Singing River Trail a Merger of Native American History and Smart Technology

Native Americans called it the “River that Sings” and many tribes were said to use the Tennessee River to “sing” their dead into the afterlife.

Two hundred years was not that long ago in the grand scheme of history and, in 1819, Creek and Cherokee tribes lived up and down the river leaving behind a rich legacy in places where rockets and genomics, missiles and cyber security now dominate.

The past and the future are coming together in a historical and high-tech way as the Land Use Committee of Huntsville’s Launch 2035 debuts the first quarter-mile of North Alabama’s 70-mile-long Singing River Trail along Governors House Drive in Huntsville.

In what is one of the most ambitious legacy projects Launch 2035 has undertaken, the Singing River Trail project hit a major milestone last month debuting a $225,000 master plan funded by municipal and county governments, regional businesses, and congressional officers. The plan by Alta Planning + Design lays out a 70-mile bike-hike-walk trail that will physically connect Huntsville to Madison, Athens, and Decatur.

Fully embracing the Native American heritage, the plan reveals a route starting at Bob Wallace Avenue in Huntsville. It will follow Madison Boulevard and bear south at Zierdt Road to Triana, crossing over County Line Road to Mooresville. Another leg will bear north off Madison Boulevard toward Belle Mina, and dip south to the river at County Road 6 crossing into Decatur. On the Decatur leg, it will turn north along U.S. 31 toward Athens.

Although it is expected to shift in some places, especially along U.S. 31, the master plan reveals a trail that will offer estimated economic benefits of $10,890,000; transportation benefits of $866,000, and health benefits of $1.4 million.

It will also offer $23,631,000 in indirect economic spending; $7,079,000 in earnings from direct economic spending; and provide approximately 900 temporary and 100 permanent jobs per year.

“We see the master plan as the first milestone in this legacy project,” said John Allen, CEO of Huntsville’s Committee of 100, the backbone of the Launch 2035 effort to forge a coalition between city and business leaders in Madison, Morgan and Limestone counties. Their purpose is to build an economy that is inclusive of communities across the entire region that benefits the entire region.

“Land-use planning is one of the three legs of the stool on which Launch 2035 has its focus. If you look at Huntsville regionally, the Tennessee River passes through all three counties and four major cities.”

Joe Campbell, legal counsel for Huntsville Hospital, is on the Launch 2035 Land Use Committee. He had been working on a connectivity idea for the Huntsville and Decatur campuses of Calhoun Community College.

They had discussed a trail or bike system that would connect the two campuses, making him the perfect person to spearhead an expansion of that concept to include the bike-hike-walk trail that connects the entire three-county region.

“I have been amazed at the response,” said Campbell. “Everyone we talk to says ‘Yes’.”

One of those yeses is the Smithsonian Institute.

“One of our law partners came to our firm from having worked for the Smithsonian institute,” Campbell said. “Upon talking to her, she put John and I in touch with Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

“She mentioned they have a storehouse of American Indian artifacts and said if we were to do a Native American museum along the trail, there was a chance the Smithsonian would be interested in loaning us all sorts of exhibits for it.

“John and I were stunned to be honest, when we met with him, thinking we needed to convince him that what we wanted to do would be beneficial to the museum. But instead, his response was that this may be the kind of venture the Smithsonian had been looking for. They have been wanting to take the Smithsonian outside of the four walls of their building and take it to the people!”

Campbell said Gover brought up possibly incorporating the Trail of Tears into the project.

“He suggested we set it up as a smart trail. Pinpoint sites that were part of the Trail of Tears, that were heavily populated villages along the way, or that held historical significance,” Campbell said. “If we do that, the Smithsonian would provide exhibits and facts from those events.”

Campbell said he and Allen came away excited about the possibilities, able to envision a technologically advanced digitally-enabled walking and biking trail where people are listening on their headphones to historical recordings that tell the story of the area at different locations, along with signage and exhibits where they can stop and take in what occurred there.

Another consideration is to have sensors and other technology that warns walkers and riders. For example, because of recent rains, a specific route through the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge was too wet. It would then recommend a different route. This would be helpful to people planning out a 20- or 50-mile route.

Allen agrees that in terms of funding, nearly everyone they talk to loves the idea and they already have sponsors in all aspects of business from Huntsville Hospital to the TVA and Rotary, banks, colleges, and more.

“The trail also has health benefits that are part of our workforce retention programs,” he said. “It’s not just something our community has to have as an amenity to keep workers here, it’s something to do that’s cool, attractive and a magnet for our talent pool.”

The city was about to authorize the building of a new car bridge and Campbell said they stepped in and negotiated putting in a bike lane.

“They did it and will consider it for any future roads as well,” Campbell said.

“When you look at the economic impact, you realize how it will change the dynamics of communities along the route,” he said. “For instance, I pitched the idea at a quality of life panel at a chamber leadership meeting and afterward, a commercial developer on an economic development panel wanted to talk to me about the restaurants they’re trying to bring in. He wants to discuss where the trail will run because for some clients, it may be more feasible to locate on an off-road location you can access by bike or walking than along a five-lane high traffic area in town.

“I did a presentation to the Rotary Club about it and they have taken us on as their five-year project.”

Allen said the question became, ‘How are we going to manage that from a municipal perspective?”

They started with looking at other successful trails as a baseline for what the Singing River Trail could be.

One of those is the 62-mile Silver Comet Trail that runs from Smyrna, Ga., outside Atlanta, to the Alabama state line where it connects to the Chief Ladiga Trail, winding for 33 miles through the countryside to Anniston.

They have also studied the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 38-mile off-road shared-use trail in northwest Arkansas; and the Wolf River Greenway Trail from Memphis to Germantown, Tenn., which is a little over seven miles.

Decisions about the trail’s width, whether to pave it or use crushed gravel, who will maintain it, and providing security are all still in the planning stages.

“We’ve had the National Park Service at the table talking about these things,” said Campbell. “But you know different parts of it will be under different jurisdictions so each community will be responsible and will have to step up.

“Right now, our target is to get it on the ground.”

Sitdown With Success: Sheila Cummings Shatters Glass Ceiling One Solution at a Time

(Editor’s Note: “Sitdown With Success” is a monthly feature spotlighting local entrepreneurs and their keys to success and tips for future entrepreneurs)

Dr. Sheila Cummings is shattering the glass ceiling—one aerospace engineering solution at a time.

As a Native American aerospace engineer, small business owner, community leader, and family-focused female, Cummings is at the forefront of Huntsville’s path to the future.

And although she has encountered many challenges along the way, she maintains that those challenges have been the driving force for her determination.

Cummings Aerospace, her grassroots creation, is on the cusp of its 11th anniversary, and we caught up with Cummings to gain some inside into her entrepreneurial success.

Tell us about your background and how you chose aerospace engineering as a career.

I grew up in the Lumbee Tribe of Indians in Pembroke, N.C. I always loved math and science. I had a few mentors in the military who I looked up to, and at one point, I was honestly very focused on joining the Air Force after high school. The recruiter said “we’d love to have you, but we need nurses not pilots” and that ended my dreams of joining the military. But I chose the aerospace path instead because it would allow me the opportunity to pursue working on systems while allowing me to be near aircraft and leverage what I was good at academically.

What initial challenges did you face?

I graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in aerospace engineering. All throughout college, there were maybe three other girls in my graduating class for aerospace, so I definitely chose a field that was male-dominated. I had to figure out how to operate successfully in that domain. I’m from a large family of many brothers and sisters, so building relationships was a natural capability for me. But there is a difference when you are competing academically.

I also didn’t have much outside exposure culturally, so going to a university that was amassed in culture and diversity was in itself a tremendous challenge. But I was driven, and I wanted to succeed and make my family proud. I was a minority but I didn’t allow it to deter me. I used it as fuel for the fire in my belly. I was still in a male dominated force and constantly having to prove myself. As women, we just have to work harder to get recognized.

Once you graduated, how did you begin your career?

I began my career with the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., as a government civilian.

After nine years of working for the Navy, I transitioned to becoming a contractor for the Missile Defense Agency, and that’s where my connection to Huntsville began – this was the early stages of BRAC.

In 2005, I helped the Kinetic Energy Interceptor Program and I was responsible for helping the government transition the work force. What was supposed to be a six-month assignment turned into Huntsville into being my home.

Tell us about the origin of Cummings Aerospace and what makes you different as an engineering firm.

I decided in 2009 to break out on my own, largely because of the community’s support of small business start-ups. There were lots of advisors in the community who were encouraging me to start my own company.

Our goal at Cummings Aerospace is technical excellence. Being in the engineering domain is very competitive. We can’t do everything all the time, so what we do, we know we have to do very well. Our reputation resides on it. Quality is very, very important to us. But it’s also much more than that. One of the glorious things about being a small business is that we get the opportunity to be a family and to learn about each other and the family we have created.

What does a successful future look like for you?

I’m probably a little different in that I measure success on the capability we are carrying to the war fighters. How are we contributing to our nation’s defense and protecting the freedoms we enjoy? And how are we helping our engineers to be better and how are we advancing their careers? I want to expand to serve different regions and give back to the Huntsville community and the Native American community, but at the end of the day, I don’t have a specific number in mind. Owning a small business is the best engineering project someone can give you. There are too many variables and a constant pursuit of solutions.

Any advice for future entrepreneurs?

If you are a minority, don’t look at yourself as a minority. Focus on who you are and what you want to achieve and don’t be distracted by the labels that society puts on you.

I think in today’s society people are becoming very accepting of women as engineers. We are still a minority, but we’ve come a long way. The playing field is leveling and I finally feel like I have a seat at the table, but that didn’t come without blood, sweat, and tears.

Being a single mother, I’m not sure I knew what I was getting into initially, but my 3 kids have been my greatest champions. I probably missed one too many family dinners and took them to McDonald’s one too many times, but at the end of the day you just have to ask yourself, am I doing the best I can do?

I’ve definitely have had my share of successes and failures but I wear my scars proudly on my back.

 

Dynetics acquired by Leidos for $1.65B

A long-time symbol of Huntsville’s high-tech expertise has been acquired in a $1.65 billion purchase.

Leidos, a Fortune 500 science and technology company, has agreed to acquire privately-owned Dynetics, an industry-leading applied research and national security solutions company, through a combination of cash on hand and incremental debt. The boards of directors of both companies unanimously approved the transaction.

Dynetics is a leading provider of high-technology, mission-critical services and solutions to the U.S. government, with a proven history addressing the nation’s most challenging and technologically advanced missions.

The addition of Dynetics will enhance Leidos’ leadership position across its Defense, Intelligence, and Civil Groups. The transaction will also accelerate opportunities within the Leidos Innovations Center, the company’s innovation engine that researches and develops technologies and solutions to address the most challenging customer requirements.

Once the transaction is completed, Dynetics will operate as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Leidos. Dynetics’ Chief Executive Officer will lead the subsidiary and report directly to Leidos’ Chief Executive Officer.

“Dynetics is an innovative company with a talented team that will deepen our identity as a national security systems provider and enhance our platform to deliver sustainable, profitable growth,” said Leidos Chairman and CEO Roger Krone. “The addition of Dynetics will significantly increase our capabilities for rapid prototyping and agile system integration and production, enhancing our overall offerings and services to customers.

“With Dynetics, we will build on our existing relationships with key U.S. government customers, particularly in strategically important Huntsville. Dynetics has a powerful suite of services and solutions and an outstanding team of employees driving its success. Together, we will advance our strategy of solving the toughest scientific and engineering problems by leveraging our collective strengths, driven by a shared commitment to innovation. We look forward to welcoming the Dynetics team to Leidos and working together to continue our united mission of excellence, ethics, integrity, and service to customers.”

Dynetics CEO David King said joining Leidos will help them increase their role of serving the government.

“Dynetics is an innovator and an industry leader,” King said. “This transaction will enhance and accelerate our ability to serve customers and ensure their future success. As we have continuously stated, Dynetics is more than just a company, we are a true partner, and today’s announcement will allow us to play an even bigger role serving and meeting the evolving needs of important U.S. Government customers.

“We are excited to be a part of the Leidos team.”

The deal is expected to close in the first quarter of next year.

Compelling Strategic and Operational Benefits

Adds Innovative Capabilities in High Growth Areas: The addition of Dynetics represents an opportunity to grow in new, attractive segments, including hypersonics, space, and weapons solutions. In particular, Dynetics brings top programs in small glide munitions, hypersonics, and directed energy, which will be a complementary fit and growth driver within the Leidos Defense portfolio. The enhanced diversification of products and services will enable Leidos to capitalize on new opportunities for growth.

Expands Rapid Prototyping and Secure Agile Manufacturing & Systems Integration Capabilities: Dynetics’ rapid prototyping and secure agile manufacturing and systems integration capabilities will complement Leidos’ current ability within the LInC to further enhance innovation and help customers achieve their goals. Specifically, Dynetics’ prototyping expertise spans radars, air vehicles, weapons, c-UAS systems, space, and avionics. Through the transaction, Leidos will gain more than 350,000 square feet of production space, which will support full-cycle product development capabilities from concept through assembly, test and production.

Bolsters Footprint in Strategic Huntsville Location: Dynetics’ location in Huntsville builds on Leidos’ current presence in this strategically important city. Dynetics’ Huntsville headquarters provides close proximity to key customers and a strong campus environment with co-located engineering, manufacturing and test capabilities. The talented team at Dynetics also brings deep and well-established customer and community connections.

Expands Relationships with Existing Customers: Dynetics brings strong customer relationships that will build on Leidos’ existing relationships, including with the U.S. Army, Defense Intelligence Agency, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S. Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office and United States Special Operations Command. This will provide an opportunity for Leidos to grow its opportunity space with current customers, particularly in Huntsville.

Enhances Talent to Provide Value for Customers: With the addition of Dynetics’ more than 1,000 engineers and 1,000 technical specialists, Leidos will have greater technical expertise and talent that will benefit its collective customers. The transaction will unite two highly skilled workforces with a strong commitment to serving customers and communities and solving problems.

 

Region’s Job Outlook Demands an Increase in the Supply of Workers

We need more people singing “Sweet Home Alabama!”

That is the overarching conclusion from the North Alabama Region Labor Market Analysis commissioned by Huntsville’s Launch 2035, the strategic regional partnership between business and elected officials in Limestone, Madison, and Morgan counties.

How many more people?

How about some 25,000 new jobs to be filled by 2023?

To answer that challenge, Launch 2035 is rethinking and re-imagining North Alabama’s regional economy over the next 20 years.

Conducted by Deloitte, the assessment had six objectives: provide a snapshot of the overall supply and demand of the North Alabama labor market; identify and assess talent and potential talent/skills demand and trends; capture insights from regional employers concerning the skill sets they will need; secure guidance concerning growth projections by worker type and skill sets; provide Launch 2035 with an understanding of the perceived quality of the workforce pipeline supplied by the region’s higher education; and provide examples of strategies to address anticipated labor shortages.

While North Alabama’s unemployment rate stands at 2.6 percent compared to the national rate of 3.7 percent, the study showed that there won’t be enough workers to fill those jobs that are on the horizon.

The region has seen $6.7 billion in capital investment over the past five years and added 14,000 jobs. Huntsville’s Metropolitan Statistical Area has the highest concentration of engineering talent; and the regional GDP increased 4.9 percent versus the national GDP growth of 3.1 percent.

North Alabama is a leader in innovation and has the highest concentration of advanced research and development capabilities in the region. The quality of life and booming economy are among the best in the nation and due to the large federal presence and ecosystem of federal contractors in North Alabama, the area can weather a recession more favorably than other communities.

The key findings of the report however, come down to the basic economic principle of supply and demand.

In fact, according to the findings, jobs will outpace the work force in key skill areas, specifically in the areas of cyber, IT, engineering and production.

The need for talent is rapidly evolving, however, despite such training programs as Toyota’s Federation of Advanced Manufacturing Education program, there are not enough of these types of programs to keep up with the need.

The organic job pipeline is slowly improving as graduates from two-year programs are finding alternatives to four-year colleges; but a tight labor market has led to “poaching” the most in-demand talent using the allure of higher wages.

While millennials value non-wage related benefits more than past workers, North Alabama has not yet reached its potential in attracting national talent, and must address housing needs in order to support and stimulate the needed increase in inbound migration to North Alabama.

According to Claire Aiello, vice president of marketing and communications at the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce, seeing is believing.

Chamber CEO/President Chip Cherry: “Recruitment is an ongoing exercise”

“Once people get here, they are sold,” she said. “They see how affordable it is, how beautiful it is, the warm climate, an easy commute in and out of the city, the people are friendly.

“Companies admit that even if they get resistance from potential recruits who don’t know anything about Alabama, once they get here – they get it. They understand.”

Chip Cherry, president and CEO of the Chamber, said leaders from the three counties are working on a long-term strategy to address ways to increase awareness about what a desirable region this is for potential workers from other parts of the country.

“There have been myriad things happening for a while,” Cherry said. “When we did the evaluation and economic impact model for Polaris and some others, we pulled down the area by ZIP code for that particular model and that site, and we were within a half a percent of where our projections were for the number of people from Morgan County who will come over and work at that site.

“So, we have some pretty good models … and recruitment is an ongoing exercise. In Huntsville, about 60 percent of our portfolio is existing companies considering expansion, so we will continue to work with those companies to help them grow.

“The challenge is making sure we secure the labor workforce from other parts of the country, to bring them here so we can continue that growth going forward.”

That challenge – to bring the three counties together to create a strategy for long-term success is being spearheaded by Launch 2035. In the coming weeks and months, they will be coordinating among the Chambers of Commerce, business leaders and city officials from the three-county area to develop an economic and image strategy that addresses these problems.

“We are them. They are us,” said Cherry about Launch 2035. “At the end of the day, we want to create a perception of what can happen in North Alabama, and to find a way to effectively communicate that to people who don’t know anything about how dynamic our region is.”

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.