Some Ideas for Shopping Local, Shopping Small for the Holidays

‘Tis the season to start thinking about holiday gift-giving. Only this year, it comes with a unique pandemic-infused twist.

To help make the annual holiday shopping experience more of a joyous occasion and less of a chore, Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment is hosting its fourth annual “Yule Y’all,” from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Dec. 5. Enjoy one of the most popular outdoor-centric holiday market and spirit sampling events of the season. There will be a tantalizing assortment of maker art, holiday creations, food, and music, along with a spirited chaser. This year’s event will also fully embrace the social distancing mindset and mask protocol.

The lighting of the iconic Lowe Mill water tower will take place at 5 p.m.

With more than 150 working studios and seven galleries, there’s something for everyone at Lowe Mill. From Cigar box guitars to sculpture and all points in between. What’s more, it’s all created by local artisans and/or owned by local entrepreneurs. Support Your Community: Shop Local!

Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment

2211 Seminole Drive

Hours: Wednesday-Thursday, noon-6 p.m.; Friday, noon-8 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

(Note: Individual vendors and artists’ hours may vary)

(256) 533-0399

Lowemill.art

Facebook: Lowe Mill Arts

 

Wondering where to begin? Here’s a handful of clever gift ideas, designed to jumpstart even the stubbornest of holiday shopper’s block. If crowds are a concern, many of the businesses listed also have an online retail presence. Listed below are a few of the many talented artisans, makers, and entrepreneurs in Huntsville/Madison. Beginning at Lowe Mill.

CHOCOLATE’S THE WORD

For those stumped on what to buy, it’s hard to go wrong with the gift of chocolate. This isn’t any ordinary chocolate, mind you. Owners Caitlin Lyon and Michelle Novosel have built a mini empire based on their elaborate, unique, and most importantly, delicious confections. In addition to chocolates, there are mini-cakes, ice cream, and chocolate and coffee beverages. Coming soon, just in time for the holidays: Pizzelle’s fabulous Drinking Chocolate ornaments. Willy Wonka beams proudly over their well-run enterprise.

Pizzelle’s

Railroad Room 4A

Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, noon-4 p.m.

(256) 513-9745

Pizzellesconfections.com

Facebook: Pizzelle’s Confections

 

THERE’S A SONG FOR THAT

Everyone loves the gift of music. And vinyl has made a comeback in a big way. Vertical House has a plethora of 33-1/3 titles, from the well-known to the most obscure. As a fixture at Lowe Mill since 2007, Vertical House is your go-to for all genres of music. Their newest location has more square footage, which means more CDs, cassettes, 8-tracks, and of course, more VINYL. If something you want isn’t in stock, owner Andy Vaughn can order it for you.

 

Vertical House Records

Railroad Room 9

Hours: Wednesday – Friday, noon– 6 p.m.; Saturday, noon–5 p.m.

(256)  658-2976

verticalhouse@gmail.com

theverticalhouse.com

Facebook: Vertical House Records

 

JEWELRY IS A GAL’S BEST FRIEND

It can also be a guy’s best buddy, right? Connie Ulrich’s jewelry is a fusion of natural materials and skillfully worked metals and precious stones. Her studio presents an attractive selection of hand-crafted jewelry, rings, bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. There’s even a workshop for making your own ring! Along with the amazing assortment of jewelry, Ulrich also has a fine selection of small paintings available for sale.

Connie Ulrich

Studio 121

Hours: Friday, noon-6 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; and by appointment only

(256) 536-4653

Connieulrich.com

Facebook: Connie Ulrich Studio

 

WELCOME TO FABULOUS HUNTSVEGAS

Cheers to the Rocket City! If you’re seeking unique, head to Green Pea Press. Green Pea Press has a wide assortment of t-shirts, mugs, coasters, koozies, earrings, and stickers. They also have an assortment of frame worthy screen print art. For those who would appreciate an “experience” kind of gift, Green Pea Pressoffers printing workshops and classes. Gift certificates are also available from $25-up.

Green Pea Press

Studio 150

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

(256) 533-0399

Greenpeapress.com

Facebook: Green Pea Press

In addition to its Lowe Mill studio, Green Pea Press has a location on Governors Drive:

Green Pea Press

2720 Governors Drive

Hours: Monday-Friday: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

(256) 924-0451

 

IT RESIN-ATES!

Up-and-coming resin artist Kenzie Johnston (aka KenziB) will first delight you with her personality, then with her eye-catching and creative assortment of colorful geode-like designs and preserved flowers in resin. The flowers are always bright and fresh; Johnston picks up a new batch daily.

KenziB

Studio 301

Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m.

(601) 481-5707

kenzi.boo.art@gmail.com

kenzib.com

Instagram: kenziejohnstonart

 

WHISKEY A GO-GO

One man, One whiskey. NASA engineer Jeff Irons has a natural gift for distilling only the best. Love, patience, and commitment are evident in the final product. And for those reasons, Irons One has continued to grow exponentially in popularity. Irons One is a small batch, handcrafted whiskey. “The only way I know how to make the best whiskey is to be totally involved in every step of the process,” says Irons. “I can only do that if I stay small enough in size to manage each step.” Be sure to check online and sign up to the Irons One e-mail list for product updates and availability.

Irons One Whiskey

Studio 2061

Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m.

(256) 536-0100

ironsonewhiskey@gmail.com

Ironsone.com

Although Lowe Mill provides one of the most uniquely creative shopper’s paradise, here are a few more places to consider.

 

BEER IS THE WORD

If you’re looking for exceptional craft beer, look no further than Das Stahl Bierhaus. With 32 beers on tap, you can have some now, then take some home in a 32- or 64-ounce glass growler.

One of the big hits at Das Stahl this season are the Advent beer calendars. The calendars come pre-assembled and filled with a jolly assortment of holiday brewskis. The Advent box can also be purchased and filled with a selection of personal favorites. Not sure what beers to buy? For $15 more, one of the crew at Das Stahl can fill up that calendar with a selection that’s guaranteed to delight. In addition to draft beer, Das Stahl Bierhaus sells a wide assortment of canned and bottled beers, decorative steins, branded glassware, and t-shirts. Still undecided? There’s always the gift card option.

Das Stahl Bierhaus

7914 Memorial Pkwy SW, B2 (Village Center)

Hours: Monday-Wednesday, noon-8 p.m.; Thursday, noon-9 p.m.

Friday & Saturday 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 2-8 p.m.

(256) 858-1495

dsb-hsv.com

Facebook: DSBHSV

 

SWEET HOME ALABAMA

When looking for the perfect gift, check out Alabama Goods. Along with assorted gift baskets, Alabama Goods boasts one of the largest selections of Alabama-made pottery. In fact, everything in the store is created by artisans here in our sweet home Alabama! Owners Sherry Hartley and Beth Staula search far and wide throughout the state for just the right art, jewelry, pottery, crafts, and food items.

Alabama Goods

2722 Carl T. Jones Drive, Valley Bend Shopping Center

Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.

(256) 270-7439

alabamagoods.com

Facebook: Alabama Goods Huntsville

 

WINE NOT?

Uncorked is in the heart of Providence Main and owner Saranne Riccio’s secret to her success lies in her simple philosophy, “Wine doesn’t have to be intimidating.” Along with a variety of wines to suit any budget, there are tasty tidbits, such as Mama’s cheese straws, Arabella’s dilled onions, candied jalapenos, and pepper jelly; Belle Chevre goat cheeses, and Pizzelle’s chocolates. Add these delightful goodies with a great bottle of wine to your next gift basket.

Uncorked Wine Shop & Tasting Room

485 Providence Main St

Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Friday, noon-8 p.m.; Saturday, noon-7 p.m.

Closed Sundays and Mondays

(256) 970-4717

Facebook: Uncorked Wine Shop Tasting Room

 

And don we now, our seasonal apparel. If you’re looking for a variety of ladies and kid’s clothing, along with assorted accessories and swag, Redbird Boutique is the place to go. Co-joined with University Pickers, Redbird features over 60 local designers and there’s a wide variety of items to choose from. Bird is the word, shop local!

Redbird Boutique and Gifts at University Pickers

3024 University Drive

Hours: Monday – Friday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.–6 p.m.; Sunday, noon–5 p.m.

(256) 536-5738

Redbirdhsv.com

Facebook: Redbird Boutique and Gifts

Listed below are two of the many local designers with merchandise available at Redbird Boutique.

 

WHISK YOU WERE HERE

The brainchild of Jonathon Fowler, Fow Wow merchandise is iconic, quirky, and uniquely Huntsville. Many of the designs are sure to provoke a smile, or even a laugh. Fow Wow brand products are sold throughout Huntsville in retail establishments, such as Redbird Boutique and Huntsville Museum of Art. Merchandise can also be ordered online. Check their website or Facebook page for a complete selection of products.

Fow Wow Designs

fowwowdesigns.com

Facebook: Fow Wows

 

SOUTHWESTERN HEART CHIC

Summer Sklar, an El Paso native-Huntsville transplant, puts her heart and soul, along with beads and wire, into her captivating assortment of Mexican/Southwestern-meets funky chic jewelry. Sklar creates a beautiful selection of earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and wine charms. Each piece of Heart & Wire jewelry is one-of-a-kind and is available at Redbird Boutique or via online at the Heart & Wire website. Custom orders are also welcomed.

Heart & Wire

Heartandwire.com

Facebook: Heart and Wire

 

 

 

 

 

NHBA Taking Care of Business on Huntsville’s North Side

North Huntsville is open for business.

And the North Huntsville Business Association has opened an office and business center to help entrepreneurs and small business owners find success.

The NHBA Wall of Fame recognizes supporters of North Huntsville businesses.

The new office is at 2007 North Memorial Parkway, adjacent to HC Blake in the remodeled shopping center at the intersection with Oakwood Avenue. Among those joining NHBA President Reggie McKenzie and other officers at the office’s “soft opening” Thursday were State Rep. Laura Hall, City Councilman Devyn Keith and Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce Vice President Small Business & Events Pammie Jimmar.

“It’s important we not only identify businesses we can help, but it’s also about redevelopment and what businesses’ needs are,” said NHBA Executive Director Judy Hardin. With some 30 years of experience working with small businesses, Hardin recently retired from Raytheon as manager of Small Business Partnering. “We are here to support them, finding the means for them and collaborating.

“As businesses grow, the community will grow.”

One of the means is a Google Fiber-supported Promote the Parkway Initiative. The program aims to assist the city in attracting business along the North Memorial Parkway corridor. It includes one year of free rent to a start-up small business in North Huntsville.

Keith, who is opening the North Side Dark coffee shop in the shopping center, has been working to get needed help – financial and advisory – for the North Memorial Parkway corridor.

“This is the first example of seed money from the city,” he said. “We have to keep the public and private partnerships.

“You can’t get the location and right of way the way North Huntsville has it.”

Hall, whose district includes North Huntsville, said the redevelopment of the area is vital and that inclusion is a primary aspect of the redevelopment.

“We want to see that the inclusion is a reality,” she said. “The importance of inclusion and diversity is a benefit to all.”

Jimmar echoed Hall’s remarks on diversity and inclusion … and added another aspect.

“As a Chamber, we’re here for you,” she said. “It’s about diversity, inclusion and equity.”

Keith credited NHBA President Reggie McKenzie with being instrumental in promoting North Memorial Parkway and the need for redevelopment and opportunities for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

The NHBA also unveiled its Wall of Fame recognizing Google Fiber, Redstone Federal Credit Union and the City of Huntsville as keep supporters and Walk of Fame Stars honoring Keith and former District 1 City Councilman Richard Showers Sr. for their work for North Huntsville.

“This has been a real inspiration for the community to see there is an opportunity for entrepreneurs,” said NHBA Vice President Alex Adams. “This is a star for Huntsville, particularly the north side of town.”

For more information on the North Huntsville Business Association and the Promote the Parkway Initiative, visit http://northhuntsvillebusiness.com/

City Leaders Discuss Smart Growth Strategy For Huntsville

A city leadership panel of Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, Huntsville City Administrator John Hamilton, Director of Urban and Economic Development Shane Davis and City Engineer Kathy Martin took an in-depth look into the vigorous activity and relentless growth Battle discussed in his State of the City Address.

Huntsville’s smart growth strategy seems to underlie every aspect of the city’s regional approach to economic growth. Infrastructure, high quality of life, good jobs, and its strategic placement at all points of the city are significant components of that strategy.

Moderator Chip Cherry, president/CEO of the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce, asked Battle about the role regional cooperation plays in the success of the local economy, and in advocating for Redstone Arsenal.

“Teamwork, but not your typical community teamwork. Cross jurisdictional teamwork and collaboration,” Battle said. “None of us are an island. We work together.

“Mazda Toyota came about because Huntsville was working with Limestone County and the City of Athens on utilities, and that had us working with the state Department of Transportation and the state Department of Commerce.

“We have a lot of servant leaders in our communities who learned how to put aside egos and work together to make good things happen without worry about who is getting the credit or the fame for it.”

He cited the leadership of the Chamber of Commerce, Huntsville Utilities, Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center.

“We have great leadership across the board at upper levels, but that can’t sustain us,” Battle said. “You have to have leadership on the director’s level, and we have been developing leadership at that level for the past 15 years.

“Leadership is executing a plan.”

Infrastructure

“Restore Roads was a vision back in 2014 to help sustain the growth we knew was coming,” Martin said. “Three of those projects are complete. Cecil Ashburn is the latest, and the Land Trust just opened their parking lot there – and by the way, the sunsets off Cecil Ashburn are quite amazing.”

Kathy Martin: “Restore Roads was a vision back in 2014 to help sustain the growth we knew was coming.”

She said Research Park Boulevard, Mastin Lake Road, and the northern bypass are all under construction or starting construction. Greenbriar Parkway adds seven miles of infrastructure to connect to I-565; and the reconstruction of old Highway 20 adds another five miles to the Mazda Toyota corridor.

Good weather has permitted a lot of progress on Martin Road just outside the arsenal’s Gate 7. Martin said now that the traffic has shifted lanes, the progress will be more noticeable as the City wants it completed by next fall.

Haysland Road on the south end of town is on schedule to open the end of this year, with the Edinburgh connector starting next spring.

“The south connector, previously called the Southern Bypass project, has been around for quite a while,” said Martin. “Currently, it is called the Arsenal East Connector and has been revived to get a direct interstate connection down to the Patton Road gate as quickly as possible. There’s been some federal funding that’s allowed Huntsville to do a corridor study and get the first phase of that East Arsenal Connector in the beginning design process.”

She said the city is working closely with the federal government, the state, and Redstone Arsenal to come up with an alignment that works for everyone.

“Currently, our staff is managing approximately 70 roadway projects,” Martin said. “That is about 300 lane miles of improvements in our city, equating to about $800 million in federal, state, and local funding infrastructure to accommodate the growth we see.”

Quality of Life

“When we talk about infrastructure, we think roads, sidewalks, utility expansion, and resiliency,” Hamilton said. “Those things are all extremely important, but there are other pieces of public infrastructure necessary to be part of workforce development.

“Companies work hard to make their businesses places where people want to work. The City has to make Huntsville a place where people want to live.”

John Hunt Park is part of Huntsville’s Central Park, which is laid out as a complex of parks at Huntsville’s heart. Building a wide diversity of recreational and athletic opportunities around it is a large part of improving Huntsville’s quality of life.

Quality of life to city leaders is hosting college-level sand volleyball tournaments such as the Junior National Championships this year, in a complex built so that the college tournaments are using the same facilities as the youths.

Hamilton said the same thing is happening in soccer, lacrosse, and cross-country infrastructure where the former municipal golf course was converted into a cross-country course.

“Local high schools hosted a cross-country meet that attracted teams from all over the state,” said Hamilton. “Next year we’re hosting one of the NCAA regionals on the same course. It reflects our strategy of making sure we’re meeting and identifying the daily demands of our community and for all their family’s recreational pursuits, but doing it in a way that really can attract business into our community and bring sports tourism in.”

But Huntsville isn’t just investing in big venues. The city is making investments in every neighborhood as well.

John Hamilton: “We are investing in a way that’s high quality and meets the rolling demand.”

“The Sandra Moon Complex is a great example of what will be a little town center in southeast Huntsville providing arts, a library for academic pursuits and reading, but also athletic events right there on that same location, so it becomes a hub, almost a little village down there,” said Hamilton. “Same thing across the mountain at the Mark Russell Recreation Center north of the Johnson Legacy Center with rock climbing and fitness facilities and nature preserve.

“We disperse it geographically across the city and … really expand the diversity of those opportunities. We all love football, baseball, basketball, and continue investing in that; we also have a rapidly growing lacrosse community and running and biking communities.”

He said by introducing sports such as skateboarding into Huntsville, it helps attract people from different parts of the country.

“We are investing in a way that’s high quality and meets the rolling demand,” he said.

Other quality of life projects include the Benton H. Wilcoxon Municipal Ice Complex. Hamilton said many people who move to Huntsville from up north are surprised at how robust the hockey, figure skating and curling community is here, and has been for decades. As a result, the aging Ice Complex got an $11 million renovation that will be finished in the middle of November with higher quality ice, better seating, and more amenities.

Davis joined the conversation to discuss the many revitalization projects and new investments projects ranging from multihousing to commercial space and retail development.

“Joe Davis stadium was designed to be a baseball stadium and, in its current configuration, that is all it can be, but we have the ability to transform it into a venue for high school football, soccer, lacrosse, and basically any sport that uses a rectangular field,” said Davis. “We will leverage the value that park brings in in hotels, restaurants, and whatever makes sense from a commercial perspective.”

There will be additional infrastructure through the middle of Brahan Spring Park to connect it to Lowe Mill as an arts center, and on into the downtown area. That project starts in 2021.

The Johnson Legacy Center project is in its first phase as part of the quality of life infrastructure. Davis said when the public safety training facility relocates to the former Johnson High School site, there’s a great of potential for large green spaces that will allow for festivals and events.

“And we continue to see a lot of desire for investment in the downtown area, so parking infrastructure will ultimately help drive the expansion of the Von Braun Center. Those improvements will provide more arts and entertainment to the area.”

There is always more to come, so they work in phases he said but for the next couple of years, they are focused on making sure Huntsville’s new corporate citizens are successful.

“We want to make sure our existing companies are expanding and staying focused on reinvestment in downtown, Research Park, workforce development, and making sure our communities are prepared for the opportunities we see coming.”

Strategic Placement

“Our ability to execute the plan is what we’re seeing today … being very deliberate in the placement of jobs, and it’s not just chasing the western corridor, putting companies in the right locations for them to be successful, but also brings leverage into our communities,” said Davis.

Shane Davis: “We sat down and came up with a vision, a plan; but your plan is only as good as its execution.”

“I think you have to go back 10 to 12 years ago during what people call the Great Recession or a decade in the rearview mirror,” Davis said. “You’re trying to meet budget and provide community services. We sat down and came up with a vision, a plan; but your plan is only as good as its execution.

What we see throughout Huntsville, he said, is the placement of those jobs and major investments in areas where neighborhoods can come back and revitalize. Existing neighborhoods and commercial corridors usher in new neighborhoods, creating a new commercial lane that is not in any one part or section of the community but abroad. No part of the city is left out of the growth strategy.

“We looked at about 67 non-industrial projects that are active in the middle of COVID-19,” said Davis. “Huntsville is not only punching above their weight class as a secondary tier metro competing with major metros across the USA, but that is no longer the challenge. Huntsville has become a totally different market, and that’s good not only for the bottom line to provide more services and quality of life attributes to our communities, but to be able to pay for them, is good for our community, our citizens and our businesses.”

He said bringing more people into a community is the best way to help small business. “It is the placement of industrial growth at Research Park and in and around the Arsenal, but also placing it in the northeast and southeast part of town, and you can see the impact caused by it in the community,” Davis said.

The Secret to Huntsville’s Success

Cherry said Huntsville is the most optimistic community he has ever been around and that no one should be surprised leadership has executed the plan so well.

“This is a community that not that long ago said, ‘Sure, we can put a man on the moon and bring him home alive, no problem,” said Cherry. “It took a whole lot of local teamwork to do it, but when you’re in a place that is now saying, “No problem. We will go to Mars and we will make sure they stay alive and come back alive”. That’s a community that doesn’t see obstacles. It’s a community that wins every competition it enters, and I think that just permeates who we are as a community and drives that success.”

Mayor Tommy Battle: “I think we can look at every section of the city, every part of town and it is growing right now.”

Battle said while people talk about Huntsville being number one, number one isn’t important  – being the best, is.

“Many years ago we were updating our strategy, talking about where the voids were and whether things had to be able to realize our full potential, because Toyota at the time was advertising for 200 jobs and they had 10,000 people apply,” he said. “It showed us we had an under-employment issue.

“This led community leadership to focus on diversification and picking up more advanced manufacturing jobs. It was really kind of pulling people up from the bottom and a lot of people were questioning it, but we designed a mechanism to make sure investment is protected. Every one of the projects we’ve done, we look very closely at return on investment, at how much we’re going to invest, what the returns will be, how many jobs we are getting, and what is it going to do to our economy? What is the capital expenditure going to be coming back into it?”

Redstone Gateway is an example.

“We were going to invest a certain amount into infrastructure, but we wanted to make sure we would get paid back. So, we worked in a unique fashion, different than anybody had ever done before,” said Battle. “The company actually borrowed the money to come in, and they were paid back by the buildings they built and the property tax as it came back to them.

“As a city, we did not have exposure. There was no risk as long as they built the building. We felt very comfortable that the value of that building would continue to make money and continue to bring in property taxes that could pay off that infrastructure.”

He said the city always expects Huntsville to get a return on the investment with every project and that the citizens and people engaged in the community should know the appointment of resources is very strategic, designed to yield secondary impacts throughout the market like parking decks that allow for denser developments.

“I think we can look at every section of the city, every part of town and it is growing right now,” said Battle. “In Hampton Cove we’ve got a new community center and the Sandra Moon Complex and Hays Farm project are going to be magnificent developments,” said Battle.

“And don’t forget out to the west and all the property surrounding the Mazda Toyota plant and Polaris. It is going to have growth factors, as well as Research Park and the Arsenal. Research Park still has over 300 acres of undeveloped land and it is growing very fast.

“We still have about 2.5 million to 3 million square feet of land to be developed at Redstone Gateway, and on the Arsenal, the growth we are seeing out of the FBI and from internal or organic growth coming out of all the other agencies, makes it a great time to be in Huntsville.”

Can we get an “Amen?”

 

To Get a Loan or Not Get a Loan – That is the Question in the Age of COVID-19

If you talk to a commercial real estate developer, they will say there is plenty of money out there for the lending and, believe it or not, it is cheap money.

If you talk to a Realtor or homebuilder, they will tell you there is no better time to sell, buy or build a home because interest rates are low, and lenders are lending.

But, by all economic measures, the worldwide pandemic has had an enormously negative impact on the overall economy and employment numbers. It is not a secret that the very existence of thousands of restaurants, hair salons, fitness centers, hotels, airlines, personal services, and tourism businesses have been threatened.

And yet, since the effects of the pandemic began in March, dozens of restaurants have either opened or are moving forward with plans to open in Madison County including Outback at Town Madison, Culvers in Madison, Bark & Barrel Barbecue at Stovehouse, and Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint in downtown Huntsville.

The pandemic hasn’t stopped government contractors and manufacturing plants from expanding. Look at Redline Steel, Moog, Mazda Toyota and Booz Allen Hamilton.

So, what is the truth about banking, lending, and the financial fallout on businesses, small and large across the Tennessee Valley?

Is it, or is it not a good time to start or expand a business right now, especially if you need a bank loan to do so?

“Banks are always lending money for good projects – any kind of project where the owner or borrower has their own money in it and are taking some of the risk, and the bank is taking acceptable risk,” said David Nast, president and CEO of Progress Bank.

“If you have an owner who is a good operator, has been in the business for some time, and have their own money in the bank in support for their company so the bank is not loaning all the money and taking all the risk, then banks are willing to lend money.”

He said there are always certain economic cycles where certain industries are considered higher risk than others and restaurants are already high risk, even during normal times.

“Banks look, in general, at what is going on in the economy and, with the fallout from COVID-19, any new start-up with limited experience and limited equity in the project is going to be tougher to do right now,” Nast said. “On the other hand, a business owner who has been in business a while and has good money in a new project like building a larger company building to expand their business, employees and product/service offerings is always going to offer opportunities more interesting to a bank.”

But it isn’t necessarily just because a customer wants to open a restaurant that puts them under more scrutiny right now.

“Restaurants are clearly struggling, but if you are a big well-known chain that planned three years ago to open in Huntsville, most of those companies are continuing with those plans,” Nast said. “Those companies have the capital, the brand recognition, and the capability to open successfully.

“However, if you are a small Mom and Pop shop whose dream has always been to open a restaurant, I’m not sure this is the ideal time to do that.”

He said other businesses such as hair salons and health spas may find the same resistance from lending institutions because they have so many restrictions on them, including questions about whether clients will be willing to go patron those businesses.

“It doesn’t feel like the right time to put your life savings into a business like that right now,” Nast said.

Sean Kelly, Huntsville market executive for Regions Bank, said the capital is there but there is no one-size-fits-all approach to providing financing.

“Regardless of industry, whether a client is in the commercial office or retail space, the manufacturing space, or other industries, we believe the key to a successful banking relationship is to work collaboratively with clients on ways we can offer insights on cash flow, financial management and other needs to help them through whatever need they are facing,” he said. “At Regions, we take the time to get to know our clients. We talk about their business model, how they are adapting during the pandemic, and what needs and opportunities are ahead for them.

“From there, we work to develop financial solutions that meet their individual needs. We work with clients to determine where the opportunities are and how can we best meet individual needs and work to provide customized solutions where prudent.”

Penny Billings, BancorpSouth president for the Huntsville market, said their business lending practices have changed very little since the pandemic and she is optimistic about starting a new business.

“As always, our lending practices are relative to the type of business, the proposed collateral, and the guarantor strength,” she said. “This has not changed. We are fortunate to be in a community where the economy has continued to be strong and supportive of those businesses that have been adversely impacted.

“Starting a business at any time can be tough, but there are probably some opportunities depending on the type of business you’re interested in starting. With our current environment, it’s the perfect time for savvy entrepreneurs to think outside the box for solutions to fix trending problems they see or maybe even add digital elements to their existing business plans.”

Perhaps one of the points of confusion is that today’s pandemic crisis is too closely compared to the 2008 financial crisis.

“While similar in their disruption of the economy, the two situations are entirely different,” said Nast. “The mood is different. 2008 was an enormous financial crisis and at the time, the mood was terrible because we knew we were in for a protracted recession like we had never seen before, and there was no end in sight.

“Not to minimize the negative impact of today’s crisis on many small businesses, the 2008 crisis prepared us in many ways to be more proactive in helping clients get through it this time. We have been able to react quickly and put strong measures in place locally, and at the state and federal level, to prevent a total collapse like what we saw in 2008.

“When you are in the banking business, you are here to help people live their dreams and be successful, so you hate seeing any business fail, but banks have been much more accommodating than they were then.”

Kelly said Regions set aside a credit provision of $700 million in the second quarter of this year for loan loss reserves.

“We did this as a precaution amid the uncertainty the pandemic has caused. It is important to remember, though, that Regions and banks across the industry remain very well capitalized,” he said. “We have diversified our business, we have lessened risk in our loan book, and we have streamlined our operations and efficiencies, and we are operating from a position of strength.

“We are prepared to serve and support our clients and communities through the pandemic.”

Billings said Payroll Protection Program loans are an extremely important accommodation that eased the pain for a lot of commercial customers.

“BancorpSouth generated more than 15,000 PPP loans with total funding of more than $1.23 billion,” Billings said. “Everyone felt a great sense of pride as our company started funding these loans. Many of our customers said the PPP loans provided the necessary financial relief to help them meet their payroll, preserve jobs, and keep their doors open.

“Small businesses are the lifeblood of our communities; therefore, we’ve been doing everything we can to provide resources and financial relief to help them navigate these challenging times.

Nast agreed PPP helped a lot of businesses.

“At Progress Bank, we are now beginning the forgiveness phase and those loans are being forgiven, so they are not having to pay that money back. It was a nice stimulus that helped a lot of businesses stay open,” he said.

The initial days of the PPP program were challenging for Regions as well, Kelly said.

“Those initial days included a lot of long nights and weekends as we worked through a wave of applications from clients who had never been in need of Small Business Administration financial resources before,” he said. “We cross-trained a significant portion of our workforce from various departments to process applications for this type of financing. In the end, we were able to help 45,000 customers receive $5 billion in loans that saved or supported 600,000 jobs.”

On the residential front, Billings said the right time to buy a home is different for everyone and in every market.

“But the housing market is thriving due to record low mortgage rates and more people working from home during the pandemic,” she said. “A lot of customers are refinancing, buying new homes, or doing home improvements. New home construction is booming right now, and homebuilders are working hard to keep up with demand in our market.”

Furthermore, she said BankcorpSouth has seen an increase in consumer equity lines of credit as people renovate and update their existing homes.

“People have been spending more time at home and working at home to support the control of the virus, and as a result, sales for specific items such as computers, household appliances, and gardening supplies, have risen,” she said.

“Across the nation, commercial construction was impacted by the shelter-in-place orders implemented in the early months of the pandemic, causing many builders to halt their construction plans. However, the industry is forecasted to recover as the economy improves. In Huntsville, we haven’t seen a significant impact. As you can see in our community, large commercial projects are underway.”

Kelly provides some good local context on commercial real estate.

“It is true that commercial real estate, on a national level, is facing a challenge during the pandemic,” he said. “But here in Huntsville, our office-space market is in a good position, even during COVID-19. We’re seeing occupancy rates around 90 to 95 percent. Our business sector here includes a lot of government contractors that lease space in the area. Even with many people working remotely, the leasing activity remains strong. That’s an outlier from much of the rest of the country.

“Our nation was, and still is, facing a tremendous challenge. But the banking industry is well capitalized, and we can serve as part of the solution.”

Masks and More Masks: “Celebrating” Halloween in the Time of COVID

Witches, goblins, and ghouls.

Costumes, candy, and yard décor.

It is evident that Halloween is a popular holiday here in America.

What other time of the year can adults and children alike freely dress up, disguised as their favorite superhero or movie icon, and legitimately beg for candy?

But will this year’s Halloween be different from years past and if so, how?

In the time of COVID, if one thing has proved to be certain, it is uncertainty.

2020 has already proven to be vastly different than any other year. After six months living under the dark cloud of a global pandemic, it is possible that some of the many large gatherings that normally take place here in the Rocket City might take a back seat.

As far trick-or-treating or home-based Halloween parties, it is hard to say.

While no one has directly come out and said, don’t go trick-or-treating, it has been implied.

“Local hospital representatives have advised against any close contact activity,” said Kelly Schrimsher, communications director for the City of Huntsville.

The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) advises that all preventive measures and extreme caution be exercised in any instance where groups of people congregate.

“Congregate settings increase the potential for transmission of respiratory droplets,” said Dr. Karen Landers of the Huntsville’s COVID-19 team.

Despite the cautionary statements and recommendations, the natives are getting restless and, after many months of curtailed social encounters combined with a blisteringly hot summer, everyone is eager for the arrival of fall and the sense of merriment that Halloween brings.

Halloween falls on a Saturday this year, which is ideal for families and especially good for local entertainment venues.

But how will it play out here?

“We have several events going on this year and are hoping to add a few more,” said River Reed, event coordinator for Straight to Ale. “October’s Drag Brunch on the 25th is Halloween-themed and we (released) our Old Town Pumpkin Ale as a tribute both to the holiday and Huntsville History Month. Homegrown Comedy and Rocket City Art Hops, which are on the ninth and 15th respectively, also have a Halloween theme and we are encouraging attendees to come in costume.”

As far as hosting an event on Halloween, Straight to Ale hasn’t confirmed.

The state mandate limits eight people to a table and hosting a large group event, such as a Halloween party, presents a unique challenge.

“We do hope to have a costume contest and a few other Halloween-themed events, but we are working out the safest way to do so,” said Reed.

“Our events are all following all of our current safety protocols in the taproom,” said Kimberly Casey, marketing director at Straight to Ale. “This means all venue spaces are at half capacity, tables are spaced six feet apart, and masks must be worn when not seated at your table. Patrons can check out a detailed description of our policies before they visit at straighttoale.com/updates.”

In addition to the social gathering aspect, Halloween is a big deal for retail.

Since the National Retail Federation began keeping track in 2005, Halloween spending has almost doubled. In 2019, close to $9 billion was spent on costumes, candy, and decorations alone.

These figures do not factor in the additional revenue generated at bars, clubs, and other entertainment venues such as haunted houses, corn mazes, and hayrides. Without this substantial boost of holiday-inspired spending, it could mean another massive blow to the nation’s economy.

While nothing has been set in stone locally, it remains to be seen whether any mandates will come into play regarding Halloween activities and events.

In major cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago, decisions have already been made and revised, or at least modified, in response to community push-back. In L.A., large-scale Halloween events at the big theme parks, such as Universal Studios and Disney have been canceled. At the city level, although the smaller neighborhood events and the door-to-door candy hustles are “not recommended,” city ordinances will not be enforced.

In the meantime, local retail establishments remain hopeful. Stores that specialize in Halloween décor and apparel are well-stocked with an assortment of costumes, just in case.

With a Heart of Gold, Colin Wayne and Redline Make Products of Steel

TANNER — Decorated Army veteran seriously injured in Afghanistan.

Redline Steel has produced some 5 million products from its 110,000 square-foot facility in SouthPoint Business Park.

Traveling the world as a fitness model.

Entrepreneur and steel manufacturing guru.

Humanitarian and philanthropist in line to receive Huntsville’s “Key to the City”.

A person can accomplish a lot in just 31 years. Ask Huntsville native and social media extraordinaire Colin Wayne.

His company, Redline Steel, is ranked 110th among the Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Private Companies in America – and is the fastest-growing company in the state

. In addition, Inc. 5000 recognized Redline Steel as the No. 4 Fastest Growing Manufacturing Company nationally with a recorded growth increase of 3,215 percent from 2019 to 2020.

Quickly becoming one of the largest steel monogram companies in the U.S., Redline Steel is expecting to surpass $100 million in sales by the end of the year.

But, to Wayne, giving to the community is what moves him.

“I am an entrepreneur, but I have always been a humanitarian and philanthropist at heart,” he said.

Wayne’s journey to becoming a steel manufacturing expert has been nothing short of extraordinary.

He was seriously injured in a rocket attack eight years ago in Afghanistan and spent six months in physical therapy and recovery from lumbar fusion surgery on his back.

Transitioning out of the Army in 2013, he traveled the world as a fitness model gracing the cover of more than 50 men’s health magazines and promoting products for Under Armour and Nike.

Moving back to Huntsville in 2015, it was a fortuitous business transaction that led Wayne to steel manufacturing and eventually build Redline Steel into his own company in January 2016.

Colin Wayne makes a presentation to Huntsville Police Capt. Mike Izzo. (Redline Photo)

Since then, Wayne has paid his good fortune back to the local, regional, and national communities that have resulted in his success many times over.

His company donated $50,000 to the Huntsville Police Department and, in 2017, donated $25,000 to the American Red Cross. Redline Steel has also given back to Alabama farmers, veterans groups, schoolteachers, and truckers.

In the meantime, like hundreds of other businesses, Redline Steel has been adversely affected by the pandemic.

But, unlike hundreds of other businesses, he didn’t let it adversely affect his employees. Redline Steel employs more than 85 employees and based on current projections, Wayne expects that to reach over 100 by end of the year.

“When the coronavirus hit this spring, I doubled our workforce, and we did not lay anyone off, even during the worst of it,” Wayne said. “Then, to lessen the negative impact, I paid all our employees’ house payments in April.

“The coronavirus has been challenging because we have struggled like everyone else to find ways to combat it and keep going. It caused a lot of stress on the company’s growth because of the unknowns and we have had more unemployment the past couple months than we have had in over 50 years.

“People aren’t spending like they were before the pandemic, so we had to get creative to find different ways to monetize.”

He said now that almost every state including Alabama has mandatory mask requirements, they began getting a lot of requests for them through their website. They set up a partnership to make and sell face masks but – to him – that wasn’t enough.

“We donated over $4 million in products to provide support for essential healthcare workers and partnered with my friend, actress Megan Fox, to donate $3.2 million to medical support personnel and first responders,” he said.

From its 110,000 square-foot facility in SouthPoint Business Park just off Interstates 65 and 565 in Tanner, Redline Steel manages all manufacturing and fulfillment coming from their online retail store. In its first four years in business, they have moved some 5 million products. Their mostly steel-based products include personalized and monogrammed gifts, home décor, jewelry, children’s items, and accessories.

Colin Wayne takes a selfie with President Trump after a ceremony in Washington.

This year, President Trump invited him to the White House where he awarded Wayne with a signed commendation plaque. They also took a selfie together and Trump bought an American flag from his company’s Patriotic Flag Collection.

More recently, he was nominated for the 2020 Russell G. Brown Executive Leadership Award in Alabama for Small Businesses and will be receiving Huntsville’s Key to the City recognition for his charitable community involvement.

In August, Redline Steel launched three nonprofit campaigns.

“I look for causes whose missions align with my values and beliefs,” Wayne said. “My five-year-old niece was recently diagnosed with cancer and the Olivia Hope Foundation specializes in pediatric cancer.

“She is currently in remission, but she is still on oral chemotherapy and it is very difficult.”

The Olivia Hope Foundation was created in honor of 11-year-old Olivia Hope LoRusso, who lost a 15-month fight with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Redline Steel is offering exclusive home décor pieces with every donation. For information, visit oliviahope.org.

“We are also launching a campaign with Midnight Mission,” he said. “They feed the homeless and, of course, that is important to me because 70 percent of homeless people are war veterans.”

In August, a long list of Hollywood celebrities teamed up with Habitat for Humanity to promote a social media campaign called #Hammertime. Redline Steel became involved by making a special steel hammer to send to every person who donated $25 or more.

“And Habitat for Humanity,” he said. “They are a much larger organization obviously, but they are also a Christian organization that helps people in need to build homes.”

Sit Down with Success: Restaurateur Stephanie Kennedy-Mell

After she spent more than 20 years in the fashion and apparel industry, Stephanie Kennedy-Mell and her husband Matthew Mell opened the Church Street Wine Shoppe in Huntsville.

Now their Church Street Family owns Purveyor at the Avenue, Pourhouse at Stovehouse; Mazzara’s at Stovehouse; and, in spite of the uncertainty of COVID-19, they are about to open Catacomb 435, a speakeasy in the basement of Downtown Self Storage at the corner of Jefferson Street and Clinton Avenue.

Four restaurants and a fifth on the way – aren’t you facing unprecedented challenges?

I look at it as a time to work on your bobbing and weaving skills. The alternative is to get overwhelmed by it and it’s easy enough outside of COVID for small business to get overwhelmed. We take things as they come at us. Adjust, ask questions, prioritize, and handle things as they come at us. Bobbing and weaving all the time and repeating our mantra #keepmovingforward.

How are you getting through it?

We live in an amazing community. It is so supportive of small business and we feel very lucky for that.

We are extremely cautious with our customers and our employees, thanks to relationships we have with people at the hospital.

They have guided us on how to sanitize our restaurants properly and thoroughly; how to deal with positive cases, and how to follow protocols so we can stay open and keep people safe.

They provide us with quick testing, so all our employees are tested for the virus before they are hired on at the Church Street Family. It must come back negative before they can start.

What advice would you give someone getting into the hospitality business right now?

I’m not sure it’s the best time to start a new business, so if you are not already established, I would advise them to hold off.

If they are already established, I say giving up is not the answer. Go slow, be cautious, do your due diligence, and market yourself using social media to reassure people you have survived and are following protocols and guidelines.

How are things at Stovehouse?

It is a great socially distanced space, mostly outdoors, and the tables are socially distanced. It is a comfortable place to go right now to eat and drink, play bocce ball and enjoy music. It is very popular and still growing. The tenants talk to each other daily and have conversations about what is working and what is not; and what we can do together.

And the future?

It is all about attitude. This too shall pass, so keep your chin up. Have a plan and execute your plan. You may have to alter that plan but stay with it.

Area Commercial Construction Continues to Rise in Wake of COVID Uncertainty

There has been very little, if any, slowdown in commercial building in Huntsville and Madison throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the weight of uncertainty related to the pandemic has not disappeared, commercial builders and developers continue to work through it like Marshall Space Flight Center engineers work through the challenges of the space program – always moving positively forward; always working the problem from a pragmatic standpoint; and never accepting failure as a final outcome.

According to Shane Davis, Director of Urban & Economic Development for the City of Huntsville, new construction permits, and permit inspection requests have not declined throughout the pandemic and the City continues to see strong growth in all building sectors.

“In terms of the overall environment, we continue to see multiple new projects looking at the Huntsville market as a new or expanding location,” said Davis. “While COVID has slowed the number of potential new companies and their projects, active projects are very strong and diverse in varying business sectors.

“Ongoing construction activities have been hindered by reduced workers, intermediate quarantining, and delays due to the availability in building materials. But while these conditions have slowed the overall construction pace, all ongoing commercial and industrial projects continue to move ahead with a shift in completion deadlines and openings.”

He points to the very visible and very active downtown construction happening on what seems like every block.

“City Centre is under construction with Phase II – lofts, retail, and a parking garage,” he said. “Two new public parking garages are going up at Greene and Monroe streets. Both the Curio Hotel and Hampton Inn and Suites are in the midst of construction, and the new Huntsville Hospital Tower is taking shape.

Last year, Russ Russell Commercial Real Estate set a land sales record for downtown Huntsville at $56 per square foot for the Hampton Inn and Suites project. Located on the corner of Clinton Avenue and Monroe Street, the land is prime downtown real estate across from the expanded Von Braun Center.

“It is one of the few corners that has been vacant with no building on it,” Russell said. “Out-of-town developers look at these parcels of land with fresh eyes are willing to pay a premium because they can see it developed, where sometimes local people can’t because they drive past it every day.

“I set up an ugly tent with cold beer and rare velvet Elvis artwork, and you will be surprised how it brings that vision into full view,” he said.

Mitch Coley, division Manager at Robins & Morton, said they are working on a variety of projects in the greater Huntsville area. Some of the most visible include Huntsville Hospital’s Orthopedic and Spine Tower, Redstone Federal Credit Union, 106 Jefferson, Pelham Street Park and Redstone Gateway 7100 and 8100’s new office building.

“Mid-year there was a decline in new projects and delays in projects in the planning stages as owners and developers hesitated, wanting a clearer picture of what was ahead,” said Coley. “But the industry is seeing some of these projects resuming. The good news is that those projects haven’t gone away and that’s providing strong start for next year.”

He said they are seeing a decrease in the number of new projects reported as upcoming opportunities from architect and design firms, but they believe this will manifest itself in a market-by-market and city-by-city basis. Huntsville is not likely to be as affected by what would ordinarily predict a nationwide downturn because Huntsville’s market sector is so diverse.

“Looking back at the recession of 2008, the construction industry contracted,” Coley said. “It was different from what we’re facing today because of the lack of capital during the Great Recession, but it resulted in a pent-up demand for construction.

“There was still a backlog when COVID-19 surfaced. Although some clients expressed hesitancy to proceed with projects in the very early stages of planning mid-year, we’ve seen many of them resume.”

Russell sees positive signs everywhere. From the construction of the $40 million Autograph Collection by Marriott hotel being built to replace the southern portion of the Von Braun Center parking deck; to the long-awaited downtown Constellation development, which begins Phase I construction this fall.

In addition to these large-scale projects, downtown continues to see new businesses opening up and the redevelopment of existing spaces in the core, Davis said.

“The biggest impact on new commercial projects and hospitality projects has been the pause in project financing,” Davis said. “We have dozens of projects that still have approval from both the private equity and brand/retailer sides. However, COVID-19 has caused a pause in the start of construction due to the ability to close on the financial package.

“The ability for these projects to keep the private equity and national brand approvals shows the current strength of the Huntsville market.”

Don Beck, partner in The Shopping Center Group of Alabama concurs.

“The banks are lending money and it is cheap,” said Beck, whose company specializes in retail developments. “Bankers know the Huntsville market is good because its employment base is there with federal dollars coming from Redstone Arsenal and subcontracting coming from Cummings Research Park. With the jobs there, the banks are a yes for lending.”

On the other hand, many banks are showing hesitancy toward some restaurants and hotels.

According to Joey Ceci, president of the Breland Companies, “We have several cases where regional hotel and restaurant owners are ready to move forward but in those two industries, it is almost impossible to get financing, despite their financial statements looking fine. Accessing capital is very important to companies that are expanding so this has been a deterrent.”

SouthPoint Business Park (Photo/Hollingsworth Companies)

Outside of downtown, Davis points to growth and the success of other commercial projects throughout the region.

SouthPoint Business Park, off Interstates 65 and 565 and five miles from the Mazda Toyota Manufacturing plant, broke ground on its 11th facility at the 1.9 million square-foot industrial park that is already home to six companies. The new building is the region’s largest spec industrial facility and, according to Davis, it is almost full.

SouthPoint is a component of the larger regional economic strategy, and Davis calls out regional leaders and partners for that expansion, as they continue to focus on the bigger picture and work to be successful in those areas.

“Cummings Research Park remains the location of choice for big business,” Davis said. “Several entities have plans for expansion and the city continues to invest in new and updated infrastructure as part of implementing the updated Master Plan. Even with the COVID events, projects are in the works for 2021 and we believe will be a big year for CRP.”

At MidCity, construction slowed due to COVID, but retail, hospitality, and the initial multi-family components are still on schedule to start construction this fall.

“Most of the infrastructure construction, site grading, and utility relocations are wrapping up such that the redevelopment plan can go vertical,” said Davis. “We believe 2021 will be an exciting year for MidCity as the building architecture that has been shared through the Master Plan will come to life.”

One of the worst kept secrets in Madison County is all that red clay moving around at the corner of Town Madison Boulevard and Zierdt Road.

The newest Huntsville Starbucks location and Outback Steakhouse are moving forward, while Town Madison continues to build a retail center across the street from Toyota Field. The buildings are 50 percent complete and will welcome a chef-driven Italian restaurant to its tenant line-up.

“Economic development continues to be a primary focus for our Madison team,” said Madison Mayor Paul Finley. “Our YTD sales tax is up over 10 percent from last year despite the COVID-19 situation, and we continue to see success in growing our retail sales tax base.

“Town Madison, Madison Boulevard, The Avenue Madison downtown, Midtown, the (U.S.) 72 corridor, and County Line Road have all seen growth in restaurants, retail, and groceries,” Finley aidd. “Redevelopment of Hughes Plaza, Madison Boulevard and Hughes Road all continue to give Madison an upgraded, new and positive look.”

“Retail follows rooftops,” said Beck of TSCG. “The good news is that Huntsville is still growing; we still have a housing shortage; we still have over 10,000 jobs coming into the area; and there is still a lot of demand, even pent-up retail demand.”

Beck, who has developed retail projects throughout the region, said he is positive about the future as he sees developers moving towards mixed-use projects with a housing component and perhaps an office of medical office component fitted together with traditional retail.

“We are still seeing expansion downtown and on the south part of town with the Hays Farm development,” he said. “Scottsboro, Athens and northern Madison County, Hazel Green and Meridianville are showing continuous growth.

“Athens, for instance, is getting a second Publix where the old Kmart used to be. With its proximity to the interstate and Toyota Mazda, Athens is a great commuting city for Huntsville and Madison, and it should soon see a boom as it grows together with Madison.”

He also said smaller towns such as Hartselle and Priceville are seeing growth as well because the commute time to Huntsville or Madison is workable.

“If you moved here from Atlanta or (Washington) D.C., you have an entirely different perspective on commutes,” he said. “And it is less expensive to live in those smaller towns.”

The disconnect he said is with forced reduced sales volumes. Can retailers justify the construction costs and afford the rent?

“We don’t know the answer to that yet, but at some point, business must open back up and people have to get back work,” Beck said. “There’s no way these restaurants with construction costs being where they are, can at 50 percent capacity and a limit on the hours you can sell alcohol, justify new construction costs.”

He said while rent must go down, at the same time, landlords have mortgages and they have to make mortgage payments. The good part is that developers and landlords are being creative in finding ways to make it work.

“On pre-COVID leases, landlords are working on rent deferrals or rent reductions where the tenant pays partial rent for the time being, and when things get back to normal, going back to full rent and perhaps adding a longer lease time, like an extra year on the lease.

“As long as there’s housing demand, retail will be all right, but we also don’t yet know how the Amazon effect will affect big box retail,” he said. “There are still a lot of people who want to shop in stores. Shopping is a social event just like going out to play golf or tennis. But throughout this pandemic, Amazon has filled that space and we don’t know yet how much that convenience will carry over into everyday life once things get back to normal.”

Coley too said there is still a lot of uncertainty, but his company Robins & Morton believes most people are hopeful that we will gain control over the pandemic in the not-too-distant future.

“When you think that it can be two years or more from planning to completion for a project, you can understand why a lot of active construction hasn’t slowed down,” said Coley. “You’re always building for the future, and I think that’s what we’re seeing here in Huntsville.”

Madison County Housing Market Booms Despite Pre-COVID Shortages

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the only things obstructing regional residential growth was the construction industry labor shortage and a desperate shortage of housing inventory. 

Still, during the pandemic, there is nothing – at least nothing new – slowing the residential housing market in North Alabama. Not a virus, not consumers, not builders, not banks, not regulation, and not the economy.

Home-buying and homebuilding are booming.

“We have sold more homes in 2020 than were sold at the same time in 2019,” said Josh McFall, CEO of the Huntsville Area Association of Realtors. “Even amidst the stress of a pandemic and busy housing market there was no slow down, and in fact, the only thing the association has seen take a downturn is housing inventory.

“I don’t even think we can classify the inventory problem as directly related to the pandemic. Beginning in January, we reported the lowest number of homes available for sale in the MLS since the MLS has been keeping track of those records in the mid-1990s.

“Madison County has been the big driver of that because we have the most MLS listings due to the denser population. Inventory is low, but we consistently slide down the entire MLS because our average days on market has also slid down.”

He said the days on market number for North Alabama combined is 42 days but, in Madison County, that number is 26 days and consistently falling.

“I remember five years ago we were reporting 80 or 90 days on the market and here in 2020 and during a pandemic, as of June that number is 26 days,” he said. “So, we had this housing shortage before COVID.”

Last month, around 840 homes were sold in Madison County. Of those, 600 were resales and 230 were new construction. Those 230 are either new construction, a prospect build that was sold, or a custom build that entered the MLS.

“So, what we are saying is, more builders are feeling more confidence in the local economy, so they’re ramping up their building, while at the same time, they have a lot of pressure on them due to the labor shortage and rising supply costs,” McFall said. “But if you look at all the MLS to date, there were 2,307 available homes on the entire market; 926 are in Madison County.”

One-third of houses under construction sell every month so the industry must build a lot of houses to keep up with demand, 

“Sales prices are continuing to tick up from month to month so you can see it is a supply and demand issue,” said McFall.

How are people feeling about buying or building a home during a global pandemic? 

Apparently, completely unfettered.

“Buying a home during COVID-19 was almost no different than our previous purchases,” said David Fields. He and his wife Meredith bought a home right around the highpoint of the pandemic this spring. “Our Realtor was very supportive and took all the necessary precautions including the use of PPE and social distancing. Overall, it was a great experience.”

“We’re getting lots of activity on the housing side of our business,” said Joey Ceci, president of the Breland Companies. Breland’s commercial division is developing the 525-acre Town Madison off I-565.

“At Pike Place at Clift Farm off Balch Road in Madison we already have several townhouses built and sold,” Ceci said. “At Town Madison, they are getting calls from people who are downsizing and who want to get away from a large yard and out from underneath the maintenance of a large house.” 

While Breland builds a variety of housing products, they also contract with homebuilders such as Regent Homes of Nashville. Regent built homes at the Village of Providence and is building The Heights District at Town Madison.

Ceci said all Breland developments, whether they are cottages, single-family homes, or townhouses, are continuing to go up all over North Alabama. The Ledges of Oakdale in Athens, Meadowbrook in Cullman, and The Retreat in Meridianville are selling quickly, while Pebble Creek at River Landing in Madison is sold out.

“The impact on the economy with all these houses being built and sold are keeping home values up for existing homeowners,” Ceci said. “It’s good for our local economy too to be able to say we are not just swapping houses. We were pretty sure all these people would be moving here to take jobs with the FBI and Toyota, and now they are here. There are a lot of new people coming into the area.”

Stone Martin Builders who has developed Celia’s Garden, Allen Acres and Copper Creek in Huntsville, has continued to build throughout the pandemic, according to sales manager Ashley Durham, despite hurdles caused by supply shortages and subcontractor delays. 

“The labor shortage is the building industry’s greatest challenge currently and it has a direct impact on low inventory,” said Durham.  

One of the ways they are addressing the problem is to build strong relationships with subcontractors to help them grow their companies alongside their own.  

“As a growing company, Stone Martin Builders finds value in helping our business partners grow and become great so we can in turn, overcome all types of industry challenges together,” Durham said. “That in addition to seeking opportunities with local technical programs to enhance the workforce, we are all helping each other.” 

One of those technical programs is the North Alabama Homebuilding Academy started by the Huntsville-Madison County Builders Association to address the problem and they have already graduated their second class, even during the pandemic.

The North Alabama Homebuilding Academy trains people to be a homebuilder. Upon graduation, they can work as a contractor in training or in one of the ancillary trades. It was an 18-month endeavor but since January, the Academy has graduated 47 students.

According to Barry Oxley, Executive Officer of the HMCBA, the gap in skilled construction and construction-related labor goes back 30 years to the No Child Left Behind Act when school systems retooled education.

“There was for a long time, the idea that you have to go to college to be successful and as schools began to do away with trade school classes, a stigma developed around trades that said you were not meant for college,” said Oxley. “But the construction industry is made up of a lot of small businesses. If you are a skilled plumber, electrician, window or flooring installer or masonry expert, you do quite well.”

The Academy’s focus is on the 30 percent of school kids who are not able or do not want to go to college. 

The program is an eight-week session with a cap of 18 to 20 students. The fourth session started in early July with 19 students and every class through September is booked to capacity.

“We have been talking about the labor shortage for a long time, so we decided to do something about it,” said Oxley. “They apply through our website and we invite them to an open house. We have been doing those virtually since the shutdowns started.

“We send them an invitation to sign up for a class. It does not cost them anything to attend and we back up the classes with ongoing job fairs where we bring in employers who hire our students. These students are going from minimum wage jobs to making $14 to $16 an hour.”

“We will always strive to build homes efficiently and with great quality … and we will continually seek to find growth opportunities for our organization in the North Alabama market to help offset the housing shortage,” said Stone Martin’s Durham. “We are still accomplishing this goal and our customers remain positive.

“We keep them informed of any affects the pandemic will have on the construction process, and there has been very little disruptions in our builds, so customers continue to be eager and excited about their new home.”

Durham believes it is the commitment their company made to colleagues, customers, and the building team to support one another throughout the crisis. The minute COVID-19 began to challenge the building industry, Stone Martin Builders acted. 

“We identified fellow business owners that may be negatively impacted by the pandemic, and we found ways to become their patrons,” she said. “Many of these business owners were Stone Martin buyers, and we believe it is our duty to give back when we have the ability to do so.”

Some of the steps they took included renting tents from an event resource company whose events had been cancelled. 

“To offset their losses, we used these tents for outdoor closings and information gathering stations to offset the cancellation of open houses in North Alabama,” she said. “Our goal was to find ways to use the product of a struggling customer to help offset the struggles we were having.” 

Durham said some of their processes with customers also changed.

“Upon our first meeting with a customer, we seek to understand the ‘Why?’ they are building a new home,” she said. “COVID changed that process slightly in that we now need to understand how a homeowner is going to function in their new home. 

“COVID is requiring the home be multi-functional and that looks different for every homeowner.”

For instance, they see an increase in the need for home offices, quiet rooms for schooling or reading, functional kitchens with people cooking at home more, and good natural light for being home in day time hours.

“We are creating home plans that meet those needs,” said Durham. 

“We continue to see high demand for housing in Madison County, and especially in Madison,” said Madison Mayor Paul Finley. “The City instituted a Growth Impact Committee in 2017 that documented inventory and anticipated growth. Using this data, the Madison School Board, supported by the City Council, defined 12 mills as the proper number for managing this growth via the property tax referendum.”

The mill rate is the amount of tax payable per dollar of the assessed value of a property.

“This passed in September 2019 and we are now building the needed schools to manage the growth,” he said. 

To support this managed growth, the Madison City Council formulated and instituted a Growth Policy in mid-2019. Town Madison’s residential growth was factored into the Growth Impact Committee’s study and they continue to build out both the residential and retail portions. 

A new townhouse development on Kyser Boulevard is a perfect example of how managed growth can work for all parties. 

“The developer focused on providing 366 townhouse units on industrial property,” Finley said. “Our growth policy dictated that the only way we would change this zoning was if significant city objectives were achieved. 

“Working with the developer and schools, we defined two significant objectives: connecting Westchester Road to Kyser Boulevard allowing school buses a more direct and safer route to Sullivan Street; and extending the Bradford Creek Greenway from Palmer to historic downtown. These two objectives are estimated to cost $4,000,000 and will now be built and paid for by the developer. 

“The developer also agreed to spread the building out to eight years with a 50 unit maximum per year and will not include second stories or a swimming pool, keeping their focus on non-school age purchasers.”

“If you think back 10 years to the recession, Huntsville was not hit as hard as some places, but some of the bigger builders either scaled down or consolidated,” said McFall. “You may notice tracts of land still sitting empty in the back of neighborhoods that were built out for new homes in 2009 and 2010.

“Now they are exploding because builders have bought them. You can drive all over town and see construction in neighborhoods where one builder built the homes in one section of the development, but another builder is completing it. 

“The bottom line is people need a place to live, whether they are moving up or moving down. Marry that with the best interest rates seen in the mortgage industry in a long time, it explains the good housing numbers.”

Sitdown with Success: Straight to Ale’s Bruce Weddendorf

(Sitdown with Success is a regular feature of the Huntsville Business Journal on entrepreneurs and their keys to success. This month’s subject is Bruce Weddendorf who helped revolutionize the craft-brewing industry in Huntsville and the state.)

Just four short weeks before COVID- 19 became everyone’s daily reality, Huntsville City Mayor Tommy Battle proclaimed Feb. 14 as Straight to Ale Day.

Bruce Weddendorf stands in the Straight to Ale stockroom, a converted gym at the former Stone Middle School. (Photo/Steve Babin)

The Valentine’s Day proclamation came on the heels of a recent accolade from RateBeer, naming the Huntsville brewery the “2019 Best Brewer in Alabama.” And what an honor it was: Five times in six years, Straight to Ale has earned the title.

Going far beyond its local and state popularity, Straight to Ale has become a nationally recognized product, as well as a hang out. The taproom is a prime destination location for out-of-town visitors.

It’s that kind of comfy place where old friends gather over a pint, business folk network and new connections are forged.

Getting its start in 2009, Straight to Ale has come a long way from its humble beginnings in the small, 500-square-foot production facility at Lincoln Mill.

In spring 2011, Straight To Ale took up residence in the former Olde Towne Brewery on Leeman Ferry Road. Still operating as a production venture, the passing of the Brewery Modernization Act in fall 2011 that included taprooms, was a business model game-changer.

Once the taproom was added, operations expanded to host a wide assortment of special events. Every night was a party of some sort and, by 2014, Straight to Ale was bursting at the seams.

School’s out forever! By summer 2016, Straight to Ale became the anchor tenant at Campus No. 805, formerly  Stone Middle School, which was a part of the West Huntsville redevelopment initiative.

In its spacious, 45,000-square-foot facility, Straight to Ale has plenty to offer. There’s the taproom with more than 20 taps of Straight To Ale brews. The beer names are uniquely memorable, such as “Monkeynaut,” and “Unobtainium.” STA Operations Manager Matt Broadhurst creates the quirky label art that’s poster worthy and unforgettable.

Having a reception, business meeting or a party? There are five special event rental spaces. There’s also a small retail shop that sells STA merchandise.

For dining, there’s Ale’s Kitchen, serving up items from a variety of cultures, all made from scratch.

Bruce Weddendorf, his wife Jo, and business partners Dan Perry and Colin Austin were the trailblazers on this first wave of local craft beer; frontrunners with the taproom concept.

The idea behind Straight to Ale was to make Huntsville more fun! “We wanted to provide a product that was uniquely Huntsville,” said Weddendorf. “To get people -all kinds of people- together over beer.”

Before 2009, there wasn’t a craft beer segment to the beer market. Free the Hops paved the way by helping to pass the Gourmet Beer Bill. That was the first industry game-changer. When they helped to pass the taproom laws two years later, it completely changed Straight to Ale’s business model.

“The thing is, we really didn’t know what it would do, we didn’t understand at the time how big a part of our lives it was going to become because we were still very much a manufacturing business,” said Weddendorf. “It (the taproom) made it so much better, so much easier to reach customers and to make bonds with those customers.”

Since 2011, Alabama has gone from seven craft breweries to 45 in 2019. The passing of the Gourmet Beer Bill and Taproom law had the one-two punch effect of creating a new industry and adapting the brewery business model from strictly production to a business that encompassed hospitality and retail, too.

Straight to Ale’s Bruce Weddendorf is climbing the ladder to success in the craft beer industry. (Photo/Steve Babin)

“We grew from being just manufacturing-oriented to becoming part of the hospitality industry,” said Weddendorf. “That wasn’t something we planned, but it’s been tremendously beneficial to our business and beneficial to Huntsville.”

There remains to be challenges; but challenges are something that Weddendorf sees as something to go over, go under, go around, or break the walls down. Until the recent pandemic, home alcohol delivery wasn’t an issue nor was it on the radar.

“It was something that we hadn’t noticed until COVID-19,” said Weddendorf.

Despite the current business climate and the obstacles associated with COVID 19, Straight to Ale recently completed a merger with the Tuscaloosa-based Druid City Brewing. The idea was to help Druid City bring their great beers statewide to and to expand their fun, yet tiny taproom and brewery.

And it’s been a win-win.

“This has been a great relationship and it benefited everyone,” said Weddendorf. “We are very glad that we were fortunate enough to be able to make this deal.”

Straight to Ale provides the place and the experience where people can come to relax.

“It’s all kinds of people and everyone has the beer in common; the beer and the desire to be with other people,” said Weddendorf. “It’s amazing to touch the friendships, the business relationships, and all kinds of important connections and networking that come out of this place. And that is very satisfying to see; that type of success where we’re really influencing a lot of people’s lives, we’re making their lives better.

“We’re giving them somewhere to connect with other people and it’s beneficial to the community, so I’m really proud of that.”