s a picnic area down the left-field line and VIP suites above the general seating.

Toyota is planning a showcase of its local products in center field.

“To see the project come to life has been amazing and the energy from the community is contagious,” Finch said.

 

Mazda Toyota Manufacturing Looking for a Few Good Applicants … 40,000 to be Exact

The hands-on assessment features seven car bodies with four stations to test an applicant’s ability to follow instructions and perform tasks in a comparable environment to an assembly plant. (Photo/Jonathan Stinson)

Mazda Toyota Manufacturing has to fill 4,000 jobs, with 3,000 of those expected to be hourly production positions, over the next two years, at its vehicle assembly plant in Limestone County.

Normally, a ramp-up of this size would take about three years, according to Jamie Hall, a Toyota advisor for staffing.

To meet its employment goals, MTMUS estimates it needs about 40,000 applicants since the company expects 7 to 10 percent of the applicants to make it all the way through the hiring process and receive an offer, according to Hall.

To make matters more challenging, as Hall puts it: “This work isn’t for everyone.”

But, MTMUS has a clever way of figuring out who will shine on the company’s assembly line thanks to a detailed hiring process and its hands-on skills assessment center.

A successful hire will have to pass three stages before receiving an offer.

Stages one and two take place online.

Step one is a regular job application.

Jill Corbin, a public relations specialist with AIDT, performs a simulation that tests her ability to install wire harnesses. The instructions are given to her on a screen and the car shell is wired to register which harnesses are plugged into which receptors. (Photo/Jonathan Stinson)

This is the first taste an applicant gets of what the job will be like thanks to questions about working overtime, rotating shifts and weekends. They also learn about the pay, MTMUS’ eye toward safe practices, along with other standard job application questions.

“We want candidates that this type of work is good for,” Hall said. “So, it’s a two-way street, because we can only be happy if both the candidate is happy and we are achieving what we need.”

If an applicant makes it past the initial application stage, then they’ll take an online assessment that’s looking for things like their ability to problem solve, use applied learning and measure their leadership potential.

If a candidate fails to pass this assessment, they have two options: They can wait a year and reapply, or they can take a remedial class and restart the process immediately after completing the course.

“If you don’t make it through that point, one of the things that we recognized … was if there is a way that we could train these candidates who didn’t pass the first go-around, maybe they could come back into the system very quickly if they had some additional coaching or training,” Hall said.

That training comes from  Alabama Industrial Development Training (AIDT) and the state’s Ready to Work Program, according to Hall.

If a candidate passes the online assessment, then they are scheduled for MTMUS’ Day of Work Orientation.

This on-site orientation includes the hands-on assessment, an in-person job interview and a job placement interview. Even though this part of the process takes a full day’s commitment from the applicant, it also means a job candidate doesn’t have to take multiple days out of their schedule.

“We want to make sure this is a one-stop-shop because what we learned is, if you get a candidate and you have to pull them multiple times, then you start to lose the candidate,” Hall said.

The hands-on assessment is the star of MTMUS’s hiring process. It features seven car bodies with four stations to test an applicant’s ability to follow instructions and perform tasks in a comparable environment to an assembly plant.

For example, background noise is piped into the warehouse, the temperature is kept at 75 degrees and applicants are decked out in full safety gear.

Another example of the various simulations. This exercise tests an applicant’s ability to install bolts into corresponding receptors with both their left and right hands at the same time. (Photo/Jonathan Stinson)

Each station takes about an hour, which includes instruction, a practice session and then a timed session preforming the task a candidate was just taught.

The tasks include installing various wire harnesses, tightening bolts, tracing various patterns with your left and right hands.

It sounds simple when it’s written on paper, but in the real-world environment of the assessment center, applicants quickly learn it’s not.

The Day of Work Orientation is the last hurdle before an applicant gets a contingent job offer pending a drug screen, physical and background check.

The center can process 36 candidates per shift or 72 per day.

“That is a big improvement,” Hall said. “Previously we have been able to asses 12 per shift.”

MTMUS plans to ramp up its major hiring effort for team members with a target to start the hands-on assessments in January 2020 and have those first applicants on the job by March or April 2020, according to Hall.

Candidates must be 18 years or older and have a high school diploma or GED.

The team leader jobs will open up at the end of October.

The plant will assemble a new, yet-to-be named Toyota SUV along with Mazda’s yet-to-be named crossover model.

Hexagon/Intergraph Celebrates 50 Years of Innovative Software, Mapping and Computer Graphics

There were a lot of headlines in 1969.

The Beatles played their last public concert on the roof of Apple Records and 350,000 young people gathered at Woodstock to protest the Vietnam War.

Bob Thurber: “Our work in hardware and software wasn’t an industry then – it was just the beginning of stuff.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

But while Boeing was debuting its 747 “Jumbo Jet” to the American public, NASA engineers had landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the Moon using the Apollo Guidance Computer. It’s laboriously handmade, read-only rope memory was equivalent to 72 KB of storage today.

Also in 1969, while millions of children watched the Utopian lifestyle of a space age cartoon called “The Jetsons” with its clunky robots and home automated conveyor belt, engineers were making it a reality, linking for the first time, several large-scale, general purpose computers into a network known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET).

It was against this backdrop that IBM engineer James Meadlock, his wife Nancy, and three young engineers Bob Thurber, Terry Schansman and Keith Schonrock left their jobs at IBM on Feb. 10, 1969 to start M&S Computing on South Memorial Parkway in Huntsville.

With the company that became known worldwide as Intergraph and now known as Hexagon, the now-retired Meadlock and his remaining team returned to the sprawling campus and world headquarters in what is now the new Town Madison, for a 50th anniversary celebration.

Hundreds of current and former employees and their families filled the three-level hexagon-shaped building with its towering glass windows and tiered mezzanine overlooking a private lake to hear Meadlock speak.

Intergraph co-founder James Meadlock left IBM in 1969 to help found M&S Computing, the forerunner to Intergraph. (Photo/Steve Babin)

According to Bob Thurber, co-founder and the original executive vice president of the company, IBM got the contract for the instrument unit on the Saturn launch vehicle because they had built the first digital computer on a missile.

“I came out of college with IBM in Huntsville, so when we finished with the Saturn program, we were the renowned experts on putting digital computers onboard missiles,” said Thurber. “We were able to leave IBM with our heads held high.”

Initially, Thurber said all the Army’s weapons systems needed computers on them, so M&S Computing became a consultant for them.

“One of the things we did in the IBM days was build an interactive graphics interface for the simulation of the Saturn launch vehicle,” he said. “You had to run simulations over and over and over again, but if something went wrong within the first 30 seconds of launch, you didn’t know it until you came in the next day. They needed a quicker interactive system to do it.

“That’s how we got started. By running simulations interactively, you could watch the trajectory on the screen and if it blew up or went off-course, you could just stop it, key in some different parameters, and run it again. You could do in a day what had been taking a month.”

That ability to visualize data led to their graphics mapping capabilities, and M&S Computing was the first company to do that as well.

“Our work in hardware and software wasn’t an industry then – it was just the beginning of stuff,” Thurber said. “There were only four companies in the business when we got into it, but we essentially created the core graphics for AutoCAD.”

Thurber said they sold their first three systems around Christmas 1973: an engineering drafting system for 2D drafting to a company in Houston; a system for municipal mapping to the city of Nashville; and a system to the Army Missile Command (AMC). All three were totally separate industries, but they all needed the same basic graphic capabilities.

“We lost a lot of money when we sold Nashville the mapping system,” Thurber said. “The city said to us, ‘Look, we would love to use this stuff, but we don’t want to build all these maps!’ We said, ‘Okay. We’ll do it for you’.

“We charged them $80 per map. The cost was $500 per map, but it really it forced us to make it a good mapping system and it gave us the experience we wouldn’t have gotten had we held their hand while they did it.”

In the end, Nashville was the first city to map its roadways to understand traffic flow, congestion points, etc. all thanks to M&S Computing’s mapping capabilities.

The company then known as M&S Computing rented office space in Huntsville until the 1974 tornado destroyed the Bendix Building on Alabama 20 in Madison. Using insurance money, they were able to reconfigure it to M&S Computing’s requirements.

“The only eating place near our office back then was a Waffle House,” Thurber said with a laugh.

That would be the first of a sprawling campus with more than 4,000 employees, that is today located amidst the bustling new Town Madison development.

In 1981, M&S Computing went public and changed its name to Intergraph. After Meadlock and Thurber retired from the company, Stockholm-based Hexagon purchased Intergraph in 2010 for $2.125 billion.

Meadlock, who lost his beloved wife and business partner Nancy, is quietly retired.

Thurber is active with Huntsville’s tech incubator BizTech, but he says for a company that was the first to develop intelligent applications on top of graphics, the software and computing industry has now moved way past him.

“I still come over and visit and when I see the demos of the work Hexagon is doing now, fifty years later, the capabilities are so much more than graphics,” he said. “But they tell me that our software, M&S Computing’s software, is so integrated into their design and construction process, it cannot be unseated.”

‘Career Signing Day’ Helps Aim Students Toward Building Sciences

National Signing Day is a big event in the lives of high school student-athletes and their families.

The kids announce where they plan to continue their education and take their athletic talents to the next level.

Well, in Huntsville, there is another kind of “signing day.”

For the second time, Huntsville City Schools is hosting a “Career Signing Day,” when students are recognized for continuing their career paths within the fields of building science.

Just look around and you’ll see the demand for builders and tradesmen.

Construction zones and caution tape continue to speckle the city, as developers race to keep up with the demands required to complete projects.

Developments designed to enhance the growing infrastructure of Madison County seem to be popping up everywhere, and with no signs of a slow-down, the need for skilled workers and tradesmen is greater than ever.

“We are partnering with people to create more opportunity for internships and practical experience,” said Todd Watkins, director of Career Tech Education for Huntsville City Schools. “We are going to have interviews prior to the event. We are really excited because it gives our students a chance to do interview sessions.

“Then they can actually graduate high school and go straight to work.”

Turner Construction’s Director of Business Development Tyce Hudson said his company is working closely with area schools to ensure that upcoming graduates are aware of their options, whether they choose to pursue a four-year degree or opt for going directly into the workforce from high school.

“We are trying to get the message out that there are very bright careers in the trade industry right now,” he said. “We see shortages in mechanical, electrical, and plumbing so the demand for those is probably the highest.”

Through the efforts of companies such as Turner Construction, Huntsville City Schools students enrolled in the Career Tech Education Department are able to get practical work experience outside of the classroom by working on actual workplace projects.

Watkins also lauds the district’s newest career tech center at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

The initial program will allow students to work in the hospitality and culinary industries shadowing staff, giving them the opportunity to leave the school campus and report directly to Space & Rocket Center CEO Dr. Deborah Barnhart.

Watkins said the increased employment opportunities coupled with the area’s demand for progress equals many more options in the building science arena, whether individuals choose to seek a 4 year degree or not.

“What kids are seeing,” he said, “is that they can be employable right out of school or they can also go to (a four-year college) or a junior college.

“Kids are starting to realize that career tech is not a one-way path.”

 

Stovehouse’s ‘Retailtainment’ Concept to Include Gaslight Alley Retail District

There is nothing new about restaurants and retailers using a little pizzazz to entice customers to buy or experience their products and services.

Mexican restaurants have Mariachi bands; traditional pizza parlors entertain customers twirling pizza crusts; New Orleans chefs shuck oysters and suck crawfish heads for their customers; and retailers have BOGOs and Midnight Madness sales.

Gaslight Alley’s design is inspired by decorated alleys and shops in St. Augustine, Fla., and Lovat Lane in London. (Rendering/Crunkleton Commercial Real Estate)

But, according to Haley Clemons, marketing coordinator for Crunkleton Commercial Real Estate Group, retailers notice contemporary shoppers and diners are putting more importance on the experience of eating and shopping than they have in the past.

“Businesses in the retail industry are adopting out-of-the-box strategies to attract new audiences that value entertainment and interacting with brands in creative ways,” Clemons said. “Known as ‘retailtainment’ … many concepts are drawing in traffic by going above and beyond the basic shopping trip.”

Yoga-wear stores hosting in-shop fitness classes, or beauty brands encouraging their clientele to participate in the creation of their own purchases, are examples of this.

The Stovehouse Food & Leisure Garden, which is at the heart of the old stove factory property, is the perfect example of a venue conceived on the idea of retailtainment.

They have taken compatible concepts such as casual dining, live music, outdoor games, and special events and brought them together to collaborate. This creates a casual, inclusive atmosphere at the Stovehouse that is extremely popular with millennials.

Stovehouse Phase II: Gaslight Alley

With the success of the Stovehouse Food & Leisure Garden, developers are beginning Phase II where they will essentially repurpose an entirely separate section of the expansive old factory for retail, taking care to maintain the property’s old-world architecture and atmosphere. The “old-world shopping district” is called Gaslight Alley.

“Encompassing several retail spaces along a beautiful cobblestone walkway, Gaslight Alley will be home to all kinds of concepts with the hopes of attracting boutiques, soft goods, home décor, hair salons, and more,” said Clemons. “The possibilities are endless, and the district has already captured businesses — some that are scheduled to make their debut later this year.”

The Burn Collective is already hosting events at Stovehouse and its space will be open soon. (Photo/Crunkleton Commercial Real Estate)

When finished, Gaslight Alley, whose design is inspired by decorated alleys and shops in St. Augustine, Fla., and Lovat Lane in London, will be an eclectic shopping experience and a hotspot for one-stop destination shopping and retailtainment.

Currently, several businesses have set up office space at Stovehouse. Spur, Onyx Aerospace, Star Lab, Liberty Learning, and the Stovehouse Properties team are all housed there.

“Gaslight Alley businesses will also be part of the growing West Huntsville entertainment district that connects to nearby Campus 805,” said Clemons.

Among the committed tenants so far are Charlie Foster’s Coffee, F24 Training and the Burn Collective Fit Studio.

Charlie Foster’s is a locally owned, multi-roaster coffee shop at the entrance to Gaslight Alley. There is the 1,850-square-foot shop with a 500-square-foot outdoor patio. They will sell coffee beans from around the U.S., but the most unique thing about Charlie Foster’s is their plan to offer jobs to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

F45 Training, across from Charlie Foster’s, is a 2,835-square-foot functional training center offering high-intensity group circuit training classes. They will provide themed workouts and bring in a live DJ to get people motivated. They will be opening before the end of the year.

On a more mainstream level, the Burn Collective Fit studio is in the breezeway connecting to Gaslight Alley. They offer individual and group training in cardio, sculpting, and yoga barre classes, as well as athleisure apparel, candles, and jewelry. They are relocating from Franklin Street downtown.