Q&A with Sen. Jones: On Military Spending, Families and the Widows’ Tax

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) recently sat down with the Huntsville Business Journal at Huntsville West and discussed several issues important to our state and nation. This is the final installment of five reports from the interview. Today’s topic is the military and military families.

HBJ: Huntsville is a military town, nicknamed “Pentagon South.” Tell us what is going on with military spending and families.

 

Sen. Doug Jones met with the Huntsville Business Journal in the Huntsville West co-working collaborative community. (Photo/Steve Babin)

Sen. Jones: I’m on the Armed Services Committee. Alabama is extremely important to the nation’s security and our military forces. One of the things that we are trying to do, working with the administration, is to upgrade our military forces across the board.

We’ve got to spend money to upgrade what they call the “nuclear triad” of missiles for protection. We’ve got to upgrade submarines, planes, you name it. It’s all aging and we’re going to have to spend some money.

What we’re looking at now, is a whole new area of potential war and conflict. It’s not just in the air or sea or land anymore; it’s in space. This year, in the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act), we’ve created the Space Force. I’m hoping the Space Command will come here to Huntsville. That decision is going to come relatively soon.

The other thing I’ve focused was families, our servicemen and women. There’s a 3.1 percent increase this year in the salaries for service members, which is the first one they’ve had in a while.

We’ve also done things to put extra money into education, trying to help the kids of service members that move around a lot, and also for kids with disabilities.

We’ve done things for military spouses. Military spouses often have professional certifications that are hard to transfer when they move. We’re trying to do things to make that certification transfer easier.

HBJ: What piece of military legislation stands out for you?

Sen. Jones: The biggest thing that I’m proudest of, after a 30-year fight, is the work that I did in the Senate this year to get the military widows’ tax eliminated for good. It was a really, really big deal.

Sen. Jones on widows’ tax: “Getting this tax eliminated was more than just a job for us, it was a mission; it was a cause.”

Although it only affects some 2,000 people in Alabama, it’s 2,000 people that are now going to get $1,200-$1,500 a month more.

There was a statutory set of money that the VA has administered for a long time.

Those funds were to be distributed to widows when a service member dies in combat or of a service-related injury. In many cases, service members buy additional insurance to provide additional benefits for their families. That money is administered by the Department of Defense and it’s something that service members pay for – out of their own pockets.

About 35  years ago, Congress passed legislation allowing the Department of Defense and the VA to offset the two.

If a widow was entitled to both pots of money, they’d only get 55 percent. This means money that service members have paid into – was going to the Department of Defense and staying there.

I didn’t know about it, never heard about it and then some of the Gold Star widows came to us and talked about it.

I just about blew a gasket. How can that be?

They showed me that it has been tried for 20 years to overturn and I told them, “This year, we’re going to do something different.”

It’s a commitment that was made to our service members that the federal government and Congress has fallen down on. Getting this tax eliminated was more than just a job for us, it was a mission; it was a cause. Everyone in the office chipped in; we ended up getting close to 80 co-sponsors in a very partisan senate.

I got Susan Collins (R-Maine) to co-sponsor it with me in the Senate. Together, we got so many co-sponsors, we organized it like a political campaign.

Every recess, every town hall, there was somebody there, asking about the military widows’ tax.

It got to the point that when it went up to Congress, the negotiators for the NDAA said, “We’ve just got do this.”

When it passed, there were about 25 to 30 of those Gold Star widows up in the gallery.

It was awesome. It was really, really awesome.

I’ve got to tell you, I’ve never been with a group of people so appreciative of an act of Congress as those military widows, it has been remarkable.

 

Q&A with Sen. Doug Jones: Of Ships, the Wall and Budget Redirection

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones  (D-Ala.) recently sat down with the Huntsville Business Journal and discussed several issues important to our state and nation. This is the fourth installment of five reports from the interview. Today’s topic is defense spending and border security.

HBJ: Mobile is a key player in shipbuilding, especially with Austal and the U.S. Navy. What can you tell us about the shipbuilding industry there?

Sen. Jones: Austal, down in Mobile, I think is the leading shipbuilding company for the Navy right now. They’ve built the LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) ships, they built the EPF (expeditionary fast transport) ships, they’re such a good company; they’ve come in pretty much on time and on budget.

The Mobile-built EPF can transport military units and vehicles, or can be reconfigured to become a troop transport for an infantry battalion. The EPF has a flight deck for helicopters and a load ramp that will allow vehicles to quickly drive on and off the ship.

The Navy is really high on them; I am hopeful that they will get the frigate contract that is going to be let relatively soon.

The problem we’ve got with Austal right now is the number of LCS and EPF ships are winding down and there’s going to be a lag time and a transition period, even if they get the frigate contract. I’m going to assume for a moment that they are.

There will still be a transition where all the workers aren’t going to be utilized. So, one of the things that we’ve done in this year’s budget was to contract an extra EPF ship to be built for this year, to help stabilize the workforce down there.

HBJ: Did President Trump say he is moving money from there to help pay for the wall?

Sen. Jones: Recently, the president has announced that he’s going to do away with that and take the money from the Department of Defense’s budget to fund the border wall.

At the State of the Union address, the President bragged about – and he should have – the number of immigrants and refugees seeking asylum are down. The number of people crossing the borders without their correct documentation; those numbers are down.

This wall is a political issue that is trying shore up some drug smuggling lanes. And I can tell you as a former U.S. Attorney, building a concrete bollard wall that you can stick your arm through is not going to be the way to stop that. There are so many ways that we can do it more cost efficiently.

Sen. Jones: “Mexico is not paying for our wall; Mobile is paying for our wall.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

People may think maybe it’s related to immigration, it’s not. It’s just purely a political issue and the president has taken $261 million out of Austal and that EPF ship that was put in the budget and he’s line-iteming and moving that $261 million over to help build 17 miles of new wall and refortifying about 160 miles of wall.

So, the bottom line is this: Mexico is not paying for our wall; Mobile is paying for our wall.

We went through hours and hours of what they call “posture hearings” on the Armed Services Committee. And Congress, in a very bipartisan way, worked with the budget and National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to appropriate money so that we could modernize our military, give our men and women in uniform everything that they need to protect the United States of America and here we’ve got money being taken out of that budget, $3.8 billion to build a concrete bollard wall.

Yes, I shook my head, too, as did everybody.

Again, make no mistake; I’ve supported stronger border security. We need to find out who’s been coming across our borders and try to do the best we can to secure those borders.

There’s just a better way to do it. The wall has become more of a symbol now, than it is an effective reality.

(Tomorrow: Sen. Jones discusses the military and military families)

 

Q&A with Sen. Doug Jones: Tariffs and Global Trade

 

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) recently sat down with the Huntsville Business Journal and discussed several issues important to our state and nation. This is the third installment of five reports from the interview. Today’s topic is international trade and tariffs.

HBJ: Let’s talk about Alabama and where it fits in global trade.

Sen. Jones: Alabama is an exporting state. You know, after NAFTA came into being, Alabama got hurt pretty bad. But, we’ve done such an amazing job of adapting and a part of that was with the automobile manufacturers that started coming into the state.

Sen. Jones: “Twenty-five percent tariffs on automobiles would be devastating and just not functional.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

But, Alabama really has got partners all over the world. It’s amazing what we export now.

It’s an exporting state. We need to make sure that with our trading partners, that we have good agreements with them … That’s been a challenge, I think, over the last couple of years.

HBJ: Tell me about the tariffs and what industries are affected.

Sen. Jones: You know, there are two different things.

First of all, you’ve got tariffs that are proposed for automobiles. Fortunately, we’ve got a trade agreement with Japan now. So, Toyota and Honda are fairly safe. But, Mercedes has still got a potential issue out there; Hyundai still has potential issues out there.

Twenty-five percent tariffs on automobiles would be devastating and just not functional. The president has done this under some guise of national security but yet he won’t release the report that the Commerce Department did to determine whether or not they’re a national security threat.

Throughout this, several senators in a bipartisan way have been working with me: Sen. (Lamar) Alexander (R) from Tennessee, Sen. (Rob) Portman (R) from Ohio.

We’ve had different bills pending to try to get at the bottom of these automobile tariffs. In fact, this past year, Sen. (Pat) Toomey (R-Pa.) and I had an amendment in the budget process, the appropriations process, whereby the administration was required to release that to us by the middle of January.

Of course, they have not done that. So, we still don’t know what that is.

What we’ve seen is steel and aluminum imports have caused the cost of goods and services to go up. That was a boom for Alabama steelmakers for a little bit, but now with prices that way, everybody’s feeling some pain.

The other thing: the retaliatory tariffs have been what’s been devastating to farmers. When China started cutting off soybeans and other products, it really has affected so many farmers in this state.

Now, we have a first step agreement with China. I think the jury is still out as to whether or not that’s really going to be a favorable deal, or one that keeps the status quo, which is not that good.

I’d like to think it’s going to be a good deal ultimately for folks, but there’s still another deal yet to be had.

What I’m seeing right now is that we are now getting into the political dynamics with trade and everything is just kind of on hold until after the election.

The president has quit beating the trade “drums” as loud as he gets closer and closer to November.

HBJ: So, the tariffs affect not only steel, but agricultural exports, as well?

Sen. Jones: Yep, absolutely. They’ve had serious issues with soybeans, but it’s affected agriculture across the board.

Sen. Jones: “My biggest problem with the way the administration has handled trade is that we’ve gone it alone.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

If you talk to the folks down in the Port of Mobile, they will tell you the exports are down so much in agricultural goods. And hopefully, that’s going to come back.

And we’ve got issues down in Mobile, too with Airbus. The president is still talking about tariffs on exports, imports from Europe which could affect the Airbus and the airplane industry down there.

We’ve had to go through and seek exemptions for – I can’t tell you know how many companies. And we’ve been pretty successful at it in the office, where we’ve been able to carve out exemptions, but that’s just not the way to run trade.

When you announce these big policies and then you start chipping away, what that means is that the administration is picking winners and losers in the industry. And that’s just not good.

We need to try to break down some barriers and try to make sure we’ve got good trade, deal with countries like China, but do it in a fair way.

My biggest problem with the way the administration has handled trade is that we’ve gone it alone.

We started kicking all of our friends in the shins, we started going after Canada, we started going after Europe, we started going after China. We ended up going at China alone when we could have done some deals with our allies and then all gone in there together, because now they’re all getting separate deals.

I think we could have gotten a better deal had we all worked together.

Now having said all that, I voted for the United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) deal. I think that’s a pretty good deal for Alabama. The automobile dealers had a little bit of question about it all, but overall I think updating NAFTA was a good thing. And it was something that needed to be done.

What I think is really good about that though, that this deal is that once it got to the House of Representatives, the House made it better than what it was.

They made it better in the form of labor protections and in environmental protections. Much better than what the president sent over there; that’s what got it across the finish line, was the House of Representatives making it better.

(Monday: Sen. Jones discusses defense spending and border security)

Q&A with Sen. Doug Jones: Health Care

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) recently sat down with the Huntsville Business Journal and discussed issues important to our state and nation. This is the second installment of five reports from the interview. Today’s topic is health care.

HBJ: What can you tell us about health care in Alabama?

Sen. Jones: Health care has been one of the priorities in our office for a lot of reasons.

Sen. Jones: “I have been a strong proponent of Medicaid expansion in Alabama. We made a huge mistake by not doing it.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

Alabama is still a poor state and we’re an unhealthy state. We need better health care outcomes and we’ve got to keep health care in rural parts of Alabama.

We’ve lost 13 or so hospitals in the last seven to eight years, and about seven or eight of those hospitals have been in rural areas. And you’re not going to keep a community if you don’t have health care in that area.

We’ve done a number of things.

First of all, I’ve worked with Sen. (Richard) Shelby (R-Ala.) and Congresswoman (Terri) Sewell (D-Ala.) to get the Centers for Medicare Medicaid Services (CMS) folks to meet with us to try to change the Medicare Wage Index (MWI). The Wage Index is how reimbursements for Medicare and Medicaid services are paid.

Alabama’s had the lowest reimbursement rate in the country. The index formula was such that you stayed at the bottom; once you got there, you couldn’t pull back up.

We brought the CMS director in and talked to her about that.

For years, people would write letters and talk about it a little bit, but we actually put it into action. The director changed that and now Alabama’s wage index has been increased significantly; it will bring about $40 million to $50 million in for health care in Alabama.

HBJ: What about Medicaid Expansion?

Sen. Jones: I have been a strong proponent of Medicaid expansion in Alabama. We made a huge mistake by not doing it.

We didn’t do it in Alabama for two reasons, one reason was purely political. There was also a concern at the time about how we would pay for it.

The Affordable Care Act had the name “ObamaCare” attached to it. Everybody in Montgomery would run around saying that “we can’t do anything, that’s got President Obama’s name on it.”

The people who suffered most were the people who needed the Medicaid insurance. Anecdotally, we have seen all the states that did the Medicaid expansion bring in billions of dollars to the states’ economies.

So, the people of Alabama also suffered because they didn’t have billions of dollars coming in.

Health care outcomes have gone up which also helps the states’ economy. It helps businesses, it helps education and you name it, across the board.

I’ve got a bill pending called the States Achieving Medicaid Expansion (SAME) Act that would give the 16 states who have not expanded an opportunity to get a “second bite of the apple.”

I think the House of Representatives will likely pass it this year, whether it will be part of (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell’s “graveyard,” I don’t know. We’ve got close to 400 bills that the House has passed that are stacking up on Mitch’s desk.

He relishes in being called the “Grim Reaper,” and that’s unfortunate.

HBJ: What about prescription drugs?

Sen. Jones: The other thing that we’ve been looking at with the administration in a bipartisan way, is to lower prescription drug prices.

It’s a big deal. Drug prices are an issue for us.

There are several other things that are out there, such as more transparency in drug pricing; getting generics to market faster.

The thing that’s not in the president’s budget is giving Medicare an opportunity to negotiate drug prices. I’m not sure why the president is opposed to that, but he is.

HBJ: Let’s talk about maternal and infant health.

Sen. Jones: We’ve got a number of bills pending that will try to address maternal health and infant health.

It’s a huge problem in this state. We’ve gotten a little bit better on infant mortality, but we’re still one of the highest in infant mortality in the country; we’re one of the highest in maternal mortality.

A state that prides itself on family values, a pro-life state, we have high rates of that, and that’s unconscionable.

(Tomorrow: Sen. Jones discusses international trade and tariffs)

 

Q&A with Sen. Doug Jones: Workforce Development

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) recently sat down with the Huntsville Business Journal and discussed several issues important to our state and nation.  This is the first installment of five reports from the interview. Today’s topic is Workforce Development.

As a strong proponent of workforce development initiatives, Sen. Doug Jones introduced the Working On Rewarding and Keeping Employees Resilient (WORKER) and the Investing in Tomorrow’s Workforce Acts.

Sen. Jones: “… some jobs are going to be eliminated, but it will also give us opportunities.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

The legislation was designed to increase federal investments in workforce development and training to help prepare workers for the jobs of the future and to promote education and training for workers in high-demand industries, along with the expansion of registered apprentice programs.

The WORKER Act would:

  • Expand programs in engineering at elementary and secondary schools by awarding grants to local educational agencies to support, develop, and implement formal and informal engineering education programs in elementary and secondary schools;
  • Expand programs in maker education at schools to teach hands-on skills in design and manufacturing by amending the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act to allow funding for “maker education,” “makerspaces,” and training for teachers;
  • Expand promotion of registered apprentice programs by the Department of Labor, including outreach to underrepresented populations, young people, and veterans;
  • Promote collaboration with post-secondary institutions to promote apprenticeships, including allowing academic credit for apprenticeship programs;
  • Coordinate unemployment programs with career counseling, job search assistance, training assistance, and income support services to better support unemployed workers in finding a job;
  • Create a Training Voucher program to support dislocated workers completing short term training in in-demand industry sectors; and,
  • Create a stipend for dislocated workers to ensure their transportation and child care costs can be covered while they retrain for new jobs.

The Investing in Tomorrow’s Workforce Act would:

  • Create a grant program through the Department of Labor to support industry or sector partnerships in developing and carrying out training programs for workers who are, or are likely to become, dislocated because of advances in technology, including automation.
  • Increase funding for National Dislocated Worker Grants and amend the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) to ensure workers who are dislocated by automation are included in WIOA programs.
  • Direct the GAO to conduct a study of the barriers to providing, and opportunities for improving, training for workers in industries that are most likely to be impacted by automation.

These two key pieces of legislation were developed to help ensure that employees throughout Alabama and the nation are prepared for and have access to well-paid skilled jobs and have the skills that they need to successfully navigate the transition that will result from advances in automation and technology.

HBJ: Can you tell us about the Tomorrow’s Workforce and WORKER acts?

Sen. Jones: “… if we want to continue to attract industry to this state, we’re going to need a trained workforce.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

Jones: There are a lot of things that we’re doing that reflect what I believe, are meeting some of the more pressing needs in Alabama. We’ve got low unemployment, which is great; but, at the same time, if we want to continue to attract industry to this state, we’re going to need a trained workforce.

We’re also seeing that automation is going to continue at the pace – if not a quicker pace, than we’ve seen. That’s going to mean that some jobs are going to be eliminated, but it will also give us opportunities.

The work that we’re doing with both career-technical advances as well as the Tomorrow’s Workforce and WORKER bills are going to do things to plan for that: to get people trained, to see what niches can be filled with workforce development, whether that’s through a four-year college, a two-year college, or some type of apprenticeship or certification program.

I’m really big on apprenticeships. I’d like to see more public-private type partnerships; companies going into the schools.

We’re looking at a little bit of red tape to cut out, first. The Department of Labor requires a lot, so we’re looking at that.

That’s the gist of what those bills are going to be doing. To make sure that we’ve got the 21st century workforce for the companies that will be coming as automation takes over.

HBJ: What about dislocated workers?

Jones: It’s going to be an issue for everybody; it’s going to be an issue for Alabama.

We’re moving in a way to help make sure that our infrastructure and our jobs save this planet. That’s going to transition away from some things into new forms of energy.

There are a lot of opportunities there, but you’ve got to be able to transition. You can’t just flip a switch and cut off fossil fuels. What we’re seeing is that more and more companies are now coming to the table to talk about that.

We’ve got issues down in Gadsden right now, where a number of workers are going to be laid off from the Goodyear plant, which is likely to close. We need to get them over to Gadsden State or some other places to let them learn new skills and new trades because they’re still of working age.

Some of those workers will be displaced workers in the sense that their jobs may get phased out. They are still employable; they have families and they’re going to want to work.

We’ve got to do the training and education that will help with that. Our two-year college system is primed to do that.”

(Tomorrow: Sen. Jones discusses the state of health care and efforts to help improve it)

 

‘Super Block’ Along University Drive Getting $27 Million Facelift

A welcomed and long-awaited facelift is coming to a stretch of one of Huntsville’s primary thoroughfares.

A 45-acre block off University Drive at Independence Drive and Lancewood Drive will be revitalized in a $27 million acquisition by  Philadelphia-based Penn Capital, an integrated private investment company.

The former GuestHouse Suites are part of the $27 million redevelopment project. (Image provided by Penn Capital)

The company has purchased the former GuestHouse Suites from the Huntsville Hospital Foundation as part of the acquisition. The project includes renovating and redeveloping three properties along University Drive across from the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

In addition to the former GuestHouse Suites at 4020 Independence Drive, Penn Capital is revitalizing the former North Ridge Apartments and the Continental Apartments adjacent to it. The project totals 458 apartments along University Drive and creates a 45-acre “super block” of 546 apartments. It is strategically aimed at revitalizing the surrounding community, which has suffered from blighted conditions over the past 10 years.

According to Penn Capital founder Ed Rogan, the properties fit the company’s investment strategy to invest in Sun Belt markets from Texas to Florida where there is tremendous economic growth.

Penn Capital plans to invest $5 million to redevelop the former GuestHouse Suites at 4020 Independence Drive.

Penn Capital wanted to come into Huntsville, he said, because of the job growth around the new Toyota production plant, and the aerospace and military presence.

“We look for projects in good areas or even areas that have had some distress issues like these three properties,” Rogan said. “A lot of people would have passed on this project because it isn’t visually appealing, but we have a vision where our work revitalizes the community and surrounding neighborhood and improves the standard or living and quality of life for people.”

Just two miles east of the MidCity Huntsville project, the former North Ridge Apartments complex has been renamed Madison Grove. It consists of 105 buildings and 390 apartments, all two-story townhouses.

“The buildings are in good condition, well built in the mid-1960s,” Rogan said. “They have solid foundations and great structures, but it had become known for a lot of crime.

“We came in and secured the premises by putting up a fence and security cameras to keep out trespassers, put in new lighting to light up the grounds, and the police department hired off-duty police officers to patrol the property. Then we began work improving and upgrading the exterior façade and doing some landscaping to give it curb appeal.”

Madison Grove includes 105 buildings and 390 apartments, all two-story townhouses. (Rendering provided by Penn Capital)

Rogan said they are working with Huntsville’s Blue Star Crime Free Multi-Housing Program to help residents, owners and the managers of rental properties to keep drugs and other illegal activity off their property.

“We are also renovating the interiors with all new appliances and the amenities required to take it from what was a D-class property with a lot of crime, deferred maintenance, and poor living conditions, to a safe and attractive Class-A property for middle class families,” he said.

Rogan said the property did not come without some challenges, however.

“Because of the age of the property, the structures are not up to today’s building codes and even the electrical infrastructure needs to be rewired,” he said.

But, they are working with the city to upgrade it.

“We have the same interests in that revitalization will increase the tax base tenfold, increase the quality of people living there, and create a safer living space,” Rogan said.

The former Continental Apartments will be renovated into The Ave. (Image provided by Penn Capital)

Penn Capital is doing the same with the Continental Apartments, which they have renamed The Ave. It is a two-story, 88-unit apartment community consisting of 66 studios and 22 two-bedroom/two-bath apartments.

“The Continental and hotel are vacant, so we have been able to move quickly to replace all the roofs and windows,” Rogan said. “We are doing a complete redevelopment with new exterior facades and landscaped grounds. It will have high quality, Class-A finishes that will attract higher-end tenants.”

He said the Continental is a unique building from the mid-1960s which was built to house visiting generals and high-ranking military officers who were visiting Redstone Arsenal.

He said they are well built with a good strong infrastructure, structural concrete and steel girders in the ceilings that can be used to increase ceiling height and create trendy styles like exposed-beam ceilings. It will become a smart property, fully outfitted with WiFi and a great opportunity for housing students and families.

Penn Capital plans to invest $5 million to redevelop the aging hotel at 4020 Independence Drive. The original extended-stay already has kitchens that will lend themselves well to studio apartments – a good fit for college students.

“The hotel has a 5,000 square-foot lobby on the first floor that we are renovating and putting in an exercise center, leasing office and clubhouse with a new swimming pool, outdoor kitchen and dog park,” Rogan said. “On the second floor, they are putting in a new shared workspace so people living in the surrounding complexes can come there and use the business center.”

Rogan said the work is expected to be completed on all three properties in about 10 to 12 months and a ribbon-cutting for all three is planned in about 18 months.

Huntsville-Madison County Chamber Announces Best Places to Work Contenders

And the nominees are …

The Huntsville-Madison County Chamber has announced the contenders for the 2020 Best Places to Work Award.

The award recognizes businesses that create an excellent workplace culture through employee engagement, strong leadership and excellent communication.

The winners will be announced at the annual awards luncheon April 15 in the Von Braun Center North Hall.

The categories and contenders are:

MICRO: 10-24 employees
Aleta Technologies, Inc.; Applied Technologies Group, Inc.; Boecore, Inc.; Corporate Office Properties Trust; Cortina Solutions, LLC; Croy Engineering; Flint River Dental; H2L Solutions, Inc.; Mb Solutions; Mission Multiplier Consulting; New Beginnings Family Law, P.C.; On-Line Applications Research Corp.; Phased n Research, Inc.; Practical Energetics Research, LLC; Redstone Government Consulting, Inc.; Resolution, LLC; River Tree Insurance Services, Inc.; Roto-Rooter; Seabrook Solutions, LLC; Still Serving Veterans; Stratagem Solutions, Inc.; TVA Huntsville Customer Service Center; Women4Women OBGYN.

SMALL: 25-50 employees
Arcarithm, Inc.; Crossflow Technologies, Inc.; Davidson Homes, LLC; EOS Defense Systems USA, Inc.; Good Samaritan Hospice of Madison; Huntsville-Madison County Senior Center; Invariant Corp.; JHNA; KBM Enterprises, Inc.; KODA Technologies, Inc.; MartinFederal Consulting, LLC; Matt Curtis Real Estate, Inc.; Mission Driven Research; MTA, Inc.; Nesin Therapy Services, P.C.; Noetic Strategies, Inc.; PPT Solutions, Inc.; Reliant Technologies, Inc.; Sentar Inc.; Signalink, Inc.; Verity Integrated Systems, Inc.

MEDIUM: 51-100 employees
Brockwell Technologies, Inc.; Canvas, Inc.; Cepeda Systems and Software Analysis, Inc.; Conditioned Air Solutions; deciBel Research, Inc.; Geocent; Hill Technical Solutions, Inc.; Ignite, Inc.; LINE-X, LLC; MDW Associates; Monte Sano Research Corp.; QTEC Aerospace; Thompson Gray, Inc.; Trideum Corp.; TriVector Services, Inc.; Troy 7, Inc.; Willbrook Solutions, Inc.

LARGE: 101-250 employees
AEgis Technologies Group; Avion Solutions; Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc.; HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology; IERUS Technologies; Intrepid; IronMountain Solutions, Inc.; Leonardo DRS; Manufacturing Technical Solutions, Inc.; MITRE Corp.; nLogic, LLC; nou Systems, Inc.; S3, Inc.; SEA Wire and Cable; Simulation Technologies, Inc.;
Technology Service Corp.; Trident Technologies; Turner Construction; Woody Anderson Ford.

X-LARGE: 251-plus employees
Five Stones Research Corp.; Integration Innovation, Inc. (i3); Intuitive Research and Technology Corp.; Modern Technology Solutions, Inc. (MTSI); PeopleTec, Inc.; The Orthopaedic Center; Torch Technologies; Yulista Holding, LLC.

Sitdown with Success: Louis Breland: An Old-School Developer Leading New-school Developments

This month’s installment of the Huntsville Business Journal’s series “Sitdown with Success” features developer Louis Breland. “Sitdown with Success” spotlights local entrepreneurs who describe their successes and failures.

Tell us about your very first touch with Town Madison and how you got involved.

We had developed a lot of property on Madison Boulevard that we still own, and we used to have offices out there.

Louis Breland (Photo/Steve Babin)

I was looking out the back window one day at a gorgeous tract of land I had my eyes on for a while. I knew Intergraph founder Jim Meadlock owned it and he didn’t need to sell it. But this day there was a tractor clearing trees! I’m thinking, “Holy smokes! I should have been calling on this property!’’

I knew Mr. Meadlock was a really nice man and I had his phone number, so I called him up and said, “Mr. Meadlock, did you sell that property because I see a tractor over there?”

He said, “No Louis, it’s just some farmers clearing trees for me. Do you want to buy it?”

I said absolutely, and negotiations started there.

It looks like such a huge and complex development. Did you know that going in?

Town Madison is actually a relatively simple development. Except for having to put in interstate ramps and things like that are complicated and takes a long time, but Breland has always done fairly large residential communities. My first Huntsville development, Autumn Ridge, is probably 800 homes.

I’ve watched cattle farms turn into major cities, so I recognized that Town Madison is in an incredible location – 2½ miles of interstate frontage and a gateway to the city. It had everything you could want in terms of a location. Town Madison started out as just a great piece of real estate at a great price.

Jim Meadlock and Intergraph owned most of the property and the rest was smaller parcels owned by four or five individuals, so we had to arsemble all of it.

You mentioned Autumn Ridge as your first Huntsville development. You came to Huntsville from Mobile?

I started a homebuilding company in Mobile in 1976 and we were building throughout Mobile, Gulf Shores and Baldwin County on the eastern shore.

A friend invited me to come to Huntsville around 1982 or 1983, to see all the activity. President Reagan had poured money into the Huntsville and Madison County market to support the military buildup for Star Wars.

The market was just exploding! The market is really good now; it was better then. There was very limited competition and there was room to put in subdivisions and build houses. And buyers were lined up.

Within the week, I decided to move here, and we closed our Gulf Coast operation. By comparison, the coast was a very tough market: in Baldwin County, you could barely sell a house.

From the day we started in Huntsville it was on fire – successful from day one. You had a tough market nationally but here there was a shortage of housing and lots of land available for development.

To get started in the development and home building business, do you just start buying land?

Correct. Within just a few months we bought a 400-acre tract of land on South Parkway (Autumn Ridge) and a big tract of land at Zierdt Road where the Edgewater community is now.

You have been involved in this part of town for a long time.

Wayne Bonner of Bonner Development developed Edgewater, but I was one of the first to buy land from him to build houses. Lady Anne Lake was just a bunch of trees back then.

Mountainbrook was one of the first developments at Edgewater. I bought 100 lots that became Mountainbrook and Heritage Woods.

What has it been like being in the homebuilding and commercial development business and still come out on top, with all the volatility over the years?

Louis Breland with Toyota Field in the background. (Photo/Steve Babin)

You have to remember, back then, interest rates and energy were not predictable. Oil goes from $50 a barrel to $150 a barrel; inflation starts in, the Feds raise interest rates and you go from 8 percent to 10 percent to 12 percent, 14 percent and then back to 10 percent. There’s nothing in the real estate business – nothing – predictable. It is always changing. But the difference between then and now, I believe, is that 100 percent of energy came from the Middle East and we had no real energy policy in place.

It was just crazy what fluctuations in energy and interest rates would do. It was always a roller coaster.

And interest rates are like oxygen for a homebuilder and interest rate volatility is very hard on us. It cuts off your oxygen and the higher the rates go – it starts choking you and you have no control over it – period.

But despite this, we thrived here in the Huntsville market. We probably had 30 to 35 percent of the homebuilding market here – 30 to 35 percent of all homes sold were Breland Homes. We were by far the largest builder here.

Has the business changed much?

Extremely different.

Back then there was no one to buy lots from. We bought 100 acres, built the lots, developed all of the infrastructure like roads and utilities; built the homes, sold homes, and we financed them. So we were very integrated – from raw dirt to turning on your stove for the first time at move in.

Now, if you just want to be a homebuilder and not get into development, you can just go buy lots from someone.

How did you survive the financial and real estate collapse back in 2006 through 2008?

I’m old school.

That housing boom was not real world. In the world I grew up in, you had to have real credibility. You had to have real equity and real money which meant you had to put 30 sometimes as much as 50 percent in cash down to get a deal to make a development happen.

I did not participate in that because I could never understand how somebody who couldn’t qualify to borrow $100,000 could borrow $100 million.

We saw some of it coming.

We owned one of the largest privately held self-storage companies in Alabama, Mississippi and South Florida.

In 2006, we sold it for almost $100 million, so we were very liquid. When it collapsed, we had a lot of inventory, but we were liquid, so we bought over 100 communities in great land locations out of bankruptcy at giveaway prices. And we did not go back into the market.

I told everybody here, “This is either the most incredible buying opportunity in real estate, or the largest sucker hole we’ll ever go through – but we’re going to go for it!”

Construction on Schedule for North Huntsville Library and Berachah Park

The site is shaping up on Sparkman Drive for the new North Huntsville Library and Berachah Park.

Contractors are on schedule for a fall completion of the joint $10.8 million project – a partnership between the City of Huntsville and the Huntsville/Madison County Public Library.

“The city is proud to make this investment in North Huntsville,” said Mayor Tommy Battle. “Residents need and deserve high-quality places to learn, collaborate, connect and play.

“This project accomplishes these goals with a beautiful new library and park that will serve the community for decades to come.”

The complex is being built at the site of the outdated Bessie K. Russell Library branch, which occupies just 1,700 square feet, at 3011 Sparkman Drive.

The new 19,000-square-foot facility is designed to meet the information-seeking needs of residents with state-of-the-art technology, a café, children’s reading areas, interactive literacy center and a makerspace for entrepreneurs.

“Libraries connect people to resources that build community,” said Kim Lewis, North Huntsville Library Capital Campaign Chairperson. “The new library will serve as a community hub, with two meeting rooms, multiple study areas and an after-school program space for children.

“It will also feature some of the latest technologies such as a workforce development lab, a Makerspace with 3D printers, and an automated sorting machine.”

“We are so excited to show the North Huntsville community what their library can do,” said Laurel Best, Executive Director of the Huntsville/Madison County Public Library. “We will be able to expand the great service of Bessie K. Russell and offer more people an opportunity to use our computer and Internet services, participate in children’s programming and learn STEM-related activities and equipment in the Makerspace.”

For City Council President and District 1 representative Devyn Keith, the new library and park is personal.

“As a kid, I remember coming into the Bessie Russell trailer to do my Accelerated Reader points,” said Keith. “It amazing to have to have a chance to be part of this expansion and investment by the city and generous donors so that children will have a place that inspires and opens doors of opportunity.”

The library will be next to a new city park which will feature walking trails, pickleball courts, multipurpose fields, a pavilion and children’s play areas.

The project architect is Fuqua & Partners and the general contractor is Lee Builders. They expect to complete work on the site in October.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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