City and School System Consider North Huntsville Site for Central Office

Mayor Tommy Battle and City Schools Superintendent Christie Finley announced Thursday they are working on a potential relocation site for the school system’s administrative offices. The leaders reviewed plans at their respective City Council and School Board meetings Thursday night.

Battle said the city has agreed to commit up to $3.5 million toward the purchase of a 14-acre site for a mixed-use redevelopment project at the northwest corner of Max Luther Drive and North Memorial Parkway. A school system central office would be part of the project.

The property is a strip mall that includes a Dollar General and formerly was a Builder’s Square.

At Thursday’s City Council meeting, Director of Urban and Economic Development Shane Davis presented several design concepts. Those concepts include a mix of uses, such as office, medical, retail, hotel and multi-family residential in the redevelopment of the property. He said the agreement requires the city to clear and prep the site and contribute $1 million toward construction costs of the new central office.

“We’ve been working in partnership with Huntsville City Schools for many years to provide the best possible education for our students, and that includes accommodations for a more centrally located school headquarters,” Battle said. “There’s still a lot to work out on this potential site, but we’re excited about the possibilities of providing a dedicated building for education in this highly visible area.”

The area near Max Luther and the Parkway is part of an urban redevelopment corridor where the city recently constructed Lantana Park and Madison County built its office complex.

“The redevelopment of the Memorial Parkway corridor continues to be one of the city’s top priorities,” Davis said. “We have seen good return with our public-private investments within the corridor and this project will add to the success. Working together brings success to everyone involved, especially our community.”

District 1 Councilman Devyn Keith said he’s excited to hear future announcements about potential projects connected to the development.

“My community welcomes this with big open arms,” he said. “This is a tremendous step, if done correctly, for the City of Huntsville.

Construction Begins on 8,000-Seat Huntsville Amphitheater

Construction has begun on the long awaited state-of-the-art, 8,000-seat Huntsville Amphitheater at MidCity and the new West Huntsville Park. It also marks a 15-month countdown to an April 2022 opening.

The city’s amphitheater will soon rise from this red clay in Huntsville’s MidCity District. (Photo/Steve Babin)

The City of Huntsville and Venue Group, founded by Ben Lovett of the Grammy Award-winning rock band Mumford & Sons, made the announcement.

The project brings to life Huntsville’s long-time vision for an iconic major music venue that will serve the community and bring top music talent to the region. It is also a major contributor in the city’s Music Initiative to build a music and cultural-based economy throughout the region.

Huntsville Venue Group, a joint venture partnership led by Ryan Murphy, former CEO of the St. Augustine (Fla.) Amphitheater, will be operating the venue on behalf of the city. He will be assisted by leadership from the global Venue Group team including Lovett and his brother Greg, Graham Brown, and Jesse Mann, in partnership with industry veterans Mike Luba, Don Sullivan, Jeff Kicklighter and Al Santos.

According to Dennis Madsen, the city’s manager of Urban & Long Range Planning, who also oversees the Music Initiative, Lovett’s involvement is extraordinary because artists have a lot to say about the venues in which they perform.

“Artists themselves like to play in some venues because of the atmosphere and environment,” said Madsen. “I believe Ben Lovett’s motivation in starting Venue Group was driven by wanting to create more of those types of venues.”

Mayor Tommy Battle said the city has wanted to build more than an amphitheater. They want a facility that will help grow Huntsville’s music and culture economy.

“It will allow us to become a community of curators, where we can develop our own creative content that is unique to Huntsville that we can share globally,” said Battle. “In addition to arts festivals, markets, and world-famous musicians, we’ll be able to incubate our own talent, showing that our next great entrepreneurs don’t all have to be in space and missile defense.”

Murphy believes the main reason Venue Group won the contract for the Huntsville Amphitheater was because they had a shared vision of a year-round operation and of making it a community asset.

“When I saw Huntsville doing this Music Initiative, I was so impressed. They are putting the road map together. They understand the economics of it and the importance of it,” he said. “I have to say they stepped up to understand that music is not just a quality-of-life issue that adds to the culture and arts in a city.

“Huntsville understands music is an economic driver and that it creates jobs.”

He said having worked in local government for 15 years, it is often hard for local government to understand the benefits of a music and culture economy because there is not a lot of long-term vision.

“We are creating something that is not just your run-of-the-mill amphitheater stage and lawn,” Murphy said. “The uniqueness of the architecture and the uniqueness of how it will be operated makes it much more of a community asset.”

Part of that uniqueness will be the Amphitheater’s integration into the new West Huntsville Park. The city will be preserving much of the natural trees and wooded areas and will be creating nature and hiking trails throughout the surrounding area.

There has been some early criticism that so elaborate a venue may well bring in 20 major concerts a year, but what about the remaining 345 days a year?

“That would be the biggest waste of taxpayer dollars, even if 20 big names a year was an economic driver, brought more quality of life to the residents, and provided jobs,” said Murphy. “What we’re going to create is a community asset. The Huntsville Amphitheater will be an extension of the new West Huntsville Park so that on any given day there may be multiple stages set up with multiple areas of engagement, much of it free.”

From a gospel Sunday brunch with barbecue and great gospel groups, to local Saturday afternoon music showcases, Murphy said the aim is to create a venue the community will get behind because they know on any given day year-round, they will find something really cool going on there.

“It will attract major concerts that have never been seen in North Alabama, but it will also be scaled appropriately with plenty of flexible space and will be affordable for nonprofits and local events to lease space to fit any occasion from farmer’s markets and graduation ceremonies to small arts festivals,” he said.

Another unique aspect of the Huntsville Amphitheater is the result of Lovett’s vision to build a new era of world class music venues combined with significant community growth and amenities. Among those amenities is food – good food.

Huntsville Venue Group is in talks with regional chefs and local food vendors to bring to life its prized food village that will operate year-round. The village will provide food and beverage options to patrons of the Amphitheatre and also serve as an additional amenity and social space for MidCity.

“One of the biggest trends in the past 10 years has been an elevation of the quality and variety of food offerings, especially around music,” said Lovett. “We believe there is a huge amount of opportunity in the hospitality side of entertainment to deliver food and drinks of such excellence that they stand on their own two feet as an offering not simply as a way to ‘tide you over,’ quench the thirst, or satiate the hunger temporarily.

“We have to aspire for higher standards than that. One of the reasons that Huntsville is so appealing to me and the team is it feels like going the extra mile is in the DNA of this city and we intend to go the extra mile when it comes to not just the concert experience, but the restaurants and bars that lay adjacent and that will serve customers year-round.”

Murphy also said Huntsville Venue Group is going to be involved in the entire community.

“Whether they are festivals downtown or smaller venues in town struggling to get back on their feet after COVID, we are going to help them, too,” he said. “The Huntsville Amphitheater will not open in isolation. We are watching the recommendation coming from the Initiative’s music audit, and we are going to help every step of the way.”

 

Huntsville Music Initiative: A Duet in Economy and Song

In 2019, the city of Huntsville played a duet in economy and song.

The Huntsville Music Initiative was launched, accompanied by a citywide music audit to celebrate the music industry’s significant impact on the city, with the understanding that impact could be significantly more.

One of the initial recommendations coming from the music audit was the need for a board of professionals and people in the local music industry, to help guide the city in implementing a strategy.

A jam session at Mad Malts Brewing is typical of Huntsville’s diverse music scene.

In January 2020, the Huntsville Music Board (huntsvillemusic.org) was established. Its members are chairman Brett Tannehill of WLRH radio; Celese Sanders, founder and executive director of Encore Opera Huntsville; local singer and songwriter Chuck Rutenberg as vicechair; Codie Gopher, founder of the Huntsville Hip Hop Tech Conference; Cricket Hoffman, founding member of Hip Hop Live and CodeName Underground; alternative pop artist Deqn Sue; Judy Allison, CEO/director of Purple19; Mario Maitland, founder of Huntsville’s Maitland Conservatory; and Mark Torstenson, co-owner and manager of The Fret Shop.

According to Dennis Madsen, the city’s manager of Urban & Long-Range Planning who also oversees the Music Initiative, Huntsville has always been creative in its approach to economic development.

Redstone Arsenal is No. 1 when it comes to Huntsville’s economic driver, but there are other means the rest of the city can support it by diversifying. Similar to the diversity of businesses in Cummings Research Park and the burgeoning automotive manufacturing industry in Limestone County, Madsen said there is a huge driving music industry opportunity in Huntsville that if nurtured, could really grow.

“A growing music industry will do great things for our quality of life and create a whole other job and economic sector in Huntsville,” said Madsen. “That was the big motivation behind doing the music audit and creating the Board.”

Madsen uses the city’s Industrial Development Board as an example.

“When we talk about recruiting industry, that board is filled with folks who really understand industrial development and they partner with the City to help drive industrial development,” he said.

“For years, Huntsville has people immersed in the music industry or related industries like communications and public relations and they are the people who can help guide Huntsville in making policies and in supporting development to grow the music industry here.”

One might think COVID stopped the concerto right in the middle of the third movement, but instead, the board took its meetings virtual the rest of 2020 and the list of accomplishments built a base to work on in 2021.

First, a Spotify playlist was established which shared local music from a variety of genres; and they also shared their own playlists as a great way to get more exposure for their own work.

The Board created a charter and a webpage and developed a resource guide for artists negatively impacted by COVID-19, currently on the City’s website, to share ways in which they can reach out and get help.

They also formed committees on things like marketing; education, looking at strategies for engaging in schools with low-cost instrument rentals; and they formed an events committee to create a calendar, that hasn’t been implemented yet, but will be a one-stop-shop and central clearinghouse for people wanting to know about local and regional music events.

Music Board member Mario Maitland, founder of the Maitland Conservatory in Huntsville, is on the education committee. He started his music school to offer students ages 2 to 76, a modern application of music and the arts.

“We focus on the careers that can be created from the arts. A lot of time, the arts get stuck in this box of, ‘It’s cute to take piano lessons or violin lessons’ and maybe one day you can play in church,” he said. “But we don’t really talk about, nor do we really expose people to, how to take traditional arts school training and apply it to modern careers in music production, film scoring, deejaying, video editing, even vlogging and podcasting.”

As a Music Board member, he said the ultimate goal is to get people thinking about music as a sustainable economic engine. And, once it gets going, music creates jobs and residual income in businesses connected to it.

“Everyone loves entertainment, everyone loves music, and they want to go out and enjoy it, but they are not really used to paying for it,” said Maitland. “We’re trying to promote this culture of paying for your music so that we can really push the whole idea of a music economy.

“We don’t want these individual music venues to exist as silos. We want them interwoven. That is how we help to cultivate the music scene. But then we want to take it a step further: How can we interconnect all of those things to really create a cohesive music economy?”

The board also met to establish a music policy handbook.

Among the most important policies is initial research into noise ordinances and how they impact artists planning musical events. It lays out a plan for how the board can work with the city to clarify those ordinances, and make it easier for artists, venues, businesses and residents to comply to those policies.

“Noise ordinances and policies are important because you will be faced with conflicts between venues and nearby businesses and residences,” said Madsen. “The Music Board will set a policy to mediate these things that says essentially, whoever was there first has the right to do what they were doing. Whoever comes in afterwards, has to take that into account and is responsible for attenuating the noise.”

Madsen said the city has been talking about an amphitheater in Huntsville for a long time. The idea of the MidCity Amphitheater dovetailed with the opening of the VBC Mars Music Hall.

“The Mars Music Hall has been incredibly well received not just by audiences but by artists who say it is a great place to play,” said Madsen. “We recognize the need for something along the lines of an 8,000-seat outdoor venue that can attract a certain level of artists who are on the national circuit.

“What came out of the music audit was an affirmation of that. This market is big enough for something like that, but it is also big enough for meeting a broader variety of event venues.”

The Music Initiative also seeks to partner with the unique independent music culture and history of places such as Florence and Muscle Shoals, and to share artists from there and Huntsville to encourage a cross-cultural exchange.

“But we are even looking beyond that,” said Madsen. “We are adjacent to what is known as the Americana Music Triangle that incorporates the major music cities in the Southeast. We will never be Nashville, but how can Huntsville become part of that broad music culture exchange so young and aspiring artists can cut their teeth in the regional music ecosystem and go on to hit the bigger stages.”

Another issue to come out of the audit was the need for more public events.

Impossible last year due to COVID, there are now discussions about restarting Big Spring Jam or, once we are on the backside of COVID, to create a signature Huntsville Music and Arts Festival.

Board member Codie Gopher has several ideas about this.

By day, Gopher designs attack helicopters on Redstone Arsenal, but his true love is music, and he is fully committed to developing and supporting local talent.

He founded the Huntsville Hip Hop Tech Conference more than five years ago, bringing in music leaders from around the globe, and has consistently focused on subjects such as hip hop tech production development, teaching music technology in Huntsville/Madison County schools, the global influence of hip hop, and the future of STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics).

“Codie G. is a very influential member of the hip hop community here and he has been promoting the idea of 256 Day,” said Madsen. “256 is the local area code, but the 256th day of the year falls in mid-September, the happy zone for outdoor public events.

“It is the beginning of the private music industry starting to shape a new fall music festival, or maybe other festivals on a variety of scales, over the course of a year.”

Madsen points out that Huntsville already has a diversity of music ranging from the chamber music festival Twickenham Fest to the Hip Hop Tech Conference to the Huntsville Orchestra to the city’s robust blues, country and rock music scene.

With the city’s amphitheater coming to MidCity and an amphitheater planned for Home Place Park in Madison, as well as venues such as Toyota Field, Big Spring Park, the Mark C. Smith Concert Hall and others, the Huntsville Music Initiative seems to be hitting the high notes when it comes to musical and economic harmony.

Inspector General Reviews Relocation of Space Command to Redstone Arsenal

From The Associated Press

DENVER — The Department of Defense’s inspector general announced Friday that it was reviewing the Trump administration’s last-minute decision to relocate U.S. Space Command from Colorado to Alabama.

The decision on Jan. 13, one week before Trump left office, blindsided Colorado officials and raised questions of political retaliation. Trump had hinted at a Colorado Springs rally in 2020 that the command would stay at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

But the man with whom Trump held that rally, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, lost his reelection bid in November, and Colorado, unlike Alabama, voted decisively against Trump. The Air Force’s last-minute relocation of command headquarters to Huntsville — home of the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal — blindsided Colorado officials of both parties, who have urged the Biden administration to reconsider the decision.

On Friday, the inspector general’s office announced it was investigating whether the relocation complied with Air Force and Pentagon policy and was based on proper evaluations of competing locations.

Colorado officials of both parties were thrilled.

“It is imperative that we thoroughly review what I believe will prove to be a fundamentally flawed process that focused on bean-counting rather than American space dominance,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Republican whose district includes Space Command.

The state’s two Democratic U.S. senators, Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, also hailed the probe.

“Moving Space Command will disrupt the mission while risking our national security and economic vitality,” the senators said in a joint statement. “Politics have no role to play in our national security. We fully support the investigation.”

Among other duties, the Space Command enables satellite-based navigation and troop communication and provides warning of missile launches. Also based at Peterson are the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, and the U.S. Northern Command.

The Space Command differs from the U.S. Space Force, launched in December 2019 as the first new military service since the Air Force was created in 1947. The Space Command is not an individual military service but a central command for military-wide space operations. It operated at Peterson from 1985 until it was dissolved in 2002, and it was revived in 2019.

The Air Force accepted bids from locations for the command when it was revived and was considering six finalists, including Huntsville, when Trump hinted it’d stay in Colorado Springs.

SBA and Lenders Take More Steps to Improve Paycheck Protection Program

The U.S. Small Business Administration and lenders are taking more strides to improve the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) so that small businesses can access much needed PPP funds to persevere through the pandemic, recover, and build back better.

The White House is working with the SBA to increase equitable access to underserved small businesses, to assure the integrity of the program, and to promote rapid and efficient distribution of funds, according to a news release from the SBA.

Last week, the release said, the SBA hit a major milestone of approving $104 billion of PPP funds to more than 1.3 million small businesses. Highlights from this round include:

  • Reaching more of the smallest businesses; 82 percent of all loans going to businesses requesting less than $100,000
  • Reaching rural communities in a meaningful way; 28 percent of businesses who have received funding this round are in rural communities
  • Increasing partnerships with Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and Minority Depository Institutions (MDIs) who are trusted agents in extending economic relief to minority communities and underserved populations

The SBA said it is also following through on its commitment to take additional steps towards improving the speed to resolve data mismatches and eligibility concerns so that small businesses have as much time as possible to access much needed PPP funds, while maintaining the integrity of the program. Three important changes will:

  1. Enable lenders to directly certify eligibility of borrowers for First Draw and Second Draw PPP loan applications with validation errors to ensure businesses who need funds and are eligible receive them as quickly as possible
  2. Allow lenders to upload supporting documentation of borrowers with validation errors during the forgiveness process
  3. Create additional communication channels with lenders to assure we are constantly improving equity, speed, and integrity of the program, including an immediate national lender call to brief them on the Platform’s added capabilities

“We are pleased that the Paycheck Protection Program is targeting the smallest of small businesses and providing economic relief at a crucial time in American history,” said SBA Senior Advisor to the Administrator Michael Roth. “The SBA has achieved another major milestone to provide critical recovery capital to America’s small businesses by approving 1.3 million PPP loans totaling $104 billion in the current round.

“While we are excited that we are doing a better job of reaching the hardest hit industries and communities, we are committed to taking additional steps to ensure that there is equitable access for underserved businesses and that we are leading with empathy to support small businesses in a difficult spot.”

The Sweet Sounds of Progress: The Singing River Trail Is On Its Way!

There has been nothing but beautiful music coming from the Singing River Trail project since Dr. John Kvach took over as its first executive director in July.

Unveiled last year by the Land Use Committee of Huntsville’s Launch 2035, the Singing River Trail is the committee’s most ambitious legacy project. It connects the North Alabama region to its rich history and preserving its pristine environment – originally consisting of 70 miles of walking, biking, and hiking trails and greenways.

However, the trail is kicking off 2021 with several significant accomplishments.

Kvach was on hand to announce the opening of four miles of the Hays Farm Greenway that includes an early intersection with the vast Singing River Trail network. The ribbon-cutting highlighted the partnership the trail has with south Huntsville, the city of Huntsville, Hays Farm, and South Huntsville Main Business Association, and stirred the interest of other potential corporate partners.

The Singing River Trail at Hays Farm merges the local greenway into the larger SRT footprint.

“The Singing River Trail is open for business along 2 1/2 miles of Haysland Road just south of the new Grissom High School,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest news to come out in 2021 is the new and much expanded trail map.

Originally planned as a 70-mile, three-county project, it has grown into a 150-mile, eight-county project under Kvach’s leadership, connecting North Alabama from Bridgeport/Scottsboro to Sheffield, bringing it within 16 miles of the Natchez Trace.

The Singing River Trail map shows it extending from near South Pittsburg, Tenn., to The Shoals. (Map courtesy The Singing River Trail)

Kvach has met with state legislators, mayors and city officials to increase awareness and possible funding sources. And he is working on a feasibility study for a section of the trail that will run from Scottsboro to Guntersville to Huntsville.

“We are now partnering with the National Park Service as we focus on the Deas-Whiteleay Trail of Tears Overland Route as the western expansion route,” he said. “And we can now call Athens State University a partner after it proactively reached out to to make sure the trail will be part of their campus.”

The National Park Service and Muscle Shoals Heritage Area are also in talks as the trail grows.

The trail has received funding from the state of Alabama, and the Community Foundation awarded a Compass Society grant for $11,000 for a new and more engaging website design promoting their “Get Outside Alabama” campaign. Kvach has also been working on a corporate-giving strategy and development packet that will allow the trail to pursue public and private money.

“We are currently working toward funding two design projects at the Huntsville International Airport, a trail route feasibility study in Athens, website work in collaboration in Decatur/Morgan County Tourism, and funding for a master plan from Bridgeport/Scottsboro to Huntsville and from Decatur to Sheffield/Florence,” Kvach said.

“Because the trail is a nonprofit tasked with raising its own operating expenses and funding, we will begin working with the state Legislature to pass a resolution of support on behalf of the Singing River Trail in 2021, and to find a line on the state budget for recreational, educational, and cultural/historical programing and to help with economic development along the trail.

Kvach said despite COVID-19 numbers rising in North Alabama going into the first of the year, he has seen an increase in interest about the trail.

“Outdoor recreation, hospitality, and engagement are becoming more commonly accepted and desired,” he said. “The trail has been working with two new partners in Huntsville who will rely on the trail as a source of alternative transportation, and as a way to highlight safe and fun outdoor activities and engagement.

“Taking a negative and making it a positive is working well with community partners.”

County Line Road: Proof That If You Build A Road Correctly, They Will Come

MADISON — Nowhere in Madison is the growth more prominent than along the western corridor of the city at County Line Road.

“County Line Road was the first road in which Madison was able to get ahead of the growth,” said Mayor Paul Finley. “Everything else, we have just been playing catch-up or retrofitting in a way that changes traffic problems. The process eases in economic development to meet the challenges of rapid growth. Again – managing the growth.”

Going back to 2011, Finley said they knew County Line was where the growth was happening. He worked with Huntsville, Madison County and then-Gov. Robert Bentley to receive its first ATRIP-II award to get County Line Road funding.

ATRIP-II is an Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program-II award provides grants to rehabilitate and improve transportation infrastructure projects.

That award covered the rehabilitation of five-laning County Line Road all the way from the south, near the airport entrance, to north through Madison.

“When we put the walking path on it and completed it in 2014, look at the growth,” said Finley. “And it has happened organically with restaurants, retail like Daisy Lane Gifts, and business support like Devaney Brothers Farms.

“Now you are starting to see some doctors’ offices and assisted-living facilities like the new Madison Crossings at James Clemons High School, because it was set up for success.

“Compare that to other developments off Hughes Road, Wall Triana, and even off of Zierdt Road where they built a road, but they didn’t leave any room for expansion.

“County Line Road shows that if you build a road correctly, they will come, and they have, and they will continue to do so. It’s amazing.”

Assisted care facilities, such as Madison Crossings, are part of the growth along County Line Road.

He said County Line does represent growth in unincorporated Limestone County, but he credits the foresight to the days when retired Col. John Hamilton was the garrison commander on Redstone Arsenal between 2010 and 2013.

“County Line Road really came from was an understanding about what we were missing from traffic coming from the west and northwest to Redstone Arsenal and from Cummings Research Park,” said Finley. “Hamilton did his homework and said, ‘this is where all our traffic fits.’ One of the missing components was a north to south route on the western perimeter of Madison, so we used that data to go to the state when they were doing ATRIP-II, and said, this is supporting Redstone Arsenal, but it’s also getting ahead of the game on County Line.”

With support from Huntsville, the city got the money.

“That is how it came about – listening and supporting Redstone Arsenal while also looking at where our primary growth was going to happen, and that was going to happen along County Line and west of County Line,” said Finley. “It had a lot of support from Huntsville and it was the first project (Huntsville) Mayor (Tommy) Battle and I landed, along with Old Madison Pike and Zierdt Road, as far back as 2009.

“That is how long it has taken to get to that point.”

County Line Road was finished around 2015 when I-565 was completed, and Finley said when they got the ATRIP-II funding, it started at County Line and went through to I-565, but it left a problem between it and Wall Triana that needs to be fixed.

“When we do that, it’s going to include looking at the airport intersection to see how we might make that better,” Finley said. “They are looking at all alternatives to find a solution to an eventual bottleneck at the airport.”

Dirt is moving all up and down County Line Road today.

In addition to sprawling new subdivisions, you will find new businesses of all types rising the area’s famous red dirt.

Across from the Waterford subdivision between the new O’Reilly Auto Parts and Dunkin’ Donuts, a 10,000 square-foot medical office building is being developed by AAA Holdings.

The Animal Health Care Center north of Palmer Park near the Somerset at Madison is expanding, and two dental offices are planned.

North of Madison at the Range, an Alabama Credit Union is under construction at the corner of New Bristol Lane. And, north of that, a 17,000 square-foot multi-tenant commercial building has been approved for construction and a self-storage business will soon open.

Indeed – Madison built it and now they are coming.

Number of COVID Cases in the Area is Down ‘Drastically’; Vaccine Supply is Limited

Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers opened the recent weekly COVID-19 update with positive news.

Before the briefing ended at the Huntsville City Council chambers, however, there were also some negatives regarding the availability of virus vaccines.

First, the good stuff. According to Spillers, there are 263 COVID-19 inpatients in hospitals across the region, down from more than 500 in early January. 

Huntsville Hospital facilities have 147 COVID-19 patients with 34 in ICU and 22 on ventilators. Crestwood Medical Center has 33 inpatients with seven in ICU and four on ventilators.

“The number of patients in our hospitals has fallen drastically over the last couple of weeks,’’ Spillers said.

Also, Spillers said his hospitals have 110 staff members out compared to 350 at the virus’ peak.

There’s more positive news. In Madison County, the percentage of people testing positive is also down from 38 percent last month to currently 15 percent.

While the vaccine rollout has contributed to the decrease in numbers of affected people there’s a bigger underlying reason.

“Primarily we’re moving past the holidays when people got together and there was a lot of community exposure,’’ Spillers said. “This is a highly infectious disease and when people get together we see a blip in the numbers and that leads to an increase of more people in the hospital.’’

Huntsville Hospital is also restarting elective surgeries, but not at full capacity.

“But hopefully,’’ Spillers said, “if the COVID patients continue to go down, we’ll get back to full capacity.’’

Meanwhile, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle continued to stress following safety measures that include wearing a mask. He added that receiving a vaccine when it becomes available is a priority.

“We need to make sure everybody takes the vaccine,’’ he said. “If you, as a community, take the vaccine, we’ll be able to look at this in the rearview mirror.’’

Getting the vaccine is not going to be easy for some in the coming weeks. The Madison County Health Department, for instance, only has enough supplies for second doses for those who’ve already received the first.

It could be the second week of March before first doses are available through that department.

“My recommendation is to continue to watch the (online) portal for additional appointments and certainly social media, the news media, you know those kinds of places for those kinds of additional drive-thru or clinics that may have additional doses,” Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency Director Jeff Birdwell said.

But Huntsville Hospital is getting 1,000 vaccine doses per day from the Alabama Department of Public Health and plans to begin providing 1,500-2,000 shots daily by appointment at John Hunt Park.

At other sites, though, the vaccine shortage comes as the state prepares to expand the list of eligibility to people 65 or older starting Monday.

Residents who have received their first shot will get the second dose. Spillers said he thinks there will be an uptick in vaccine production and more products on the market, making fall a possible target to have the virus under control.

But he also said the virus mutations that have shown up in the United Kingdom and South Africa have shown to be even more contagious than the current strain.

“We’ll probably have to have some kind of a booster shot at some point depending on how these things continue to mutate,’’ Spillers said. “That’s to be determined.’’

Holmes Avenue Intersections to be Temporary All-Way Stop

Motorists traveling on Holmes Avenue in downtown Huntsville over the next few weeks should be ready for all-way stops at two intersections.

Friday at 1 p.m., weather permitting, City Traffic Engineering crews will install new traffic signals at the intersections of Holmes Avenue and Lincoln Street and Holmes and Greene Street.

The existing traffic signals will flash concurrently with stop signs for a few days before they are removed. The new traffic signals should be complete within six weeks, the city said. During this time, the intersections will be all-way stops.

For information on roadwork projects and alerts, visit HuntsvilleAL.gov/RoadworkUpdates.

State of Madison County is ‘Strong … on Solid and Steady Ground’

Despite a crippling pandemic, Madison County was able to sustain growth and success in 2020, Madison County Commission Chairman Dale W. Strong said in the annual State of the County Address.

Strong spoke Wednesday to members of the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce in celebrating the accomplishments of 2020 and looking forward to 2021.

The chairman cited more than $100 million in capital investment by businesses along with 700 new jobs last year. Strong also said the county is eagerly awaiting the opening of the soon-to-be completed Madison County Service Center on North Memorial Parkway.

The most recent piece of good news was the announcement by the Air Force in selecting Redstone Arsenal as the new home of the U.S. Space Command.

“I’m proud to report to you, our Chamber members and business leaders, Madison County is strong, vibrant, on solid and steady ground, and we are ready to meet the challenges of 2021,” Strong said.

He also spoke to the collaboration and teamwork throughout 2020 among elected officials, business leaders, and medical personnel in the unified response to COVID-19 in Madison County.

“I know we’ve got another great year in store, where together we’ll build on our accomplishments of growing our economy, strengthening our infrastructure, welcoming new industry along with high-paying jobs to a highly skilled workforce, and expanding the rich quality of life we share right here in Madison County,” he said.