City Leaders Discuss Smart Growth Strategy For Huntsville

A city leadership panel of Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, Huntsville City Administrator John Hamilton, Director of Urban and Economic Development Shane Davis and City Engineer Kathy Martin took an in-depth look into the vigorous activity and relentless growth Battle discussed in his State of the City Address.

Huntsville’s smart growth strategy seems to underlie every aspect of the city’s regional approach to economic growth. Infrastructure, high quality of life, good jobs, and its strategic placement at all points of the city are significant components of that strategy.

Moderator Chip Cherry, president/CEO of the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce, asked Battle about the role regional cooperation plays in the success of the local economy, and in advocating for Redstone Arsenal.

“Teamwork, but not your typical community teamwork. Cross jurisdictional teamwork and collaboration,” Battle said. “None of us are an island. We work together.

“Mazda Toyota came about because Huntsville was working with Limestone County and the City of Athens on utilities, and that had us working with the state Department of Transportation and the state Department of Commerce.

“We have a lot of servant leaders in our communities who learned how to put aside egos and work together to make good things happen without worry about who is getting the credit or the fame for it.”

He cited the leadership of the Chamber of Commerce, Huntsville Utilities, Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center.

“We have great leadership across the board at upper levels, but that can’t sustain us,” Battle said. “You have to have leadership on the director’s level, and we have been developing leadership at that level for the past 15 years.

“Leadership is executing a plan.”

Infrastructure

“Restore Roads was a vision back in 2014 to help sustain the growth we knew was coming,” Martin said. “Three of those projects are complete. Cecil Ashburn is the latest, and the Land Trust just opened their parking lot there – and by the way, the sunsets off Cecil Ashburn are quite amazing.”

Kathy Martin: “Restore Roads was a vision back in 2014 to help sustain the growth we knew was coming.”

She said Research Park Boulevard, Mastin Lake Road, and the northern bypass are all under construction or starting construction. Greenbriar Parkway adds seven miles of infrastructure to connect to I-565; and the reconstruction of old Highway 20 adds another five miles to the Mazda Toyota corridor.

Good weather has permitted a lot of progress on Martin Road just outside the arsenal’s Gate 7. Martin said now that the traffic has shifted lanes, the progress will be more noticeable as the City wants it completed by next fall.

Haysland Road on the south end of town is on schedule to open the end of this year, with the Edinburgh connector starting next spring.

“The south connector, previously called the Southern Bypass project, has been around for quite a while,” said Martin. “Currently, it is called the Arsenal East Connector and has been revived to get a direct interstate connection down to the Patton Road gate as quickly as possible. There’s been some federal funding that’s allowed Huntsville to do a corridor study and get the first phase of that East Arsenal Connector in the beginning design process.”

She said the city is working closely with the federal government, the state, and Redstone Arsenal to come up with an alignment that works for everyone.

“Currently, our staff is managing approximately 70 roadway projects,” Martin said. “That is about 300 lane miles of improvements in our city, equating to about $800 million in federal, state, and local funding infrastructure to accommodate the growth we see.”

Quality of Life

“When we talk about infrastructure, we think roads, sidewalks, utility expansion, and resiliency,” Hamilton said. “Those things are all extremely important, but there are other pieces of public infrastructure necessary to be part of workforce development.

“Companies work hard to make their businesses places where people want to work. The City has to make Huntsville a place where people want to live.”

John Hunt Park is part of Huntsville’s Central Park, which is laid out as a complex of parks at Huntsville’s heart. Building a wide diversity of recreational and athletic opportunities around it is a large part of improving Huntsville’s quality of life.

Quality of life to city leaders is hosting college-level sand volleyball tournaments such as the Junior National Championships this year, in a complex built so that the college tournaments are using the same facilities as the youths.

Hamilton said the same thing is happening in soccer, lacrosse, and cross-country infrastructure where the former municipal golf course was converted into a cross-country course.

“Local high schools hosted a cross-country meet that attracted teams from all over the state,” said Hamilton. “Next year we’re hosting one of the NCAA regionals on the same course. It reflects our strategy of making sure we’re meeting and identifying the daily demands of our community and for all their family’s recreational pursuits, but doing it in a way that really can attract business into our community and bring sports tourism in.”

But Huntsville isn’t just investing in big venues. The city is making investments in every neighborhood as well.

John Hamilton: “We are investing in a way that’s high quality and meets the rolling demand.”

“The Sandra Moon Complex is a great example of what will be a little town center in southeast Huntsville providing arts, a library for academic pursuits and reading, but also athletic events right there on that same location, so it becomes a hub, almost a little village down there,” said Hamilton. “Same thing across the mountain at the Mark Russell Recreation Center north of the Johnson Legacy Center with rock climbing and fitness facilities and nature preserve.

“We disperse it geographically across the city and … really expand the diversity of those opportunities. We all love football, baseball, basketball, and continue investing in that; we also have a rapidly growing lacrosse community and running and biking communities.”

He said by introducing sports such as skateboarding into Huntsville, it helps attract people from different parts of the country.

“We are investing in a way that’s high quality and meets the rolling demand,” he said.

Other quality of life projects include the Benton H. Wilcoxon Municipal Ice Complex. Hamilton said many people who move to Huntsville from up north are surprised at how robust the hockey, figure skating and curling community is here, and has been for decades. As a result, the aging Ice Complex got an $11 million renovation that will be finished in the middle of November with higher quality ice, better seating, and more amenities.

Davis joined the conversation to discuss the many revitalization projects and new investments projects ranging from multihousing to commercial space and retail development.

“Joe Davis stadium was designed to be a baseball stadium and, in its current configuration, that is all it can be, but we have the ability to transform it into a venue for high school football, soccer, lacrosse, and basically any sport that uses a rectangular field,” said Davis. “We will leverage the value that park brings in in hotels, restaurants, and whatever makes sense from a commercial perspective.”

There will be additional infrastructure through the middle of Brahan Spring Park to connect it to Lowe Mill as an arts center, and on into the downtown area. That project starts in 2021.

The Johnson Legacy Center project is in its first phase as part of the quality of life infrastructure. Davis said when the public safety training facility relocates to the former Johnson High School site, there’s a great of potential for large green spaces that will allow for festivals and events.

“And we continue to see a lot of desire for investment in the downtown area, so parking infrastructure will ultimately help drive the expansion of the Von Braun Center. Those improvements will provide more arts and entertainment to the area.”

There is always more to come, so they work in phases he said but for the next couple of years, they are focused on making sure Huntsville’s new corporate citizens are successful.

“We want to make sure our existing companies are expanding and staying focused on reinvestment in downtown, Research Park, workforce development, and making sure our communities are prepared for the opportunities we see coming.”

Strategic Placement

“Our ability to execute the plan is what we’re seeing today … being very deliberate in the placement of jobs, and it’s not just chasing the western corridor, putting companies in the right locations for them to be successful, but also brings leverage into our communities,” said Davis.

Shane Davis: “We sat down and came up with a vision, a plan; but your plan is only as good as its execution.”

“I think you have to go back 10 to 12 years ago during what people call the Great Recession or a decade in the rearview mirror,” Davis said. “You’re trying to meet budget and provide community services. We sat down and came up with a vision, a plan; but your plan is only as good as its execution.

What we see throughout Huntsville, he said, is the placement of those jobs and major investments in areas where neighborhoods can come back and revitalize. Existing neighborhoods and commercial corridors usher in new neighborhoods, creating a new commercial lane that is not in any one part or section of the community but abroad. No part of the city is left out of the growth strategy.

“We looked at about 67 non-industrial projects that are active in the middle of COVID-19,” said Davis. “Huntsville is not only punching above their weight class as a secondary tier metro competing with major metros across the USA, but that is no longer the challenge. Huntsville has become a totally different market, and that’s good not only for the bottom line to provide more services and quality of life attributes to our communities, but to be able to pay for them, is good for our community, our citizens and our businesses.”

He said bringing more people into a community is the best way to help small business. “It is the placement of industrial growth at Research Park and in and around the Arsenal, but also placing it in the northeast and southeast part of town, and you can see the impact caused by it in the community,” Davis said.

The Secret to Huntsville’s Success

Cherry said Huntsville is the most optimistic community he has ever been around and that no one should be surprised leadership has executed the plan so well.

“This is a community that not that long ago said, ‘Sure, we can put a man on the moon and bring him home alive, no problem,” said Cherry. “It took a whole lot of local teamwork to do it, but when you’re in a place that is now saying, “No problem. We will go to Mars and we will make sure they stay alive and come back alive”. That’s a community that doesn’t see obstacles. It’s a community that wins every competition it enters, and I think that just permeates who we are as a community and drives that success.”

Mayor Tommy Battle: “I think we can look at every section of the city, every part of town and it is growing right now.”

Battle said while people talk about Huntsville being number one, number one isn’t important  – being the best, is.

“Many years ago we were updating our strategy, talking about where the voids were and whether things had to be able to realize our full potential, because Toyota at the time was advertising for 200 jobs and they had 10,000 people apply,” he said. “It showed us we had an under-employment issue.

“This led community leadership to focus on diversification and picking up more advanced manufacturing jobs. It was really kind of pulling people up from the bottom and a lot of people were questioning it, but we designed a mechanism to make sure investment is protected. Every one of the projects we’ve done, we look very closely at return on investment, at how much we’re going to invest, what the returns will be, how many jobs we are getting, and what is it going to do to our economy? What is the capital expenditure going to be coming back into it?”

Redstone Gateway is an example.

“We were going to invest a certain amount into infrastructure, but we wanted to make sure we would get paid back. So, we worked in a unique fashion, different than anybody had ever done before,” said Battle. “The company actually borrowed the money to come in, and they were paid back by the buildings they built and the property tax as it came back to them.

“As a city, we did not have exposure. There was no risk as long as they built the building. We felt very comfortable that the value of that building would continue to make money and continue to bring in property taxes that could pay off that infrastructure.”

He said the city always expects Huntsville to get a return on the investment with every project and that the citizens and people engaged in the community should know the appointment of resources is very strategic, designed to yield secondary impacts throughout the market like parking decks that allow for denser developments.

“I think we can look at every section of the city, every part of town and it is growing right now,” said Battle. “In Hampton Cove we’ve got a new community center and the Sandra Moon Complex and Hays Farm project are going to be magnificent developments,” said Battle.

“And don’t forget out to the west and all the property surrounding the Mazda Toyota plant and Polaris. It is going to have growth factors, as well as Research Park and the Arsenal. Research Park still has over 300 acres of undeveloped land and it is growing very fast.

“We still have about 2.5 million to 3 million square feet of land to be developed at Redstone Gateway, and on the Arsenal, the growth we are seeing out of the FBI and from internal or organic growth coming out of all the other agencies, makes it a great time to be in Huntsville.”

Can we get an “Amen?”

 

City Council Approves Funding for Amphitheater

Huntsville’s ascent into the global music circuit took another step forward with City Council approval to proceed with plans to build a new 8,000-plus seat amphitheater.

Council voted 3-1​ Thursday to authorize the city’s Public Building Authority to move into the construction phase to build a classic Roman-style forum within a municipal park near the MidCity development.

The amphitheater project has been under development for the past several years, garnering public interest and support through the Mayor’s Music Initiative and citywide music audit in 2018. The amphitheater is being designed with amenities to support top talent and to showcase community events such as farmer’s markets, a food hall, craft fairs, educational events and the like. By locating the venue in a new City park, the forum will be accessible to the public year-round.

“This facility will help us grow our music and culture economy,” said Mayor Tommy Battle. “It will allow us to become a community of curators, where we can develop our own creative content, unique to Huntsville, that we can share globally.

“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.”

To manage the amphitheater and develop its programming, the city retained the Huntsville Venue Group, a global entertainment and hospitality partner with operations in London, Austin and New York.  The organization is led by Ben Lovett of the British band Mumford & Sons, in partnership with industry veterans Mike Luba, Don Sullivan, Jeff Kicklighter and Al Santos.

“It is, by far, one of the greatest milestones in my professional career to be such an integral part of this amazing project for the City of Huntsville,” said Ryan Murphy, president of HVG. “By design and execution, the Huntsville Amphitheater is going to help write the future of Huntsville, not only in terms of music, arts and culture, but also in its ability to create such tremendous creative and communal space that is inclusive, diverse, progressive and inspiring … this is just the beginning.”

The amphitheater is expected to open in early 2022. The estimated $40 million construction budget will be funded through the city’s capital plan and a percentage of future lodging taxes.

“Huntsville’s Amphitheater will set the stage to spotlight our city, our culture, and our talent on a global level,” said City Council President Devyn Keith. “I have full confidence in the Huntsville Venue Group and their commitment to ensure the Huntsville community and spirit is integrated into the DNA of the facility. From community programming to opportunities for local artists, this is a space that will be created for all of Huntsville.

“Moving forward with construction is a clear signal of Huntsville’s strong economy as we ensure we’re laying the groundwork for workforce recruitment, quality of life and job opportunity for our citizens for years to come.”

MartinFederal Wins Contract from Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

MartinFederal Consulting has been awarded a one-year contract to support the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency.

Huntsville-based MartinFederal is a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business focused on providing solutions-based services to the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Justice, and other federal agencies,

The DPAA mission is to recover and identify Department of Defense personnel from past conflicts. As part of the first phase of this multi-phase project, the MartinFederal team will conduct a page-by-page inventory of the Korean War Reference Documents at DPAA Headquarters.

“As an SDVOSB, we understand the importance of the DPAA’s mission, and hope that our support in this project will aid in the accounting effort of the more than 7,600 servicemen who remain unaccounted for from the Korean War,” said Corey Martin, founder and CEO of MartinFederal. “We stand ready to lend our inventory and records management capabilities for this and future phases of this accounting effort.”

Mayor’s State of the City Filled with Optimism and Big Announcements

Kicking off his fourth term as mayor of Huntsville, Tommy Battle delivered a virtual State of the City Address filled with optimism about Huntsville’s indomitable economic resilience; praise for Huntsville’s heroic perseverance and teamwork in the face of an unprecedented pandemic; and an in-depth look at multiple building projects and expansion across the city. 

Battle also made two exciting announcements. 

The long-awaited arrival of Huntsville’s most-requested retailer, Trader Joe’s, is opening in the MidCity District; and Google Fiber will debut 2 gigabit Internet service in Huntsville, making us a double-gig city.

“If 2020 were a fish, I’d throw it back,” Battle said. “But Huntsville still shows strong growth in every section of the city. In fact, we have claimed the construction crane as the new unofficial Huntsville city bird, perpetually populating our skyline.”

He said Huntsville entered 2020 with promise after “crushing it” in 2019 with $1.8 billion in economic development and capital expenditures circulating through our economy; and 3,025 new jobs – new opportunities for people to improve their lives.

“We had $1.9 billion in industrial capital expenditures and $1 billion in commercial, residential, and multifamily; and that’s in addition to all the expenditures that have occurred in renovations and rehabilitation projects,” Battle said. “We were off to a great start as Navistar announced it would double employment through a $125 million expansion to widen its truck portfolio; Blue Origin opened its rocket engine plant in Cummings Research Park to assemble the BE3 and BE4 rocket.

“Then it came to a screeching halt when the novel coronavirus tested our resiliency.” 

But Huntsville was ready. 

They leaned on experience from dealing with the H1N1 virus in 2009 and mobilized a response team of healthcare experts, hospitals, Emergency Management, HEMSI, businesses, and government leadership. 

“Huntsville knows the power of teamwork and we know the power of speaking and acting with one voice,” Battle said. “We were not powerless. An educated community knows how to wear a mask. An educated community keeps a safe distance. And an educated community washes their hands, knowing there’s something much bigger at stake than our own personal comfort.”

 Through it all, City Hall and city municipal offices remained open for business. City leaders felt it was important to be there for the people they serve at a time when so much seemed to be out of order, City Hall could be the symbol of normalcy.

“Huntsville is defined by our perseverance, our resilience, and our remarkable ability to adapt and change,” Battle said. “We didn’t wait for the federal government for a handout. Our local businesses pitched in to help and this community came together in partnership to move us forward. 

“We were willing to show up for work and use new health and safety protocols to remain on task. We separated; we masked; and we sanitized. 

“Telework became the norm, and Zoom became our conference room, and that is how we have been able to keep businesses open, let children go to school, and enjoy some sense of normality until a vaccine or treatments are approved and available.”

While he said area hospitality, restaurant and entertainment industries took the hardest hits, he hailed health care workers and first responders who put their lives on the line to care for others. He cited Crestwood Medical Center and Huntsville Hospital for securing test kits, PPE, and medicine. He also reassured there is a COVID-19 response team already working on a plan to distribute a vaccine when it is available.

As the pandemic raged on, Huntsville faced down the summer of civil unrest by engaging groups in dialogue about how to be a more just and equitable city that ensures opportunity for everyone. 

They began restructuring the City’s Office of Multicultural Affairs into the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, expanding staff to represent the community’s need for law enforcement.

“I have the utmost confidence in our Chief Mark McMurray and the men and women of the Huntsville Police Department who served as officers on the front lines,” Battle said. “In the past 10 years, this Department with input from our community, has led the way in police reforms with a commitment to constitutional policing, escalation techniques, implicit bias training, and a commitment to a certified mental health crisis intervention team. 

“Huntsville law enforcement has instituted dashboard cameras in police vehicles and body cameras on officers. Our homeless taskforce built community partnerships, and we have increased diversity in its ranks.

“Furthermore, a partnership between Huntsville police and the FBI is funding a new state-of-the-art joint training facility with law enforcement across the region so they will receive the best training possible to keep themselves and the public safe.”

And when all was said and done, COVID-19 may have rocked the country and brought momentum to a screeching halt but, despite the hit, by the end of this year and still in the midst of a pandemic, Huntsville will have created 960 jobs and put $2.1 billion in new product on the ground in Huntsville.

“In September alone, the Inspections Department issued permits totaling $220 million,” Battle said. “In that $220 million was new commercial and residential construction setting a new benchmark, an all-time historic record month for the city of Huntsville in capital investment.”

Battle pointed to the projects that were already in progress and continued throughout the pandemic including the improvement and rebranding of Huntsville’s public transit system; the opening of Cecil Ashburn Drive and the movement into the final phase of widening Zierdt Road. They are continuing to widen Research Park Boulevard to six lanes; began construction on the northern bypass, as well as the final overpass on Memorial Parkway at Mastin Lake Road; and they will finish the Greenbrier Parkway in the Mazda Toyota area.

“To sustain this kind of growth, you have to have a plan in place and we do,” said Battle. “We’re investing in infrastructure to ensure our existing neighborhoods receive the same attention and the same upgrades as our newer developments.”

Battle talked about three greenway projects that will connect north central Huntsville to South Huntsville. Merrimack Park, John Hunt Park and the old Joe Davis stadium are undergoing improvements.

Huntsville opened a 58-acre nature preserve off Martin Road west, named in honor of the late Dallas W. Fanning, former director of Urban Development and architect of Huntsville’s western expansion. 

Projects such as the Johnson Legacy Center on the site of the old Johnson High School and an adjacent residential development; the Mark Russell Recreation Center on Taylor Road; and the Sandra Moon Community Complex are all in progress or nearing completion.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned in late October for the William Hooper Councill High School Memorial Park next to the downtown public library. It pays tribute to the legacy of Huntsville’s first public school for African American students and will incorporate another green space filled with public art.

More public art will appear at the new Lantana Park, a once blighted property on North Parkway that will soon house a walking trail and sculptures that will create a colorful gateway into North Huntsville. 

A new fire station for the westernmost part of the city and increased infrastructure services including repaved roads and parks are ongoing.

Downtown is seeing a major expansion at Huntsville Hospital, two new public parking decks, three new hotels, and two new multi-use complexes with apartments and commercial space.

“It is urban living at its best,” said Battle.

Just west of downtown, a $1.3 million choice neighborhood planning grant is funding a plan to revitalize and transform Butler Terrace and its surrounding area between Clinton Avenue and Governors Drive.

“Growth is really everywhere in the city from a 400,000 square foot warehouse at SouthPoint Business Park on I-65 to projects in Haysland Square, Governors Drive, Mastin Lake, where a 140,000 square-foot high tech distribution center is being built.

“And of course with so many new people moving into the Huntsville area from across the U.S., the addition of Trader Joe’s at MidCity is a big win for the region and we are honored to finally welcome them to our community,” Battle said.

Industrial investment keeps coming as Mazda Toyota announced another $200 million investment at the automotive plant, and Toyota’s engine plant is planning the county’s largest solar powered plant at its campus in North Huntsville. 

“The city is well positioned for 2021 and we’re moving forward with a balanced budget and another year of AAA credit ratings,” Battle said. “We will use this stellar rating to fund in 2021, our new City Hall, a world class amphitheater, a new fire station for Limestone County, and many other quality of life amenities on a global scale.

“There will still be some hardships into 2021, but we will move forward with our plans and dreams – even if some of it will be in an abbreviated way – but there’s no place I would rather be in a pandemic than right here in our great city.”

Huntsville Scores Dual Triple-A Credit Rating for 12th Straight Year

For the City of Huntsville, it is the same song, 12th verse.

And it is sweet music.

For the 12th time in 12 years, since Mayor Tommy Battle first assumed office, Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s Rating Services have awarded Huntsville Triple-A credit ratings.

Triple-A is the highest mark a city can achieve and is awarded to a minority of government entities in the nation. Further, just 1 percent of 19,502 cities and counties receive the top ratings from both services.

The credit rating agencies cited the strength of Huntsville’s economy, which is considered broad and diverse.

Strong city management with strong financial policies and practices and budget flexibility were noted as consistent qualities in the credit rating.

“Huntsville continues to show its strength in conservative fiscal management and a thriving economy,” said Battle. “I am grateful to my outstanding administration and to our elected council members for supporting a responsible, balanced budget and prudent investments that make Huntsville a great place to live and a great place for business.”

The rating services pointed to a robust economy mentioning several key developments in the city along with expansion of existing employers.  

“Despite the onset and continued impacts of the pandemic, the local economy remains stable,” they said.

The reports also considered the community’s above average wealth, below average unemployment, strong regional tax base and Huntsville’s position as an economic engine for northern Alabama.

City Finance Director Penny Smith said the recent rating was set for the city to refund/refinance more than $100 million in warrants, which will provide average savings of some $1.5 million in interest per year over the next 10-plus years.

Loan Forgiveness FAQs by SBA Answer Some Questions, but Others Remain

The Small Business Administration and the Department of Treasury recently issued a set of Frequently Asked Questions about Paycheck Protection Program loan forgiveness.

Below is a summary of the key information from the released FAQs:

  • The FAQs clarified that C-corporation owner-employee health and retirement benefits are eligible PPP expenses in addition to their $100,000 salary cap. Eligible owner-employee retirement is capped at 2.5 months of the 2019 amount.
  • The FAQs also clarified that S-corporation owner-employee retirement benefits are allowed; however, no health benefits are eligible in addition to the $100,000 salary cap.
  • Retirement and health benefits for non-owners are eligible if “paid or incurred.” There is no cap on retirement benefits for non-owners like there is for owners.
  • Retirement and health benefits cannot be prepaid unless they are “incurred” during the covered period.
  • Dental and vision insurance is included under health insurance and is an eligible payroll cost.
  • For self-employed borrowers, no owner-employee health or retirement benefits are allowed in addition to the $100,000 salary cap.

The FAQs clarified several questions for borrowers about PPP; however, there are still many questions to be answered. Below, we discuss some of the outstanding questions surrounding PPP and key considerations for those waiting to apply for loan forgiveness.

Will pending legislation be approved?

There is pending legislation that could change the loan forgiveness process. Two senators introduced the “Continuing Small Business Recovery and PPP Act” on July 27, 2020. The bill, which reportedly has bipartisan support, includes several key features; it would:

  • Allow a potential automatic forgiveness feature for loans of $150,000 or less, along with a simplified process for loans up to $2 million;
  • Allow borrowers to choose any covered period ending by Dec. 31, 2020 of at least eight weeks;
  • Allow borrowers to include new qualified expenses; and
  • Provide a second round of PPP loan draws for borrowers with a 50 percent or more decrease in revenues.

Are borrowers’ eligible expenses limited to their PPP loan proceeds?

Why is this important? If the loan forgiveness application does not limit the eligible expenses to the borrowers’ PPP loan proceeds, borrowers would be able to include additional eligible expenses on their loan forgiveness application, which could significantly reduce any “penalties” associated with the full-time employee equivalent (FTE) reduction limitation.

For example, a borrower receives a PPP loan of $1,000,000. The borrower incurs $2,000,000 of eligible PPP expenses during the covered period; however, the borrower has reduced FTE employees by 50 percent. Under this scenario, if the borrower can include $2,000,000 in eligible expenses, there would theoretically be no reduction in loan forgiveness. Alternatively, if the borrower’s eligible expenses are limited to the loan proceeds of $1,000,000, there could potentially be a reduction in loan forgiveness of $500,000. Additional guidance is needed from the SBA to address this issue.

Will a tax deduction be allowed for expenses paid with PPP funds that were forgiven?

The IRS initially issued notice 2020-32 that stated a tax deduction would not be allowed for the expenses paid with PPP loan proceeds that are forgiven. Congress has mentioned an intent to change this with legislation, but it has not happened to date.

If Congress doesn’t pass legislation to make these expenses deductible, borrowers are presented with a timing issue on their tax returns. What happens when a borrower applies for loan forgiveness before Dec. 31, 2020, but receives a decision approving loan forgiveness in 2021? Presumably, the expenses would be deductible on the borrower’s 2020 and would become nondeductible in 2021. Guidance is needed from the IRS on this timing issue and whether an amended 2020 income tax return would need to be filed.

What will the SBA audit process look like for PPP loans over $2,000,000?

This has easily been one of the biggest questions since the SBA issued FAQ 31 in April. We still don’t know what this review process will look like. The SBA is expected to release their audit policies and procedures for loans over $2,000,000. It would be advantageous for borrowers to have an understanding of the SBA’s audit process before they submit their loan forgiveness applications.

(From Warren Averett)

 

 

To Get a Loan or Not Get a Loan – That is the Question in the Age of COVID-19

If you talk to a commercial real estate developer, they will say there is plenty of money out there for the lending and, believe it or not, it is cheap money.

If you talk to a Realtor or homebuilder, they will tell you there is no better time to sell, buy or build a home because interest rates are low, and lenders are lending.

But, by all economic measures, the worldwide pandemic has had an enormously negative impact on the overall economy and employment numbers. It is not a secret that the very existence of thousands of restaurants, hair salons, fitness centers, hotels, airlines, personal services, and tourism businesses have been threatened.

And yet, since the effects of the pandemic began in March, dozens of restaurants have either opened or are moving forward with plans to open in Madison County including Outback at Town Madison, Culvers in Madison, Bark & Barrel Barbecue at Stovehouse, and Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint in downtown Huntsville.

The pandemic hasn’t stopped government contractors and manufacturing plants from expanding. Look at Redline Steel, Moog, Mazda Toyota and Booz Allen Hamilton.

So, what is the truth about banking, lending, and the financial fallout on businesses, small and large across the Tennessee Valley?

Is it, or is it not a good time to start or expand a business right now, especially if you need a bank loan to do so?

“Banks are always lending money for good projects – any kind of project where the owner or borrower has their own money in it and are taking some of the risk, and the bank is taking acceptable risk,” said David Nast, president and CEO of Progress Bank.

“If you have an owner who is a good operator, has been in the business for some time, and have their own money in the bank in support for their company so the bank is not loaning all the money and taking all the risk, then banks are willing to lend money.”

He said there are always certain economic cycles where certain industries are considered higher risk than others and restaurants are already high risk, even during normal times.

“Banks look, in general, at what is going on in the economy and, with the fallout from COVID-19, any new start-up with limited experience and limited equity in the project is going to be tougher to do right now,” Nast said. “On the other hand, a business owner who has been in business a while and has good money in a new project like building a larger company building to expand their business, employees and product/service offerings is always going to offer opportunities more interesting to a bank.”

But it isn’t necessarily just because a customer wants to open a restaurant that puts them under more scrutiny right now.

“Restaurants are clearly struggling, but if you are a big well-known chain that planned three years ago to open in Huntsville, most of those companies are continuing with those plans,” Nast said. “Those companies have the capital, the brand recognition, and the capability to open successfully.

“However, if you are a small Mom and Pop shop whose dream has always been to open a restaurant, I’m not sure this is the ideal time to do that.”

He said other businesses such as hair salons and health spas may find the same resistance from lending institutions because they have so many restrictions on them, including questions about whether clients will be willing to go patron those businesses.

“It doesn’t feel like the right time to put your life savings into a business like that right now,” Nast said.

Sean Kelly, Huntsville market executive for Regions Bank, said the capital is there but there is no one-size-fits-all approach to providing financing.

“Regardless of industry, whether a client is in the commercial office or retail space, the manufacturing space, or other industries, we believe the key to a successful banking relationship is to work collaboratively with clients on ways we can offer insights on cash flow, financial management and other needs to help them through whatever need they are facing,” he said. “At Regions, we take the time to get to know our clients. We talk about their business model, how they are adapting during the pandemic, and what needs and opportunities are ahead for them.

“From there, we work to develop financial solutions that meet their individual needs. We work with clients to determine where the opportunities are and how can we best meet individual needs and work to provide customized solutions where prudent.”

Penny Billings, BancorpSouth president for the Huntsville market, said their business lending practices have changed very little since the pandemic and she is optimistic about starting a new business.

“As always, our lending practices are relative to the type of business, the proposed collateral, and the guarantor strength,” she said. “This has not changed. We are fortunate to be in a community where the economy has continued to be strong and supportive of those businesses that have been adversely impacted.

“Starting a business at any time can be tough, but there are probably some opportunities depending on the type of business you’re interested in starting. With our current environment, it’s the perfect time for savvy entrepreneurs to think outside the box for solutions to fix trending problems they see or maybe even add digital elements to their existing business plans.”

Perhaps one of the points of confusion is that today’s pandemic crisis is too closely compared to the 2008 financial crisis.

“While similar in their disruption of the economy, the two situations are entirely different,” said Nast. “The mood is different. 2008 was an enormous financial crisis and at the time, the mood was terrible because we knew we were in for a protracted recession like we had never seen before, and there was no end in sight.

“Not to minimize the negative impact of today’s crisis on many small businesses, the 2008 crisis prepared us in many ways to be more proactive in helping clients get through it this time. We have been able to react quickly and put strong measures in place locally, and at the state and federal level, to prevent a total collapse like what we saw in 2008.

“When you are in the banking business, you are here to help people live their dreams and be successful, so you hate seeing any business fail, but banks have been much more accommodating than they were then.”

Kelly said Regions set aside a credit provision of $700 million in the second quarter of this year for loan loss reserves.

“We did this as a precaution amid the uncertainty the pandemic has caused. It is important to remember, though, that Regions and banks across the industry remain very well capitalized,” he said. “We have diversified our business, we have lessened risk in our loan book, and we have streamlined our operations and efficiencies, and we are operating from a position of strength.

“We are prepared to serve and support our clients and communities through the pandemic.”

Billings said Payroll Protection Program loans are an extremely important accommodation that eased the pain for a lot of commercial customers.

“BancorpSouth generated more than 15,000 PPP loans with total funding of more than $1.23 billion,” Billings said. “Everyone felt a great sense of pride as our company started funding these loans. Many of our customers said the PPP loans provided the necessary financial relief to help them meet their payroll, preserve jobs, and keep their doors open.

“Small businesses are the lifeblood of our communities; therefore, we’ve been doing everything we can to provide resources and financial relief to help them navigate these challenging times.

Nast agreed PPP helped a lot of businesses.

“At Progress Bank, we are now beginning the forgiveness phase and those loans are being forgiven, so they are not having to pay that money back. It was a nice stimulus that helped a lot of businesses stay open,” he said.

The initial days of the PPP program were challenging for Regions as well, Kelly said.

“Those initial days included a lot of long nights and weekends as we worked through a wave of applications from clients who had never been in need of Small Business Administration financial resources before,” he said. “We cross-trained a significant portion of our workforce from various departments to process applications for this type of financing. In the end, we were able to help 45,000 customers receive $5 billion in loans that saved or supported 600,000 jobs.”

On the residential front, Billings said the right time to buy a home is different for everyone and in every market.

“But the housing market is thriving due to record low mortgage rates and more people working from home during the pandemic,” she said. “A lot of customers are refinancing, buying new homes, or doing home improvements. New home construction is booming right now, and homebuilders are working hard to keep up with demand in our market.”

Furthermore, she said BankcorpSouth has seen an increase in consumer equity lines of credit as people renovate and update their existing homes.

“People have been spending more time at home and working at home to support the control of the virus, and as a result, sales for specific items such as computers, household appliances, and gardening supplies, have risen,” she said.

“Across the nation, commercial construction was impacted by the shelter-in-place orders implemented in the early months of the pandemic, causing many builders to halt their construction plans. However, the industry is forecasted to recover as the economy improves. In Huntsville, we haven’t seen a significant impact. As you can see in our community, large commercial projects are underway.”

Kelly provides some good local context on commercial real estate.

“It is true that commercial real estate, on a national level, is facing a challenge during the pandemic,” he said. “But here in Huntsville, our office-space market is in a good position, even during COVID-19. We’re seeing occupancy rates around 90 to 95 percent. Our business sector here includes a lot of government contractors that lease space in the area. Even with many people working remotely, the leasing activity remains strong. That’s an outlier from much of the rest of the country.

“Our nation was, and still is, facing a tremendous challenge. But the banking industry is well capitalized, and we can serve as part of the solution.”

No Trick: Census Bureau to Continue 2020 Census Until Oct. 31

The U.S. Census Bureau  plans to officially end the 2020 Census nationwide Oct. 31, according to a statement from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and Alabama Counts!

During the extension, the Census Bureau’s field workers, including door-to-door census takers, will continue their work to follow up with households that haven’t yet responded.

“The Census Bureau informed Alabama that it has made the decision to ultimately extend the census to October 31,” ADECA Director and Alabama Counts! Chairman Kenneth Boswell said. “This gives the state of Alabama an extended time to complete their census and make Alabama count.”

Anyone who has not participated in the 2020 Census can go online at www.my2020census.gov ; call 844-330-2020; return the mailed paper form; or by give household’s information to a socially distanced door-to-door Census taker. Any information given in the 2020 Census is protected by strict federal law.

State leaders are hoping to see the overall participation rate among Alabama households continue to rise with the extended time.

“This extra time will make a difference as Alabama households have more time to be counted,” said Boswell. “It takes a matter of minutes to determine the future of our state, let’s use this time to cement our tally and influence all that depends on this final count.”

For Census information, visit https://alabama2020census.com.

Contenders for 2020 Small Business of the Year Announced

More than 160 businesses and individuals are in contention for top honors at the 35th annual Huntsville-Madison County Chamber Small Business of the Year Awards.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Oct. 20 event will be a virtual presentation. It will be from 4-6 p.m. and fees are $25 for individual members and $50 for individual nonmembers.

The categories and contenders are:

Culinary Business of the Year

Emerging Business of the Year

Local “Creative” of the Year

Government Contracting: Professional Services of the Year

Government Contracting: Technology Business of the Year

Medical Practice of the Year

Nonprofit of the Year

Professional Services Business of the Year

Retailer of the Year

Service Business of the Year

Technology Business of the Year

Woman-Owned Business of the Year

Young Professional of the Year

Russell G Brown Executive Leadership Award

TVA Offers STEM Grants for K-12 Tennessee Valley Educators

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Valley Authority’s STEM Classroom Grant Program is taking applications with $800,000 in funding available for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics learning projects in classrooms and schools across the Tennessee Valley.

The education program is sponsored by TVA in partnership with Bicentennial Volunteers Inc., a TVA retiree organization, with TVA contributing $500,000 and BVI contributing $300,000 to the effort.

The 2020-2021 STEM grant application is open through Oct. 16. Grants may be requested in amounts up to $5,000 each. Eligible applicants are teachers or school administrators in public or private schools, grades K-12. Schools must be in the TVA service area and receive power from a local power company served by TVA.

Grant application submission and review will be managed by the independent Tennessee STEM Innovation Network.

“TVA recognizes that excellence in education is the key to developing our future workforce in the Valley and helping communities attract great jobs for the next generation,” said Jeannette Mills, TVA executive vice president and chief external relations officer. “This program directly supports teachers in advancing STEM activities in their classrooms to develop a talent pipeline for TVA, its customers, and the region.”

Last year’s program awarded $600,000 in grants to schools across the Tennessee Valley. The competitive grant program gives preference to applications that explore TVA’s primary areas of focus: energy, environment, economic and career development, and community problem solving. In addition, this year educators can also apply for a grant to support pandemic response or virtual learning materials to assist in STEM education.

For information and to apply, visit www.tvastem.com.