Baseball complex, 2 more hotels coming to Town Madison

MADISON — Mayor Paul Finley made some major announcements and shared some astounding economic data Friday night at his annual State of the City Address.

Two new hotel chains, the Avid Hotel and Hilton Garden Inn, will join Home2 Suites and Margaritaville at Town Madison. Why the need for more lodging?

Because among his big announcements is the development of Pro Player Park, a 12-field baseball complex on the west side of Town Madison that is projected to generate 35,000 room nights a year!

Finley said Madison is strong and getting stronger thanks to efforts in public safety, in education, in healthcare, and in job growth.

While Finley acknowledges that the area relies heavily on the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce to drive economic growth at the highest level, Madison, which shares both Madison and Limestone counties, is a big piece of the Tennessee Valley puzzle.

“Based on statistics compiled by UAH, in the past three years, we have created 30,000 jobs in those two counties alone!” Finley said to thunderous applause from the audience at the Davidson Center at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. “That is a $2.6 billion economic expansion in Madison County and $6.6 billion in Limestone County, and that does not include Redstone Arsenal, which provides just under 10 percent of the state of Alabama’s gross domestic product”.

While the city itself is operating more efficiently, doing more with less expense to the taxpayer, Finley said that out of the $46 million for the Trash Pandas’ baseball stadium and $20 million for capital improvements for roads and infrastructure, the city currently has a surplus of $10 million in the bank “just in case”.

He also touted the success of Madison Hospital, which saw 55,000 visits to the emergency room last year and is on track to deliver an average of 200 babies per month in 2019. The Madison hospital has grown from 60 to 90 beds in just a couple of years.

He also called out Madison City Schools who ranked as the second-best district in the state in test scores – up from third last year.

“Every school in Madison received an ‘A’ on their report card,” said Finley. “There are only six out of 137 districts in the state who can say that, and ours is the largest to do it.”

He said the district has grown by 538 students since last year and, to put that into perspective, it equates to Madison itself becoming a 5A high school if the growth continues. They have also added two school resource officers to enhance safety and security in the schools, and the City Council budgeted more than $500,000 from the general fund to support both academics and school safety.

“Now comes the hard part,” said Finley. “We are the dog who caught the car. Now what are we going to do?”

He looks to the Launch 2035 initiative established by Huntsville’s Committee of 100 known as the Regional Collaboration of North Alabama “to ensure the successes we have had, continue for the next 10 and 15 years.”

“As leaders in this community, we have to come together to take the successes we have had, and make sure we support them with the things that are required: education, workforce development, and infrastructure.” 

History and Future Merge with Blue Origin Engine Plant in the Rocket City

Looking back on history with an eye to the future, elected officials joined the CEOs of Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance in a ground-breaking ceremony Friday for a $200 million rocket engine manufacturing facility in Huntsville.

“We’re here to celebrate history with a vision to the future,” said Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield at the event. Canfield was joined on the speakers’ platform by Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin; Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance; Gov. Kay Ivey; U.S. Sen. Doug Jones; U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks; Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle and Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong.

The plant, when its doors open in 2020, is a milestone achievement in helping the United States return to space by building America’s next rocket engine.

“It’s a great day here in the Rocket City,” said Smith. “Thanks to the votes of confidence from United Launch Alliance, from the Air Force for national security missions, and from Huntsville and the state of Alabama, we are breaking ground on a facility to produce our world-class engines and power the next generation of spaceflight.”

Blue Origin was selected by ULA last September of last year to supply its next generation Blue Engine 4, or BE-4, for the first stage of ULA’s Vulcan Centaur Rocket

“It is a true marvel of engineering,” Smith said. “We will be able to end our dependence on Russian engines,” Smith said.

Calling it a “day of destiny,” Brooks said Blue Origin and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was inspired to build rockets when he saw the movie “October Sky” in 1999. The movie was based on the book “Rocket Boys” by Huntsville resident Homer Hickam. “Blue Origin is coming to the home of the man who inspired him.”

Smith also linked Huntsville’s history of building the giant engines that took Americans to the moon to building the BE-4 engines.

“We’re in final negotiations with the Marshall Space Flight Center to test the BE-4 on Test Stand 4670, the historic site of engine tests for the Saturn V and the space shuttle,” he said.

A pair of BE-4 engines will lift the new Vulcan rockets, which are made at ULA’s plant in Decatur.

“Our rockets are going to take Americans on American soil into space,” said Bruno. “And it’s about damn time!”

Blue Origin has a launch services agreement partnership with the Air Force to use its commercial, heavy-lift New Glenn launch vehicle for national security space missions. New Glenn will be powered by seven BE-4 engines.

“This gives us a chance to design, make and test a rocket engine,” said Battle. “We will produce the greatest rocket engine in the world right here in Huntsville.”

Blue Origin’s engine production facility is the latest addition to Cummings Research Park, which is the second largest research park in the United States and fourth largest in the world.

“We are thrilled to officially welcome Blue Origin to Cummings Research Park,” said Erin Koshut, the park’s executive director. “As we like to say, the research and development happening here is driven by science and powered by people.”

The plant, which is expected to employ 300 people, is on a 46-acre site at the corner of Explorer Boulevard and Pegasus Drive.

Citing this area’s importance in U.S. space history, Strong said it’s no coincidence Blue Origin chose Huntsville.

“We have got the right people in the right place at the right time,” he said. “Welcome to the ‘Propulsion Capital of the World.’”

No Wall Divides Huntsville as Neighbor Helps Neighbor During Shutdown

She’s recently divorced and lives in a 1-bedroom apartment.

Her ex-husband has custody of their children – though she sees them every weekend.

Due to our recent political climate, the dad – a government contractor – has been furloughed with a mortgage payment and kids to feed.

Mom reached out to her neighbors and friends via Facebook asking if they had “any extras in their pantry” to help make sure the kids are fed while her ex works – at a temp job – to keep a roof over their heads. And he feels lucky to have the job.

The friends and neighbors have answered with bags and boxes of canned goods, toiletries and other items to help during this stressful time.

This, unfortunately, is happening in all parts of Huntsville and Madison County and affecting all walks of life – supervisors, engineers, production workers, administrative personnel and custodial workers.

If you notice, I didn’t say “federal workers.” These folks work for companies that contract with federal agencies. They are furloughed because there is no money to pay them due to the shutdown. But, unlike federal workers, the contractors don’t receive back pay.

So, not only are some of our families, friends and neighbors in need of some help now, they will be until the shutdown ends and the money starts flowing.

In the meantime, help is coming from other directions.

Several banks and credit unions are offering furlough loans at 0 percent or a low percentage rate and some temp services have short-term employment opportunities.

Huntsville Utilities is asking customers who may have difficulty paying their bills due to the shutdown to give them a call, and they’ll work with customers and explain their options.

In a gesture reflecting its mission, Oakwood University’s farm is giving away fresh fruit, vegetables and grain this Saturday (Jan. 19) 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. to federal furloughed workers. It is first come, first served.

The website of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber has a news article on the agencies and businesses that are stepping up at www.hsvchamber.org.

If you are a business owner or know of someone who has services to offer, drop us a line here so we can let everyone know.

Let’s step up Huntsville and not let a wall separate us from our compassion for others.

Senate Confirms Wardynski for Army Post

WASHINGTON — Former Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Casey Wardynski was confirmed to a top Army post by the U.S. Senate on the final day of the 115th Congress.

Wardynski was confirmed to be assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs. His nomination had been approved in September by the Senate Armed Services Committee but a final vote by the full Senate was postponed. They were approved by voice vote on Jan. 2 as part of a group of 77 nominees receiving a confirmation vote.

Wardynski, a retired Army officer with 30 years of service, spent about half his military career as an expert in economic and manpower analysis before being named to head the Huntsville school system. His daughter Jennifer and son Chris are serving in the Army.

Wardynski told the Senate he expects the top issue he’ll face is “manning the total force with high quality people.”

“Recruiting and retaining the very best our nation has to offer is critical to the Army’s efforts to meet its increased end strength goals and promote readiness,” he wrote in his answers to committee questions. “Striking an appropriate balance in the military, civilian, and contractor workforce within a fiscally competitive environment will be critical to effectively meeting mission requirements around the globe.”

Turner Construction Renovating TMDE Lab

Turner Construction recently began renovating the Army’s TMDE Activity’s Primary Standards Lab at Redstone Arsenal. The 76,000 square-foot facility is used for primary-level calibration and repair of Test, Measurement and Diagnostic Equipment (TMDE) that the Army uses for its vehicles, weapons and equipment.

“As the agency responsible for ensuring the accuracy of the Army and its military systems, this renovation is crucial for us,” said George Condoyiannis, chief of construction for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District. “The renovation includes updating laboratory spaces to keep up with state-of-the-art, high-tech army equipment that have significant calibration needs.”

The $27,223,895 renovation takes place while the building remains occupied. Completion is slated for January 2021.

“This project is an extension of an incredibly valued partnership between the U.S. Army Corps and Turner, and we are proud to play a part in the incredible work they do for our community and our country,” said Turner’s Southeast Federal Account Manager Tyce Hudson.

Cecil Ashburn Drive project to begin Jan. 7

 

The City of Huntsville is set to begin critical roadwork in early January to improve safety and increase capacity on Cecil Ashburn Drive, one of the city’s most heavily trafficked corridors.

Listed as a priority improvement project in Huntsville’s “Restore Our Roads” agreement with the Alabama Department of Transportation, contractors will widen Cecil Ashburn Drive from two to four lanes over an 18-month period.

To expedite construction and shorten the project’s timeline, Cecil Ashburn Drive will close Jan. 7, and the contractor will be incentivized to reopen two lanes of traffic within 10 months. Remaining work is expected to be complete six to eight months later with all lanes open by May 2020.

To keep the project on track or ahead of schedule, the contractor may earn up to $2 million in performance bonuses. Conversely, the builder will be financially penalized up to $2 million for schedule delays. This is the same model the City and State used to fast-track overpass construction on South Memorial Parkway, another Restore Our Roads project.

“We changed the scope of the project to save time and money and to minimize the impact on our residents and businesses,” said Mayor Tommy Battle. “This schedule provides the least disruption and gets motorists safely back on the road before the 2019 holiday season.”

The base bid on the revised project came in at just under $18 million, nearly $7 million less than a previous round of bidding last May. At that time, the city was working on a construction plan to keep one lane of traffic partially open during peak weekday hours. The plan proved to be a costly, 32-month ordeal that posed additional safety concerns. City engineers went back to the drawing board and believe the new schedule best addresses the needs and concerns of the community.

“We’re saving taxpayers millions of dollars and cutting two years of public pain in the construction process,” said Shane Davis, director of Economic and Urban Development.

To further minimize disruptions for commuters impacted by the road closure, City departments have been working closely with community organizations and businesses to address needs and concerns related to increased traffic and speeders on alternate routes, ride-sharing options, moving wrecks, accident alerts, and public safety.

“It will take everyone a few weeks to adjust to new routes and schedules, and we’ve found many businesses are pwilling to offer flex time to help their employees through the transition,” said Dennis Madsen, long-range planner. “We’ve had a lot of inquiries about carpools and ride-sharing programs, and the road closure presents an opportunity to explore these options and create some new healthy habits.”

Huntsville to Launch Mobile and Credit Card Downtown Parking Payments

The city has plans to make it easier to pay for parking in downtown Huntsville. (USNews.com)

Huntsville’s high-tech expertise takes a leap into downtown parking.

The city is adopting new technologies to make it easier for patrons to pay for parking with a smartphone and credit card. Early next year, about 400 parking spaces, including those with coin-operated meters, will be updated for easy pay by smartphone and credit card options.

This will enable users to:

  • Monitor their parking sessions
  • Extend time remotely
  • View payment history
  • Receive email receipts

“We want to make it easier for customers to pay for parking and to extend their time without the hassle of returning to a meter,” said Tommy Brown, director of Parking and Public Transit. “You can be in a meeting that is running late and add more time to your parking meter using your cell phone.”

While a coin/bill pay option will still be available when paying to park downtown, Mayor Tommy Battle said the new meter system will make it more convenient for residents and guests to enjoy Huntsville’s downtown.

“People expect to have the ease of mobile apps and credit card options when they purchase a good or service, and parking meters are no exception,” he said. “This is just one more step in the City’s effort to modernize our business practices and make us user friendly.”

Parking and Public Transit plans to begin installing the new meters around Big Spring Park and Lot H, which adjoins The Avenue.

IOS, Android and mobile web apps allow motorists to park at traditional meters without needing coins. Parkers establish a minimum $5 wallet on the app with their credit card and pay for parking from that wallet. They will enter their license plate when they park and enforcement will use the license plate to determine who has paid to park.

Drivers will receive reminder notifications, email receipts and remote session extensions that allow them to extend their parking without going back to the meter.

A single multispace meter will service parking spaces so there are fewer meters to maintain. Drivers will enter their license plate when they park and enforcement will use the license plate to determine who has paid to park. The meters allow for more flexible forms of payment such as coins, bills and credit cards.

Drivers will be able to receive parking expiry reminders and to extend time via mobile phone using the integrated Extend-by-Phone service. PassportParking is free to download through the App Store or Google Play. Users can also manage their parking at ppprk.com. The app is also available in many cities nationwide.

Downtown Huntsville honored by international group

Downtown Huntsville was awarded a Certificate of Merit Award for the Spragins Street Greenway and Cycle Track Connector.

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Downtown Huntsville Inc. was awarded a Certificate of Merit Award for the Spragins Street Greenway and Cycle Track Connector by the International Downtown Association.

The project was awarded a Certificate of Merit in the category of Planning during the IDA’s 64th annual conference and trade show.

This category features planning efforts that have established a strategic position for downtown, and that include elements of the plan that have already been approved, ratified, and implemented.

“The Spragins Connector creates an important bicycle link between two popular downtown parks – Big Spring Park East and Depot Park.  By making this connection, over 3 miles of pedestrian and bike infrastructure are linked,” said Chad Emerson, president/CEO of Downtown Huntsville Inc. “We’re grateful that our partners at the city of Huntsville implemented this key first step of the Downtown Master Plan Update.”

Washington, D.C.-based IDA is the premier organization for urban place professionals who are shaping and activating dynamic city center districts. Downtown Huntsville, Inc is the urban place management organization representing the interests of property owners in Huntsville. 

“Downtown Huntsville’s project received the IDA Certificate of Merit for successfully employing best practice in urban place management,” said David Downey, IDA president/CEO. “The Spragins Greenway and Track Connector is a shining example of downtown management delivering real value to the city.”

Mayor: ‘No better time to live in Huntsville’

 

Calling it a “day of celebration,” Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle reeled off a list of successes the city accomplished over the last few years.

“What started 10 years ago began as a vision,” he said. “Then a plan.”

“You are the reason we are stronger then ever,” he told the audience of some 1,200 people at Tuesday’s annual State of the City Address in the Von Braun Center North Hall. It was the largest crowd at a Huntsville Chamber event.

The mayor cited the city’s population growth, which is twice the national rate; and some 25,000 jobs created since 2010 – “We lead the state in job creation.”

Not to mention, the domestic GDP is up 15 percent, fueled by major economic development. Included in the development are major companies moving here: Mazda-Toyota; Google; Facebook; General Electric; Blue Origin, among others.

“There’s no better time to live in Huntsville, Alabama,” Battle said.

Huntsville has had a Triple-A bond rating for 10 straight years; 91 percent of the children attend Huntsville City Schools; Cummings Research Park – “a shining example of public-private partnership”- has a 91 percent occupancy rate; Redstone Arsenal is continuing to grow as it adds more agencies and provides some $50 billion in spending.

“We’re not just growing as an economy,” Battle said. “We’re growing opportunity.”

And the city is not resting on the laurels of those successes.

Tapped to be the largest city in the state within the next decade, Huntsville needs to stay at the economic forefront to “stay relevant to the future,” Battle said.

“The next five to 10 years are taken care of,” he said. “Our job is to take care of the next 15, 20, 30 years.

“We are making sure we’re not the community left behind.”

The mayor said the city’s task is to find the new, emerging markets.

“Pushing the edge is what Huntsville does … we’ve always been the innovators and creators.”

And he closed on an optimistic note that was greeted with a standing ovation:

“Huntsville’s future as the ‘Star of Alabama’ is brighter than ever.”

 

FBI to expand presence on Redstone Arsenal

Pictured is the FBI’s Hazardous Devices School on Redstone Arsenal

 

Huntsville’s moniker as “the Federal City of the South” was further bolstered Thursday with the announcement of a planned FBI expansion.

The FBI, which has about 300 personnel stationed at Redstone Arsenal, will add another 1,350 employees, according to the agency’s senior executive at Redstone, Robert Hamilton. The personnel will come from the Washington area.

Hamilton made the announcement at the annual Redstone Update, hosted by the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber.

“The FBI is extremely excited to announce today that we are moving forward with our first large-scale operations support building,” Hamilton said. “We expect that to be ready for occupancy in early 2021. This will move approximately 1,350 personnel and contractors from the national capital region.”
Hamilton said the personnel will include special agents and intelligence analysts.
“This is not a relocation of resources but rather a transformation of mission sets to one extremely powerful campus,” Hamilton said.