Zooming Toward the Top: The Catalyst Center Honors Top Entrepreneurs

What a difference a year has made.

At this time last year, the Stone Event Center at Campus 805 was packed to capacity for the fifth annual Entrepreneurial Awards ceremony.

This year, social distancing and masking up has presented new challenges to the big celebration. Or, perhaps, it has created new opportunities for honoring North Alabama’s finest entrepreneurs.

While there might be a new way of presenting awards, one thing is certain: Despite the setbacks of 2020, the entrepreneurial spirit is still very much alive and well in Madison County.

Just a few months shy of a year at the helm, Catalyst CEO Lisa Davis Mays has taken the lemons tossed out by the pandemic and has made a superb glass of lemonade. Mays and her Catalyst “Dream Team,” found creative solutions and skillfully presented this year’s awards with heaping doses of pizazz and style.

“This past year has impacted us all in ways we could have never imagined,” said Mays. “We’ve all felt the impact of the pandemic. This year, more than ever, we want to commemorate the extraordinary accomplishments of local businesses and entrepreneurs. And in true Catalyst style, we wanted to celebrate the hard work and inspiring stories of our entrepreneurs in a unique and fun way.”

The new twist for this years’ presentation – The Catalyst crew, armed with balloons and cameras, surprised the winners at their homes or at their offices in pre-recorded segments, presenting them with their awards. These segments were then presented as a key part of the awards ceremony.

With more than 140 people Zooming in for the big event, the presentation was well-executed and seamless. Kenny Anderson, the City of Huntsville Director of Multicultural Affairs, served as master of ceremonies. Anderson was both articulate and engaging when introducing the finalists and presenting the winners in each category.

Joanne Randolph, the former CEO of The Catalyst and the namesake for the Entrepreneurial Champion Award, had the special honor of introducing this year’s Entrepreneurial Champion – Larry Lewis of Project XYZ – without even having to leave her home in Orange Beach.  This award is for a champion with a proven track record of volunteering, mentoring, investing, or collaborating with new ventures on their entrepreneurial journey.

In addition to last year’s nine categories, the Pandemic Pivot award was added for this year. It is collectively hoped that this crisis-specific category would be a short-lived, distant memory by the time the 2022 awards roll around.

“Today, we celebrate the finest entrepreneurs in our community,” said Lauren Smith, 2021 Catalyst Board Chair. “Entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of our community and our economy. They are the dealmakers, the changemakers, and the dream makers. They are our future.”

Here are the 2021 Entrepreneurial Award winners:

YOUTH ENTREPRENEUR – Brailynn Camille Granville, The Ausome Kid. This award is given to a school-aged entrepreneur who has started their entrepreneurial journey at a young age and is working toward their dream.

EMERGING– Megan Nivens Tannett, Flourish. This award is given to an entrepreneur who has been in business for less than three years and has a proven track record for sustainability with room for growth.

CREATIVE – Michelle Givens, Image in a Box. This award goes to an entrepreneurial venture that focuses on the retail, arts, entertainment, or culinary industry and has a proven track record for sustainability.

NONPROFIT – Amy Roark, Give256. The Nonprofit Entrepreneur of the year award is given to a leader who possesses an entrepreneurial spirit that inspires growth and development in their organization.

FEMALE – Alice Lessmann, Signalink. This award is given to an outstanding female entrepreneur in the North Alabama Region. The Women’s Business Center will, in turn, submit Lessmann’s name to compete at the national level for the Small Business Administration’s “Small Business of the Year” award.

VETERAN – Marvinia Adams, Adams Dry Cleaning, dba Martinizing. This award is given to an outstanding military/veteran entrepreneur in the North Alabama Region.

PANDEMIC PIVOT – Karen Mockenstrum, Fantasy Playhouse. This award is for an entrepreneur who has faced down the setbacks brought on because of COVID-19. Not only did Mockenstrum adeptly manage the setbacks faced by Fantasy Playhouse, but she and her team developed new ways of doing business.

ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Jamie Miller, Mission Multiplier. Awarded to an entrepreneur who has been in business for more than three years and has a proven track record for sustainability, strategic direction, future growth, and community involvement.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE – April Chiosky, AMZ Importers. Using the power of social media, voters cast their ballots early and often and the entrepreneur receiving the most votes wins.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: Huntsville is a wonderful place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: Yes, the food experience has changed.

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

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

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

Most venues see the show as the main event.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: Playing here is definitely on the agenda!

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.

Huntsville Championship Golf Tourney to Benefit Cyber Scholarships

The first Huntsville Championship golf tournament on the Korn Ferry Tour was planned for last April before the pandemic brought the sports world to a halt.

But, from the silver lining category, there is a positive as the Huntsville Championship plans to once again hold the inaugural tournament to be played April 29-May 2 at scenic Huntsville Mountain course The Ledges.

The delay permitted the formation of the Fore Cyber Progress Scholarship Program, which according to a press release from marketing agency Knight Eady, the tournament is working “in partnership with the Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama A&M University, Huntsville and Madison City Schools, Madison County Schools and corporate partners in the Department of Defense or government contracting space on this new initiative.

“Through the partnership, the tournament seeks to create a more cost-efficient engagement solution for the DoD/government contracting community of the Rocket City, support strategic cyber development initiatives, encourage high school level students to participate and excel in cyber education curriculum as well as maintain a positive GPA and develop a sustainable financial scholarship fund for Huntsville’s higher education institutions,’’ the release said.

The professional Korn Ferry Tour is to golf what Triple-A is to baseball. The tour, sponsored by a management consulting firm based in Los Angeles, began in 1990 as the Ben Hogan Tour and is considered a launching pad to the PGA.

“We are proud to partner with Knight Eady and the Huntsville Championship to launch the new Huntsville Championship Fore Cyber Progress Fund at the Community Foundation,” said Melissa Thompson, CEO/president of the Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville. “This fund will provide much-needed cyber security scholarships at Alabama A&M University and at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, while at the same time providing an additional community benefit from sponsorships for the Huntsville Championship.”

The scholarship is available to students graduating from Huntsville and Madison City Schools or Madison County schools who apply to UAH or A&M with an interest in cyber related fields. According to Knight Eady media contact Katie Stotts, the scholarships will be awarded by students’ “institutions/bursar’s office and are based on requests for financial aid.’’

According to the press release, local companies involved include Strata-G, PPT Solutions, Sierra Nevada, Cintel, HigherEchelon, IroquiSysmtems, Qualis, Torch Technologies, Freedom Real Estate and Bridgeworth Wealth Management.

“When I first heard about the Huntsville Championship Fore Cyber Progress program, to me it was a ‘no-brainer,’” said Jim Reeb, president of PPT Solutions. “The program brings a focus on cyber course work through the totally unrelated venue of professional golf. I hope more companies in the Tennessee Valley community will see how they can help make a positive impact for high school and college students through this scholarship funding opportunity.

“The Huntsville Championship clearly provides an excellent networking opportunity between the students, companies and the golf communities to increase attention to this growing and evolving field of cyber – and for sure we will witness some great golf along the way.”

The week of the tournament, attendance at venues such as hospitality tents will be restricted and social distance enforced.

“We will continue to monitor the available information and restrictions from the CDC as well as state and local governments.’’


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.

Huntsville Tour de Force Trio Helps Land SEC Gymnastics Championships

Alabama and Auburn have played basketball games at the Von Braun Center, and both have faced each other in baseball at Joe Davis Stadium.

But while the sport will be different, the stakes will be a lot higher when the Southeastern Conference comes back to town when the gymnastics championships will unfold at the VBC’s Propst Arena on March 20.

The tournament was relocated from New Orleans because of COVID-19 concerns. With crowd-spacing part of the crowd equation, the conference didn’t see a need to rent the spacious Smoothie King Center. Propst Arena has seating for 6,000.

Once the SEC decided to move the championships from the Big Easy, one of the first calls that went out was to David Knight of the marketing agency Knight Eady. The Birmingham agency has worked with Huntsville brokers in the past, including for the Korn Tour’s Huntsville Championship that was cancelled last year and will tee off for the first time the week of April 26-May 2 at The Ledges.

Knight said a tour de force trio of the Huntsville Sports Commission, the Huntsville Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the VBC made a strong bid and he wanted to “brag’’ on them.

“Those different groups of people really came together and made a strong pitch,’’ Knight said. “Ultimately, the SEC and the institutions selected Huntsville to be the site of this year’s championships.’’

Huntsville had an ace in the hole in Knight. He worked for the SEC for nine years until 2013 before he started his marketing agency. One of his roles was to work and even manage the gymnastics championships.

“We made it a priority to have gymnastics as one of our kinds of events or sports that we would conduct as a company,’’ he said. “So the the exciting thing about it is we’re hosting elite gymnastics in Huntsville.’’

Only eight of the league’s 14 members will bring teams: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU and Missouri. But all eight are among the top 25 in the nation, including No. 1 Florida and No. 2 LSU.

The championships were cancelled last year because of COVID-19. Prior to that, LSU won three straight titles, the last coming in front of over 10,000 fans in New Orleans.

“We enjoyed an electric environment with an SEC-record crowd in New Orleans’ Smoothie King Center when it hosted this event in 2019 and we look forward to returning there when we can provide our student-athletes a similar experience in the future,’’ SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said. “A geographically central location is appropriate in the current COVID-19 environment. We appreciate the support from the Huntsville community and the Von Braun Center to provide an excellent venue for this year’s Championship.’’

COVID-19 protocols will be in place as far as controlled entrances, distancing and masking.

“We are honored to step up and host the SEC Gymnastics Championships in Huntsville,” Mayor Tommy Battle said. “We promise participants will find a high-caliber venue and a welcoming community, and we look forward to seeing this outstanding competition in the Rocket City.’’

In the current www.roadtonationals.com rankings, Florida is No. 1, LSU No. 2, Arkansas No. 5, Alabama No. 6, Georgia No. 12, Kentucky No. 15, Auburn No. 19 and Missouri No. 25.

Trash Pandas Unveil Inaugural Season Schedule; Home Opener is May 11

MADISON – After a yearlong postponement, Minor League Baseball returns to North Alabama.

The Rocket City Trash Pandas finally launch their inaugural season in May at Toyota Field.

Opening Night is set for May 11 at 6:35 p.m. against the Tennessee Smokies. The festivities will feature a spectacular fireworks show, a Toyota Field stadium replica model giveaway, and much more.

“Since we broke ground on Toyota Field in June 2018, through the naming of our team, ballpark construction, almost $4 million in merchandise sales, and an entire season lost to the pandemic, our fans have steadfastly stood behind this team like no other,” said Trash Pandas President and CEO Ralph Nelson. “In turn, we have worked extremely hard to create a fan experience deserving of the unprecedented support our fans have given us.

“The 2021 season will be very special, and we can’t wait.”

The overall 120-game schedule as part of the new, eight-team Double-A South League begins May 4 with the Trash Pandas on the road against the Chattanooga Lookouts. Each series during the season will be played Tuesday through Sunday, with every Monday an off day. There are 60 home games and 60 away games.

The full home slate is:

  • May 11-16 vs. Tennessee Smokies
  • May 25-30 vs. Birmingham Barons
  • June 1-6 vs. Chattanooga Lookouts
  • June 15-20 vs. Biloxi Shuckers
  • July 6-11 vs. Montgomery Biscuits
  • July 20-25 vs. Tennessee Smokies
  • July 27 – August 1 vs. Birmingham Barons
  • August 17-22 vs. Chattanooga Lookouts
  • August 31 – September 5 vs. Tennessee Smokies
  • September 14-19 vs. Pensacola Blue Wahoos

The Tuesday through Saturday home games will have a 6:35 p.m. first pitch. Sunday games in July and August will also start at 6:35 p.m. while Sunday games in May, June, and September will start at 2:35 p.m.

The promotional schedule includes postgame fireworks every Friday and Saturday, dog-friendly nights every Wednesday, and pregame happy hours every Thursday. The complete promotional and giveaway schedule will be released in the coming weeks.

“It’s been a long year and we’ve done everything but host Trash Pandas baseball,” said Trash Pandas Vice President of Marketing, Lindsey Knupp. “We couldn’t be more excited to finally welcome and entertain fans here at Toyota Field.”

Ticket policies, including timelines for purchasing individual game tickets, should be announced next week. However, single-game box seat vouchers are available for $16 per ticket and can be purchased online (www.trashpandasbaseball.com) and at the Emporium at Bridge Street and Junkyard at Toyota Field team stores. Once single-game tickets go on sale, vouchers are redeemable for any game during the 2021 season, excluding Opening Night.

Toyota Field safety protocols, including fan capacity, seating structure, mask ordinances, and more are still to be determined. These regulations will be announced closer to the start of the season.

COVID-19 Statistics Among Blacks Said ‘Alarming’

Interventional cardiologist Dr. Warren Strickland of Crestwood Medical Center presented what he called “alarming’’ statistics among the black community regarding COVID-19 at the weekly update at the Huntsville City Council chambers.

According to Strickland, though that segment represents just 13 percent of the United States population it accounts for 28 percent of COVID-19 deaths as of Wednesday.

In Alabama, only 11 percent of vaccinations have been administered to blacks. Strickland said he wasn’t sure if it was because low vaccinations were available or if it was because of patient hesitancy to take the newly developed shots.

He is certain of one thing: “We really are going to have to make an all-out effort to educate the African American community about the importance of receiving the vaccine, and make sure that we provide access to the vaccine as well,” Strickland said.

Hospitalizations in Madison County have dropped to 104 — well under half from previous weeks — with 21 patients in ICU and 11 on ventilators. However, Strickland said people are still dying from the highly infectious disease.

As of midday Wednesday, there were 378,785 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 9,257 deaths in the state. Those numbers were 27,627 and 324 in Madison County.

State Rep. Anthony Daniels of Huntsville, who, like Sanders is also black, has first-hand knowledge of the disease having survived it at the end of December.

“I will tell you, at the age of 38 I have never gone through anything so difficult in my life,’’ said Daniels, who was diagnosed on Christmas Eve and could only interact with his family through Zoom or Facetime.

“I was struggling for six days,’’ he said. “My lowest temperature during that particular stretch was 100.4.’’

Vaccine availability should continue to increase. More vaccination sites are being added, including at Sam’s and Walmart, and Huntsville Hospital has reopened John Hunt Park for shot seekers.

President Joe Biden said at a town hall meeting Tuesday he believed there would be enough supplies to vaccinate all Americans by the end of July.

“I think we can accomplish that goal,’’ Sanders said, “but it’s going to  take a community effort.’’

The two men continued to stress the need to sanitize, practice distancing and wearing masks. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing two masks to offer further protection against mutations of the virus. 


Madison Crossings Addresses County’s Underserved Senior Living Options

MADISON — Elderly people are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population.

Construction is coming along on Madison Crossings. (Photo/Steve Babin)

In the Madison community alone, studies show the population growth among people 75 years and older is expected to grow 40 percent over the next five years.

The new Madison Crossings senior living community opening this summer is addressing the needs and expectations of this expanding demographic, and it is not just existing residents who will benefit.

With Madison County growth on an explosive upswing, families migrating to our area will bring extended families with aging loved ones as well.

According to Matt Coughenour of Kirco Senior Living, the company developing Madison Crossings, the new community will bring senior living options that today, are unavailable to seniors in this area.

“We are excited about the growth we see, but more importantly, we feel Madison is highly underserved in terms of existing senior living options,” said Coughenour. “The area’s demographics, amenities, and economic growth make Madison a great new market for us, and from a macro perspective, Huntsville presents a strong opportunity because it is the fastest growing MSA in Alabama.

Madison Crossings is slated to open this summer.

“Currently, with the Mazda Toyota plant on track to bring 4,000 jobs to the surrounding area, that could create further unmet demand. It is common for adult children to want Mom and Dad close to their home and work, so for anyone that chooses to move their aging family member with them, Madison Crossings will provide a fantastic environment that is nearby, offers outstanding care, market-leading amenities, an abundance of natural light, and diverse programming and activities.”

Madison Crossings, which is on County Line Road, will feature 105 independent living apartments, which are typically targeted toward younger, more independent seniors who are seeking an active and social resort-style environment.

It will also have 27 Memory Care apartments designed for those diagnosed with varying degrees of memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease. That section of the neighborhood will offer higher levels of care.

Jesse Marinko, founder and CEO of Phoenix Senior Living, the company that will be managing the facility, said the average resident will be in their 70s to 80s.

“Because of the clientele in Madison, we will offer a nurturing, individualized environment,” Marinko said. “Our spectrum will start with a senior who still works part-time, still drives and comes and goes freely, who still enjoys a diverse dining experience, enjoys engaging with others and is still looking for socialization.

A huge lobby features a piano and plenty of room for parties.

“Many of our residents will be married couples who have downsized; maybe one spouse needs some support while the other is completely independent.

“Then there is the resident who is experiencing some memory loss or has been diagnosed with some form of dementia. We have an extensively trained staff in the memory care neighborhood who can assist residents with medication management, and the activities of daily living.”

Marinko and Coughenour said Madison Crossings is designed to help with navigation, minimize fall risks, encourage socialization, and ensure residents feel safe and comfortable.

“Madison Crossings’ independent living residents can live in their unit and receive homecare within our community, which is the same thing they get in an assisted living community,” said Marinko.

The location, adjacent to James Clemons High School, is also a strategic move.

“We purchased the land before we knew the Mazda Toyota plant was coming, but certainly it will be a benefit for the project,” said Marinko. “But being located adjacent to James Clemons High School presents some unique intergenerational programming opportunities for us as well.”

A study conducted by the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education at Penn State University shows that in the past 20 years, there has been a growing gap between young people, age 21 and younger, and elderly people, age 60 and older in terms of living arrangements and recreational outlets.

This breach isolates older people from other age groups leaving children and young adults without meaningful relationships with senior adults and is linked to a decline in life satisfaction among older people, and an increase in negative stereotypes toward the aging among young people.

“Intergenerational programming” involves activities or programs that increase cooperation, interaction, or exchange between any two generations, as defined by the National Council on the Aging.

“By partnering with local school systems, we can help better educate students and young people on seniors and getting them familiar with and comfortable with the aging process. It means a lot to the seniors, and to children,” Marinko said.

“You also have Town Madison with Toyota Field just three miles from our site. That will present additional programming opportunities like taking residents to see minor league baseball games.

“We often say that when you bring kids into a senior neighborhood, it is like shooting oxygen into the veins, and brings life to everybody within the community. Our residents benefit from the interaction with young people.”

Madison Crossings will officially open this summer and any formal ribbon-cuttings and open house events depend on the status of the coronavirus at that time.

“We have hired an on-property Community Engagement Director, Lila King who is reporting a strong level of initial interest about the community, which we are excited about,” said Coughenour. “We have a sales office with model rooms built out with finishes from the actual project and Lila is reporting we have already reserved numerous apartments and have deposits on those units.”

Coughenour describes Madison Crossings as a resort community lifestyle designed to promote social interaction and activity for the residents.

“That includes an outdoor amenity space including a courtyard with outdooring dining, a pool and lounge area, a fireplace and grilling area, covered seating, a bocce ball court, pickleball court and walking paths.”

He said the interior of the building will feature an abundance of natural light, multiple restaurant-style dining venues, a pub, an intergenerational room with games for children and grandchildren, state-of-the-art fitness and wellness center, a full-service salon and spa, and a movie theater.

The property will offer a doctor’s office on the property where physicians can visit patients without them having to leave the property, and where they can conduct telehealth services.

“The entire property is wireless, and we offer an open-source platform so doctors and nurses can conduct telehealth services in whatever format they prefer be it Doctor on Demand, Zoom, Facetime or something else.,” said Marinko.

“First and foremost, Phoenix Senior Living is one of the best operators in the country and will provide unparalleled care and service to our residents,” said Coughenour. “Through partnerships and outreach, Madison Crossings intends to become part of the very fabric of the local community.”