Q&A with Ben Lovett: Man Behind the Development of Huntsville Amphitheater

Q: Maybe there are more rock stars than I know who are involved in business ventures, but I am fascinated by your involvement on such a corporate level. Can you talk about that?

Ben Lovett: I have been an entrepreneur my whole life. I started my first business in event promotion on the rock scene about 20 years ago and then opened a record label publishing artists’ records about 15 years ago.

I see my life with Mumford & Sons as my artistic outlet, but there is a side of me that believes in having a day job. Owning these companies is great honest work.

I started doing venues about six years ago and started Venue Group with my brother Greg (Lovett). He has a very strong career in business and most recently he was CFO of Soho House & Co. before joining us as CFO at Venue Group.

Our dad was in corporate management and consulting for 45 years and we grew up in that environment, a household that brought a certain amount of buttoned-up ones and twos, crossing the Ts and dotting the I’s when it comes to industry and running a successful business.

Q: Are you actually involved in building these music venues from the acoustic and design standpoint or are you just a consultant to those who do?  

A: I roll up my sleeves and get into the intimate detail.

I think you don’t want any single element of the venue to let you down both from the artist’s experience and from the patron’s experience, because that’s really what it is all about.

When you attract a Jimmy Buffet or Travis Scott, or whoever it might be through a venue, you want them to say, ‘That was pretty good. I want to come back here and play when I am on tour.’

You can’t underestimate their (artist’s) experience whether it is the sound on the stage, the temperature in the dressing room, or the limitations of the production loading docks.

But from the patron’s point of view, you might have done a lot of things well. The sound was great, and the lights were great, but if it takes half an hour to get the car out of the car park at the end of the night, then patrons say to themselves, there was so much right about the experience, but there was something that let me down.

We are looking at the detail, both the artists’ and the patrons’ (experience) to make sure we are not going to fall short on this venue.

Q: Is Huntsville really the first of these venues you are building?

A: Yes, Huntsville Amphitheater is Venue Group’s first amphitheater in the U.S., and this is a very specific type of building, an open-air theatre.

We’ve joined up with some great veterans of the industry like Mike Luba and Don Sullivan, who brought back the Forest Hills Stadium in New York. He has been in this industry for decades and I have collaborated with him on a number of projects.

Given the importance and scale of this project, we decided to partner on it, so we’re not going into it completely cold. We’re leaning on our experience and it’s a good collaboration.

Q: Without sounding corny, but ‘‘of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world” – why Huntsville?

A: Huntsville is a wonderful place.

I think in my travels across the U.S., it has occurred to me that some of the secondary and tertiary markets and cities have a bit of insecurity about them, an inferiority complex. But as far as I see it, Huntsville has people of great stature and it not only deserves to be one of the great U.S. cities, but it is really on its way to being so.

I don’t think it is as hard to imagine building a world-class venue in Huntsville.

The city government is incredibly well run. Our first meetings with the current administration a couple of years ago with Mayor (Tommy) Battle, Shane Davis and John Hamilton – these people are smart, they are ambitious, and they are aware of the responsibility they have in public office. These are, I think, some of the best examples of city officials I have ever met, and I have met a lot of people on different project across the years in the U.S.

So that is a big part of it, and also, just the rate of growth right now in Huntsville is off the scale. You’ve got all of these new jobs, all of this new activity, but what are these people doing on the weekend?

I think the task we’ve been given is to stop people from running off to Birmingham or Nashville or Atlanta to spend their hard-earned money on the weekend.

Let’s keep them here in Huntsville, keep them happy, and let’s entertain them with incredible food and beverage options that will make Huntsville into a great city in the next chapter of the South.

Q: Are you aware of how hot it gets in Huntsville in July and August?

A: I am very aware of the heat and I must say from snowy New York, I think every day I could live in Huntsville full time!

Q: Back in my concert-going days, the only place to eat after a late-night concert was Krystal or perhaps you know it as White Castle. I heard you talk about how food is a centerpiece of the venue experience. Can you explain what that means for Huntsville?

A: Yes, the food experience has changed.

The food element is something that is very important to us, but probably not something people deem as important across the industry.

We think there is such an opportunity with 8,000 people coming out to West Huntsville multiple times a year, to enjoy a concert.

For many people, it will be their one night out that month or one big night out that year and it needs to be from start to finish, exceptional.

Most venues see the show as the main event.

But if you go beyond the show, those people are going to want to park efficiently. They will want to have dinner and some drinks. We see these things as a kind of equal match to the main event itself.

We want to work with people in Huntsville, within Madison County and around the region to showcase their delicious cuisine, whether it is a Poke Bowl or pizza, to those 8,000 people. We want to offer patrons the best options, and we want them to be great, so they become part of their memory of that event.

And we want people to know that is open and available 365 days a year. We want to make Huntsville an inbound destination when the show is on, and when the show is off.

On days when there is no concert happening, people will be able to go and enjoy Huntsville as a new destination where they can hang out with friends and sometimes see big scale arena performances.

Q: One last question about your music – for a British rock band, Mumford & Sons has a very American folksy sound. Where does that come from?

A: I think it is just a fascination with “the other” and it’s been that way for years.

If you think about the Rolling Stones coming to Muscle Shoals all those years ago, it was a British band wanting to learn and nurture themselves with southern American roots.

It’s gone back and forth. A lot of American bands have felt the same way about British and Celtic music, and some of it is that historic relationship culturally between the U.K. and the U.S.

It has led me to living here and growing a family in the U.S. I love this country and I love the South. I think there is an incredible romance about it, so I’m all in.

Q: Can we expect to see you playing here a lot?

A: Playing here is definitely on the agenda!

Madison’s Growth Widespread – yet Balanced and Managed

MADISON — Over the years, Madison has been referred to as Huntsville’s bedroom community.

For those who have lived in the area since the beginning of the space program, people were said to live or work, “out in Madison.”

It is a community that has for so long been considered a quaint little rural stop on the way to the Rocket City, that aside from a single event known as the “Affair at Madison Station,” it even missed mention in history books about the Civil War.

Well, Huntsville’s little bedroom community has awakened, and it has been coming for a long time.

In 1990, Madison’s population was approximately 15,000. In 2000, it had doubled to 30,000, and, according to the census, in 2019 it had grown to almost 50,000 people.

Today, Madison is one of the fastest growing cities in the Southeast. It has one of the highest per capita incomes and a school system recognized for scholastic excellence at the local, state, and national level.

Everywhere you look, businesses are throwing open their doors; new buildings are rising out of the distinctive “redstone” clay; residential communities are spreading out; roads are widening; and aging buildings, parks, and residential communities are being revitalized.

“It scares me when I hear people talk about Madison’s explosive growth because the explosive growth is happening throughout the entire area, the multiple communities in Madison County,” said Madison Mayor Paul Finley. “I prefer to say Madison is managing and balancing our growth.

“One of the things I think we’ve done a good job of is rather than taking every subdivision that wants to build, instead, manage the process with a focus primarily on the economic development side of retail and commercial, knowing it’s not going to be that hard to bring housing here if we balance our opportunities.”

While the mayor may be managing and balancing the growth as opportunities arise, the growth is so widespread it is visible along every street and in every neighborhood.

Starting with the skyline-altering Town Madison, the Rocket City could not ask for a more inviting gateway than Madison.

Minutes from a bustling Huntsville International Airport, named the Best Small Airport in the United States by USA Today’s 10 Best Reader’s Choice awards, and a line drive out of Toyota Field with its baseball diamond shimmering underneath the stadium lights lies the world-renowned U.S. Space & Rocket Center; Redstone Arsenal; and Cummings Research Park, home to dozens of Fortune 500 companies with their advanced manufacturing and high-tech capabilities.

Fanned out across both sides of a revitalized Madison Boulevard are luxury homes such as the Heights at Town Madison and The Station high-rise apartments at Town Madison.

Just announced and set to start construction soon is a mixed-use project developed by Novare Group out of Atlanta. Across from the Madison Golf Center on Lime Quarry Road within the Town Madison development, a 290-unit apartment complex with eight live and work units, will be built with approximately 5,000 square feet of commercial and co-working space for its residents, and more than 68,000 square feet of open space.

Popular restaurants and coffee shops such as Starbucks, Outback Steakhouse and J. Alexander’s are opening soon. Both have been stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Madison Mayor Paul Finley.

“Many of these restaurant venues are having to go back to the drawing board and redesign their restaurants based on today versus the world a year ago,” said Finley. “They are taking a little extra time to look at more outdoor dining, drive throughs, curbside pick-up and how to do take-out if they have never done it before. The take-out business has expanded dramatically, and they want the right type of store to meet the new demand.”

Boutique hotels Home2 Suites and the Avid will soon be joined by resort-style hotels and entertainment venues such as the Hotel Margaritaville.

Infrastructure, said Finley, is part of managing and balancing growth.

He explains that in 2010 and 2011, Hughes Road at U.S. 72, and Wall-Triana at U.S. 72 were the two highest traffic accident areas in Madison.

“When we put our efforts into redoing those two intersections for safety, adding double turn lanes and more, it became an economic development driver in those areas,” Finley said. “Two old shopping centers were revitalized so that Planet Fitness and several popular restaurants were created out in front.

“Two years ago, those same accident studies showed I-565 at the Wall-Triana exit as the highest accident area. It was also difficult to get to the Ruby Tuesday and Cracker Barrel once you got off at that exit,” Finley said. “We applied a grant and redid the design, but it is only about 30 percent finished.”

There are now three hotels at the Wall-Triana exit – the Clarion Pointe and two new hotels, the Avid and Home 2 Suites, as well as Twice Daily convenience store.

“With that being to first exit coming from the west to Town Madison, that intersection has to change,” said Finley. “We are looking at how improving it for safety, will also create economic development and improve accessibility.”

Across from Town Madison, Madison Boulevard is getting a heavy revitalization.

“There is a big reason for it,” the mayor said. “We have an agreement with businesses along Madison Boulevard that if you tear down a building, improve a building, or build a new building, or if we need to put in a traffic light to make the location safer or more accessible, then we’ll do that, but we want to see better signs from your business.”

One of the new kids in town in that busy area is Terramé Day Spa, Hair Salon & Blow Dry Bar. Terramé started in Huntsville 18 years ago and the Madison location is its third. The 16,660 square-foot building is the largest freestanding hair salon and day spa in Alabama, excluding hotel and resort spas.

Mike and Charla Johnson and Mike’s brothers, Jeff and Charles, are partners in the business and in the 5,000 square-foot commercial space they are building next door for lease.

Resilience and a determination to warrior on despite COVID-19, they plan to open by Feb 1.

“We are very happy they chose our city,” said Finley. “Terramé will draw daytime traffic to Madison and although we have a lot of people who come home to Madison after work, I am focusing on offering quality of life services that bring more people to Madison to shop, dine, and enjoy the day here.”

“That is managing growth,” he said.

Several road projects in addition to the Wall Triana and Madison Boulevard intersection are underway, including restriping Intergraph Way, widening Lime Quarry Road, and improving the intersection between the two.

They are lengthening Short Road in downtown to open a better thoroughfare from the new Avenue Madison project, and the City will begin work on the Balch and Gillespie roads intersections by the second quarter 2021.

Hughes Road and Sullivan Street are undergoing major widening projects expected to be complete at the end of 2021, according to Mary Beth Broeren, Madison City Planner.

“Hughes Plaza, across from City Hall, is undergoing a complete upgrade,” Broeren said. “A couple of existing tenants, Bicycle Cove and Interiors by Consign, will remain, but Absolute Nutrition just opened in November; and Fleet Feet, a physical therapy business, and a coffee shop will be new tenants in 2021.”

The Madison Chamber of Commerce is moving next door into a converted house, providing more space, better visibility, and easier access.

“That is big for us,” said Finley. “Finally getting the opportunity to revitalize that shopping plaza, getting a Fleet Feet and a nutrition store, with the Chamber right next door – all right across the street from City Hall is a big deal to us and making a positive impact.”

To the west of downtown Madison, the Argento at Oakland Springs developed by Sterling Development has been approved at the entrance to the Village at Oakland Springs on the south side of Huntsville-Browns Ferry Road.

“This mixed-use project will contain 262 apartments and approximately 18,000 square feet of commercial space, similar in character and design to the Village of Providence in Huntsville,” said Broeren. “Construction is expected to start this quarter.”

The extension of the Mill Creek Greenway is finished except for some last-minute landscaping; and the City has added parking and a complete park at the Bradford Creek Trailhead. Both Bradford Creek and the Palmer Park expansion will be complete in March.

“We are working on a renovation to Home Place Park to create an outdoor venue for small concerts such as the summer Concert in the Park series,” said Broeren.

Formerly held at the Gazebo on the Village Green on Main Street, the series has outgrown it.

“We will move them to Home Place Park between The Avenue Madison project and the high school football stadium where we will have a small amphitheater,” Broeren said. “Construction has started and should be complete by this summer, in time for the Concert in the Park series.”

“These park projects go toward quality-of-life improvements that are vital to our growth and prosperity,” said Finley.

 

Sit Down with Success: Lynn Troy, CEO of Troy 7

Sitdown with Success is a feature of the Huntsville Business Journal on entrepreneurs and their keys to success. This month’s subject is Lynn Troy, founder/president/CEO of Troy 7.

Lynn Troy: “Fear of the unknown shouldn’t hold anyone back.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

Lynn Troy calls herself an unlikely entrepreneur. Coming up through the ranks at Teledyne Brown Engineering from a co-op position while completing her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from UAH, starting her own government contracting business was not a long-term goal. That changed when she and her husband John got married and a contract they were working on seemed to be slipping away.

Troy7 has been a contender for the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce Small Business Best Place to Work Award for eight consecutive years from 2013-2020, and a winner for six of those years. In 2020, Troy7 was named the Chamber’s Woman Owned Small Business of the Year.

A graduate of the Huntsville Leadership Flagship Class (L29), Troy serves on several local non-profit boards. She is vice chair of Economic Development for the Huntsville Madison Chamber of Commerce Executive Committee; vice president of the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity; treasurer and finance chair for the Community Foundation; 2021 chair of the American Heart Association’s Heart Ball Executive Leadership Team; and 305 8th Street.

She also serves on UAH’s Last Mile Committee; Women’s Philanthropy Society’s Advisory Board; and is a Hudson Alpha Ambassador.

In 2018, Lynn received the Russell G. Brown Executive Leadership award and was recognized as one of Alabama Media Groups Women Who Shape the State.

In 2013 she received the Technology Award from WEDC’s Women Honoring Women.

What initially attracted you to the Missile Defense industry?

When I was in the ninth grade, I had to do a paper on Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” (Strategic Defense Initiative) program and honestly, I had no idea that was going to be my career destiny.

I thought I was going to be a lawyer, but those plans changed when I found myself a young mother in high school and unable to go off to college or law school.

My dad encouraged me to pursue engineering. He was a mechanical engineer, and knew UAH had an excellent engineering program. He thought electrical would give me the broadest career options, so I enrolled at UAH. When I began working in the Optics Department developing infrared signature models of rockets, that’s when I knew I was hooked on missile defense.

You started working for Teledyne Brown Engineering while you were still at UAH, is that correct?

Teledyne Brown Engineering hired me into their co-op program when I was 18 years old and I had just completed my freshman year at UAH. I was so deeply grateful for the opportunity to have my first real job that I honestly thought I would retire from TBE one day.

It took me 5½ years to complete my electrical engineering degree but along the way I learned so much about government contracting and the various work Teledyne was doing.

I was able to rotate through different assignments and when I landed in the Optics Department, I was hooked, and had found something that I truly loved doing.

It sounds like you had a strong support system behind you at TBE.

I had some amazing mentors who invested in me and helped me not only technically, but who encouraged me to pursue leadership positions.

I was selected for an incredible opportunity to participate in TBE’s Female and Minority Management Training program.

What triggered your starting your own business?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Teledyne Brown was forced to divest the contract I supported to another company, and Teledyne Solutions was created. While we all hoped it would be an adequate solution to create the separation the government required, after a few years the government decided it was still not enough.

It was during this time, the idea of forming a new company came to being. I had recently remarried and the date was July 7, 2007 or 07/07/07, and that is where I came up with the name of our company, Troy7.

My husband John truly believed we could, together, start a new business.

It was a hard decision to leave TBE after almost 20 years and so many wonderful opportunities, but within a relatively short time after we left, Teledyne Solutions was forced to dissolve as an entity, so I believe we made the best decision we could for us and our family.

How did Troy7 evolve?

With the uncertainty and likely loss of the contract we were on at Teledyne becoming more troubling, we began looking for alternative customers and contracts, and discovered an opportunity with the MEADS (Medium Extended Air Defense System) program.

MEADS was a tri-national (US, Italy, Germany) program that evolved out of the U.S. Patriot program, and they were nearing their test phase and needed targets to test their system against.

Target flight testing was truly both mine and John’s professional passions. I loved the threat analysis, which ensured the target matched the threat of interest in optical, radar, and flight performance characteristics.

John loved the rockets themselves and knew every detail about them and processing the telemetry flight data on-site all over the world.

We believed we would never have a better opportunity to see if we could build a company doing what we loved than that moment, so, we pulled the trigger and incorporated Troy7 on Nov. 28, 2007, less than  five months after we got married.

Looking back, it’s pretty surreal that we both quit what had been very stable and wonderful jobs and took that leap together. But we both felt strongly that we needed each other, and wouldn’t have been successful if only one of us had tried to do it without the other.

Was the MEADS program your launch pad, so to speak?

We didn’t bring a contract with us for the MEADS work. It was new work, and we worked with (Space and Missile Defense Command) and the NAMEADSMA (NATO MEADS Management Agency) team to set up their Targets Test Program. We were incredibly blessed to support that effort for five years and many flight tests at White Sands Missile Range.

The final test in the program was a dual intercept mission with a south bound ballistic target – John was the Test Conductor – and a north bound air breathing QF-4 target – where I was stationed.

The MEADS system performed brilliantly and successfully destroyed both targets.

It is a little weird to celebrate the destruction of your work, but that’s the life of targets engineers!

During those five years we were working hard to develop new customers and contract vehicles to grow our business and it was a lot of very long days and nights and several years of no vacations or down time, but it was worth it, and I would do it all again.

In a lot of ways, those early formative years are the most fun and exciting, even though you are tired and struggling at times.

What specific challenges did you face in getting started on your own?

I think the biggest challenge we faced in getting started was all the things we didn’t know we didn’t know.

Lynn Troy: “Huntsville is rich with successful small businesses whose founders and leaders are eager to advise and mentor new small businesses.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

I often tell people, I was too naïve to realize how much I didn’t know about the business side, insurances, taxes, corporation rules, the FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulation), accounting, etc. And it’s probably for the best.

I think it is fear of all those unknowns that holds people back.

I joke that John and I were still in our honeymoon phase, so we were willing to figure it all out as we went. And that is one of the beautiful things about Huntsville. There are so many wonderful and successful people in this town who are all willing to help you, share their experiences, and guide you through the unknowns. Fear of the unknown shouldn’t hold anyone back.

What vision do you have for your business in the future?

We experienced some change in 2020 when John retired.

He had a goal to retire on his 60th birthday so we worked hard to make that a reality last September.

He still comes in a couple days a week to wrap up a project, but it’s more like he’s a consultant, not day-to-day.

This was a huge change for me personally and professionally, and we spent a lot of time talking through the future and our goals.

We know it’s time for us to shift our focus from predominantly subcontracting to going after more prime contracts. We have been so blessed to work with some of the best primes in Huntsville and we have learned so much from them.

It’s our goal to grow into a prime role and treat our teammates as well as we have been treated. Although our biggest customer is the Missile Defense Agency, we also support the Army, NASA, and the Air Force.

Our first priority is ensuring we continue providing excellent support to these customers and exploring prime contract options across our customer base is our current growth focus for the future.

What advice would you give to someone interested in getting into the government contracting business?

Don’t be afraid to fail but be prepared to learn from the surprises and disappointments you will inevitably encounter.

One of my mentors from UAH, Dr. Bassem Mahafza, told me to imagine myself 10 years into the future and ask myself would I look back and regret it if I didn’t at least try. I’m still grateful for his wise counsel.

Number two – build the dream and the vision of your business in your mind before you start building the business. The opportunities will change and the paths to them will detour, but it is essential to know what you’re striving to accomplish before you take the first step toward that goal.

Number three – don’t be afraid to ask for help and seek advice. Huntsville is rich with successful small businesses whose founders and leaders are eager to advise and mentor new small businesses.

Troy7 and I personally have benefitted greatly from Huntsville small business leaders for over 13 years. I continue to try to pay it forward and help mentor new small businesses the same way I was blessed with help.

I will say, there are more barriers to entry today than when we started Troy7. Expensive IT infrastructure requirements, slower and more restrictive acquisitions, and downward pressure on rates, to name a few.

All of these factors require careful consideration but should not be deal breakers since there are so many resources available to help.

And probably the most important advice I could offer – carefully choose your employees and respect and take care of them. From the bottom of my heart, I believe Troy7 has thrived because of our dedicated and talented Troy7 family. It is not just the services we offer that make Troy7 a successful company. It’s our people.

Sit Down with Success: Bob Baron ‘in Motion’ with Baron Critical Weather Intelligence

Sitdown with Success is a feature of the Huntsville Business Journal on entrepreneurs and their keys to success. This month’s subject is Bob Baron, founder/president/CEO of Baron Critical Weather Intelligence.

Many Huntsville residents will recognize Bob Baron from local TV weather and his famous “weather in motion,” but immediately following one of Huntsville’s largest, most destructive, and unexpected tornadoes hit the city in 1989, Bob Baron formed Baron Services to try and find ways to keep people all over the world, safer in dangerous weather events.

 

You were an on-air celebrity here and in Tampa as Chief Meteorologist in the 1970s and 1980s. Why did you take a more behind-the-scenes stance by starting your own company?

When the F-4 tornado struck Huntsville in November 1989, I was Chief Meteorologist at Channel 48. It came without warning and I realized that what I thought were weather tools were just weather gadgets.

I thought the community was well prepared for severe weather, but in analyzing the disaster, we determined that we needed to find a way to detect dangerous events; disseminate very specific advisories to those in harm’s way; and to effect immediate response. That detection, dissemination, and response had to occur within 10 minutes, or you started losing lives.

That has been our focus for 30 years.

 

What attracted you to the technical aspects of the weather?

I transitioned from radio to TV and then to TV weather around 1977. It was a glorious time as the first “big data”, satellites, and modern radar were launching at the same time as computerization. I loved working with both, and interfacing with the public on a daily basis; and every day we were either creating or introducing new technology to the public.

 

What are some of the technologies you have created and implemented since you started the company?

Our first product facilitated live radar and strike-by-strike lightning and allowed the user to zoom in on a storm, instantly draw out a direction and (area of threat), and then pull the communities at risk, as well as the estimated time of storm arrival.

Then we got into storm tracking. Over time we patented the ability to send alerts to cell phones of those only in harm’s way.

In the wake of the 2011 Super Outbreak of tornadoes, the Governor’s task force determined a need to have a statewide alerting system focused exclusively on those directly in harm’s way. Only our company could provide it, and it would take forever to have all state entities sign off on the system; so, we decided to provide it for free.

Over the last eight years, Baron has been providing the free Safety Net alerting service statewide. We have launched millions of alerts and anyone can still download the Alabama Safety Net free and receive not only the most precise alerting, but also a wide variety of other weather information like live radar and tropical weather data.

 

Why did you change the name from Baron Services to Baron Critical Weather Intelligence?

Baron is a national and international player not only in weather data but also Doppler weather radars. The company was chosen by the National Weather Service to upgrade all 171 of their Nexrad radar to next generation Dual Polarity.

Our official name remains Baron Services, Inc.  but over the years we adopted uses of “Baron Weather, home of Critical Weather Intelligence”, which speaks more directly to what we do.

 

What has been the hardest parts about developing weather technology?

If things were easy, everyone would be doing them.

Our development of early Doppler radars and more recently, building out the technology and hardware for Dual Polarity, which is sending out simultaneous horizontal and vertical signals that are then analyzed when those signals bounce back, may be the most challenging work we have done.

But we also felt a great sense of accomplishment developing the data stream, the hardware, firmware, and software to send over very narrow bandwidth to provide weather to the cockpit as displayed in real-time on all major avionics. For the past 17 years, that has been one of my favorite successes.

 

What vision do you have for your business in the future?

Our company has three major verticals: broadcast, international weather services, and what we call enterprise, which provides weather data in various formats to assist other developers.

This later effort is becoming quite successful as we add insurance and fleet customers, among others; and I see great opportunities for advancement as we are able to reach out to the marketplace.

We have developed a next generation TV broadcast system that also includes the ability to do traffic programs, and all of this is being extremely well received.

We recently finished development of a brand new next-gen processor for our radar market that allows us to provide a highly competitive product around the world that I’m looking to add to our marketing going forward.

 

What advice would you give to someone interested in getting into weather technology or the development of weather-related equipment, research, or work?

For me, most of my experience has been applied science – power user, if you will. But you also need the researcher. It is a team effort with room for success for everyone. I believe weather, the big umbrella, is a rapidly growing area both in applied meteorology and meteorological research.

Not Traveling Is Working for Now, But Can Virtual Business Sustain Test of Time?

While questions remain about when life in general will return to normal after nearly a year of pandemic, some of the more pressing questions surround the sustainability of businesses if they continue to operate in a virtual vacuum.

Certainly, for the time being, both small and large businesses in Huntsville are adjusting well to the circumstances. Telework and working from home, Zoom conferences and virtual events have made their way into the mainstream, and everyday life from online learning to groundbreakings, tradeshows, and award ceremonies are relying on virtual technology to carry them through. 

While some people, particularly in the educational field, are reporting “Zoom fatigue”, others are already seeing it as an opportunity to get creative, scale back office space, and streamline procedures and operations well into the future if not permanently.

But how sustainable is it really?

Air travel at Huntsville International Airport is ordinarily 70 percent business and 30 percent leisure. Currently combined, HSV is operating at about 30 percent of what it was this time in 2019. 

According to Jana Kuner, airport public relations and customer service manager, air travel is slowly improving, but business travel will be the real indicator for how long it will take to get back to normal, and when it does – assuming it will eventually, just how much will business have changed?

“Do people prefer Zoom to in-person meetings and are the savings in travel costs justifiable when compared to face-to-face meetings to ‘close a deal’ or meeting new people to build relationships?” she asks. “These are questions businesses everywhere are asking and the airport is interested in their perspective.”

Bevilacqua Research Corp. CEO Larry Burger said employees are losing, and missing, the personal connection with people.

“Those little conversations you have waiting for a meeting to start, or at the end of the meeting when you extend the conversation beyond the meeting,” he said. “You lose that sense of belonging, that feel of family in an organization when you haven’t seen someone in a month or so who works within your company.

“I think there are a lot of general update meetings for established customers that may continue to be virtual after everything returns to normal,” said Robert Conger, senior vice president of Technology and Strategy at Adtran. “However, when it comes to competing for new business and establishing key relationships, companies will still want to be in-person once they are able to safely do so.

“I do think web meetings and remote work will continue to play a much larger role in business than they did prior to this year, but each company will have to make their own decisions about when they may return to normal based on the type of work and roles within each company.”

For example, Conger said it will depend on the type of work a company is doing, the individual roles within those companies, and the experience level of the employees as to how effective remote working will be in the long run.

“For a lot of jobs like software development, remote work is fairly efficient and effective as long as the employees have a good environment at home to limit distractions. However, for employees that are new to a company or are earlier in their careers, there is a lot of value in those face-to-face work environments where you can collaborate more frequently and easily.”

Kuner uses the AUSA 2020 Annual Meeting going virtual this year as an example of a travel-related event that had a big impact on HSV because so many people in Huntsville travel to that conference by air. 

“Some things just can’t be done in the same way virtually,” she said. “While a simple meeting or conference call can accomplish some tasks, it can’t replace the in-person networking, relationship building, and deal making that in person accomplishes.”

Burger agrees.

“Virtual conferences are much less effective because you don’t get that synergy of a face-to-face,” he said. “We just had a live event in Huntsville for the Redstone Small Business Contracting Conference & Expo and we got more than a dozen leads that were unexpected because we were there. We could have discussions face-to-face with people wandering around the exhibit hall. None of it would have occurred virtually.

“We get almost nothing from a virtual event. We are still following up with several opportunities to work together with companies we met at the Redstone event. That’s the value of the conference … being in person, able to combine everybody’s good ideas to come up with a much better solution.”

How about the costs incurred in by having to have IT teams and creative departments develop virtual “booths”, Kuner said. Do other businesses stop by those booths like they do when the conference is in person?

“We hosted our first virtual customer summit a couple of months ago,” said Congers. “We had to invest in a platform that nearly cost as much as what it would have cost to host customers on site, at least for the first use. With that said, we can continue to use the platform at a lesser expense moving forward, so it will reduce our cost over time. 

“In the case of the virtual customer meeting with Adtran as the host, it was a great success in terms of how many customers we were able to reach versus on-site but you certainly lose some of the focused customer attention and relationship-building opportunities in a virtual environment. 

“As for the larger virtual conferences with booths, these are much less effective than the typical in-person conferences.”

But Burger said in-person meetings hold an advantage over online meetings.

“We attended another live event where we rolled out a new product and more than 10 percent of the people we talked to were very interested in following up or purchasing, whereas we can’t get any traction with just online stuff,” said Burger. “For a new product, if you let me explain it to people and talk to them about it, they tend so say, ‘Oh, okay, that makes sense’ or ‘That’s a good idea’.”

Burger said Bevilacqua has made allowances for some of his employees so they can still travel.

“We’re doing very limited travel, but we have several folks who are traveling by automobile,” he said. “One of our older employees who is high risk, bought a recreational vehicle so he and his wife can travel together. Of course, what used to be a half-day trip takes them two or three days, but they feel safer and they don’t have to stop at restaurants along the way.”

Roger Rhodes, Business Development director at Qualis, said nothing replaces the human face-to-face interaction for building relationships and making deals but he believes virtual meetings are here to stay.

“We completely cut out travel since May,” said Rhodes. “I think virtual meetings will continue to play a major role in business for the foreseeable future, but companies will reassess travel costs versus the benefits in the near future but the way of marketing and business travel has definitely changed. We will look to others to determine that balance of travel for the new norm.” 

Congers agrees.

“Virtual meetings will continue to be a vital component in day-to-day engagements where maybe face-to-face meetings are not as critical or as a complement to less-frequent on-site meetings,” he said. “However, when it comes to relationship-building and pursuing new customer opportunities, each vendor will want to have an edge of their competition and being in front of the customer more often is one way to achieve that.”

Kuner said it is important for people to know HSV is clean and safe and they have all of the appropriate procedures in place to keep people safe. 

“We encourage our region to get back to the sky for business and leisure,” she said. “Our airport is so heavy with business travel, if Huntsville gets back to traveling sooner, it could positively impact the airport since the airlines will be making decisions for adding back flights and routes based on demand. It could give them an opportunity to re-evaluate what worked before the pandemic, and where needs are for travel after.

“If we show that we are back to the sky and we need the service, then chances are that they will provide it. This could be an opportunity for us to shake things up.”

Sitdown with Success: Bruce Summerville of Inline Lighting and Electric Supply

Sitdown with Success is a feature of the Huntsville Business Journal on entrepreneurs and their keys to success. This month’s subject is Bruce Summerville of Inline Lighting and Electric Supply.

Bruce Summerville: “… a lot of customers lean on some of our people for technical expertise. That’s really what distinguishes us from most of our competition.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

Bruce Summerville started Inline Electric Supply in 1988 after he and three co-workers were fired from their jobs at a Westinghouse supply branch here in Huntsville for plotting to start their own business. Today, there are 13 locations in Alabama, one in Tennessee and one in Georgia.

How did you come to Huntsville and what was it like in the early days starting a business?

My father was an electrical contractor in Georgia, so I grew up in the business. I was working as an electrician at an electrical supply house in Atlanta while going to school at Georgia Tech. When I came to Huntsville, I was only going to stay about six months and here I am over 30 years later.

After getting fired from Westinghouse, we started the business in my basement. Shortly afterward, we found this building on Bob Wallace. We were electrical only and operated out of the back of the building. Five years later, we moved into the front of the building, which gave us space to start a lighting showroom.

Our business model is Business-to-Business. We sell to installers, electrical contractors, and industrial plants. On the showroom side, we sell to builders or to homeowners building a home.

I’m sure with technology, the lighting industry has changed a lot over 30 years?

Oh yes. The advent of LED has completely changed the lighting industry, where seven years ago, it didn’t exist. On the residential side, it has migrated more slowly, but commercial, industrial, and outdoor lighting is radically different. It is 100 percent LED.

Before, commercial and industrial lighting was either fluorescent or what we called HID (high-intensity discharge), which was either mercury vapor or metal halide. You couldn’t control it. It was basically either off or on.

LED lighting is instantly on, very much controllable. It is all dimmable so there are a lot of controls involved.

What do you attribute most to your success?

We have significant inventories and keep a lot of product on hand; but definitely, the biggest thing is people.

We have a lot of people who are very knowledgeable about our industry and about our product and quite honestly, a lot of customers lean on some of our people for technical expertise. That’s really what distinguishes us from most of our competition.

In 2012, we went from three owners including myself to 260 owners when we went 100 percent employee owned.

Because of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan, we went from $60 million to $160 million in revenue because we attracted a much better grade of people because they now have a stake in the success of the business.

I think the employee ownership has been a key advantage for us.

Has COVID-19 caused you any problems getting product?

Every day, 10 hours a day, we’re trying to find material. It is a constant struggle. Everything that comes out of Mexico is a continuous problem. A lot of the Asian product is coming back, but anything coming out of the Americas is still a struggle.

What would you tell somebody thinking about starting a lighting business?

It’s pretty capital intensive. If we were starting out today, it would be a struggle because it takes so much money to invest in inventory.

Starting a new business is challenging no matter what, and it is the same for this industry. But I would say hiring the best people will help you be successful.

What have been the biggest challenges you have faced over the past 30 years, COVID included I suppose?

The financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 was tough because the construction market was hit so hard.

When I talk to people who own restaurants and hotels, I feel almost ashamed to say it, but our business has been up about 10 percent this year. It is hard to brag about that when so many people are struggling, but I think we are certainly fortunate to be in the area of the country where there’s so much going on in terms of construction. That has helped carry our business through the pandemic.

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.”