Huntsville’s Burgeoning Regional Economy Part 2: Right-sizing Lifestyle with Quality of Life

(This is the second and final installment of a two-part story on the area’s growing economy.)

Recently, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle shared his vision for Huntsville in terms of an average sized pie. He, along with business owners and civic officials, stood at city center – what Battle calls Huntsville’s “living room” – and looked out in every direction to the edges of the pie’s crust.

What they see are active growth corridors ushering in a significant expansion of the original Huntsville pie, which is accelerating economic growth throughout the North Alabama region.

“Instead of dividing the pie into fifteen different pieces that get smaller the more users you add, we made the whole pie bigger so we could divide it up differently with more restaurants, entertainment and activity venues, more places to spend retail dollars,” he said. “With a bigger pie, each slice is more valuable.”

The success of Twickenham Square, a multi-use development built right in the heart of downtown Huntsville’s medical district and anchored by The Artisan luxury apartments and a Publix, has spurred the development of four more multi-use (multi-purpose or mixed-use) sites in the downtown area.

These developments require the right balance of residential, retail, and commercial space, usually surrounded by a pedestrian-friendly traffic pattern, walking trails and/or parks, and plenty of amenities and activities.

Sealy Realty’s Avenue Huntsville (and the new Avenue Madison); CityCentre at Big Spring with the new AC Hotel by Marriott; the long-awaited Constellation, breaking ground this fall on the old Heart of Huntsville site at Clinton Avenue; and a new development by Rocket Development Partners on the former site of the Coca-Cola plant on Clinton Avenue across from the VBC are either already established or coming soon to downtown Huntsville.

“People ask whether mixed-use/multi-use developments are replacing traditional malls and shopping centers,” said Battle. “But I think you have to look at each one individually. People are looking for more live, work, play types of environments, but I think what we are seeing today is a shift. Is it permanent? Probably some of it is, but I won’t be surprised to see it shift back.”

Max Grelier, co-founder of RCP Companies who developed the AC Hotel as part of CityCentre, as well as MidCity District on the old Madison Square Mall property, agrees.

“Retail centers are not dead. They’re just changing based on consumer behavior,” he said. “Old-style retail centers still play a role in our communities. A good ‘convenience’ style retail center is needed to support suburban neighborhoods.

“However, retailers across most retail center formats are shrinking their footprints and using technology and distribution to keep up with the trends and competition.”

But Battle points out that many online retailers, such as Duluth Trading Company who have been online-only retailers, are building mortar-and-brick stores like the one they opened at Town Madison in June.

And even online behemoth Amazon is now putting stores throughout the U.S.

“I just got back from Nagoya, Japan where they still have huge department stores that are very active because people want to look at what they’re going to buy, touch it, experience the kind of cloth it’s made of and see how it fits,” Battle said.

“When you look at Parkway Place, they are doing very well, and we recently added an apartment component to Bridge Street Town Centre to add a ‘live’ component to it and Research Park’s work and play.

“But when you look at the old Madison Square Mall, it could be found on a site called DeadMalls.com,” Battle said. “We built a lot of malls back in the 1960s and 1970s – probably too many. I think we are now right-sizing back to what we need. There’s still a place for pure shopping like Parkway Place, but I say you need both to succeed.”

Charlie Sealy of Sealy Realty has developed several residential properties including The Belk Hudson Lofts and The Avenue Huntsville, which also has a retail component in downtown Huntsville.

Sealy is also building Avenue Madison that will have a retail and parking component in downtown Madison. He said the trend for new developments will be weighted more towards multi-use developments in the future.

“However, the older style shopping centers and malls won’t be replaced anytime soon unless they are old, obsolete, and really in need of replacement anyway,” said Sealy. “These [mixed-use] developments are definitely what residents and consumers prefer now because of the experience they produce.”

Grelier said the mixed-use developments come in a variety of styles.

“These developments are a type of urban development strategy that blends residential, commercial, cultural, institutional, and/or entertainment uses to initiate more consumer interactions by creating walkable, livable, and experiential communities,” said Grelier. “Mixed-use developments can take the form of a single building, a city block, or entire districts.

“Traditionally, human settlements have developed in mixed-use patterns; however, with industrialization of the U.S., as well as the invention of the skyscraper, governmental zoning regulations were introduced to separate different functions, such as manufacturing, from residential areas.”

Joey Ceci, president of The Breland Companies, which is developing Town Madison and the new Clift Farm project on U.S. 72 in Madison, sees it differently.

“I think we are seeing the death of the supercenter more than malls,” said Ceci. “Those centers with huge parking lots and a row of big box stores lined up next to each other – for one thing people just don’t like that huge parking field and, two, from a developer’s standpoint, if something happens and a business closes or moves out, it is very difficult to repurpose that huge space left behind by a store the size of Target or TJ Maxx. You can use a big box space for a trampoline center or an entertainment center, but you can’t put a restaurant in there.

“Multi-purpose developments are making that space work better by integrating residential into it via restaurants and everyday neighborhood retail like a dry cleaner or hair salon. The idea is to take the new urbanist movement that everyone is following and make smaller blocks of space so that if, in 20 years, that block is no longer viable, knock it down and put something else there. It’s a matter of making it more sustainable over time.”

Sustainability is the focus at Town Madison where Madison Mayor Paul Finley is looking to more than the casual Rocket City Trash Pandas fan to help build out that development.

He’s getting some help from travel sports and softball/baseball recruiters and scouts who will enjoy the regional draw of the new Pro Player Park, just off Wall-Triana Highway.

“The new Pro Player Park and everything Town Madison offers will definitely get foot traffic to our hotels; however, workforce development secures regional success which will also help us locally in aspects of infrastructure and schools,” said Finley.

Finley also points to the success of the Village at Providence, one of the area’s very first mixed-use developments built in 2003, as an example of how popular pedestrian-friendly mixed-use communities have become.

“A mixed-use development offers a live-work-play experience right outside of your front door,” said Finley. “This is appealing to young professionals, established mid-lifers, and retirees alike. These developments are multigenerational that attract businesses to the area.”

“Mixed-use developments are replacing declining malls because they are often well-located within a region that affords them premium access and site metrics,” said RCP’s Grelier who is striving to make the old mall property economically viable again. “When this is the case, there is typically strong demand for several multiple property types such as hospitality, residential, office, restaurants, and retail.

“Single-use commercial centers are becoming more difficult to sustain given changing consumer behavior related to online shopping, and demographic trends focusing on experiences rather than traditional brick-and-mortar shopping.”

However, Grelier said when they purchased the old mall property in 2015, they had a strategy ready for MidCity.

“We began working with the city and Urban Design Associates (UDA) to create a mixed-use project that would meet market demand and help reverse the decline of the West Huntsville commercial corridor,” he said. “We also had a broader, more aspirational strategy in collaboration with the city to use the MidCity District as regional economic growth tool by addressing the ‘next-generation’ workforce demand in Cummings Research Park.”

Grelier said they engaged nationally known market research consultants to perform third-party market studies to guide them in developing programming for a proper balance of uses.

“We used the information from the studies to collaborate with the City and UDA to produce a complete district business plan that would maximize regional draw by creating diverse layers of use and programming at the property,” Grelier said.

“Much of the emphasis is on highlighting our local cultural assets and identifying destination venues like TopGolf, public parks, and an amphitheater to establish a foundation around art and culture.”

He said this is now happening through connections with Huntsville’s and Muscle Shoals’ regional music legacy to bring a world-class 8,500-capacity amphitheater to the development.

“We believe the amphitheatre will be very successful and play a vital role in the elevation of the region as a place you want to live,” Grelier said. “There’s a strong demand for weekend entertainment so the music initiative happening in North Alabama will not only keep locals from traveling to spend in nearby markets, it will attract more weekend tourism to our region.”

Sealy said there is a strategy involved in where they build these mixed-use developments as well.

“These developments are really a long-term strategy in the sense that consumer preferences are shifting this way, so we are building for what is more popular now and appears will be more popular in the future,” he said. “… We are trying to draw certain people and jobs from other cities.  These developments are a recruiting tool and regional draw when we are competing against bigger cities for the same talent.

“Some people, particularly millennials, desire this type of environment for living or work, so we need them to attract that population …. They will spread through the regional area, but they need a certain density of people to work, so they will be concentrated in the growth corridors where the population and jobs are the largest.”

And, now, there is something for just about everyone.

“You hear people say, ‘Huntsville has some pretty cool breweries downtown, I can have some fun on Friday night, go see a baseball game, spend the night, go shop at Bridge Street, play some TopGolf, and get brunch at Stovehouse on Sunday’,” said Ceci. “It makes us a lot like Chattanooga – a kind of weekend destination where people say, ‘Wow! Huntsville is a great place to go for the weekend. There is always something to do.’”

Sealy said the mixed-use strategy is rewarding.

“I enjoy working on mixed-use projects because there is a huge emphasis on architecture, walk-ability, streetscape,” said Sealy. “The multi-use developments are a bigger challenge, but it is a rewarding creative process.”

Battle said the revitalization of one area pays benefits to the entire city.

“The Live, Work, Play strategy has always been our city plan,” said Battle. “Revitalize one area using the profits of another area we have revitalized and watch the spread of that revitalization until eventually the whole city is revitalized from one end to the other in every direction.”

Toyota Donation Helps Drive Advanced Manufacturing Program at Drake State

Toyota is putting its products on the assembly line for education.

The automaker is donating two Corollas and 12 engines to support the advanced manufacturing program at Drake State Community & Technical College in Huntsville.

“We believe it’s our responsibility to partner with educators to support career readiness programs that help develop our future workforce,” said Kim Ogle, Toyota Alabama corporate communications. “By donating these vehicles and engines, we are helping ensure students are trained on up-to-date equipment and receiving the highly technical skills needed for the thousands of manufacturing jobs in our area.”

The donated Corollas and engines – valued at approximately $200,000 – were originally used to provide onsite training for team members at the Huntsville Toyota engine plant.

Now, these products will serve a new training purpose as it supports hands-on learning at Drake State.

“This investment in the development of our workforce by Toyota is a great of example of how we – business and education – should and must work together to ensure that when potential employees arrive at the doorsteps of industry, they are ready to work,” said Patricia Sims, President of JF Drake State.

“We encourage other companies to directly engage with local schools and community colleges to help strengthen overall workforce readiness efforts.”

DaikyoNishikawa US Breaks Ground on $110M Plant to Supply Mazda Toyota Factory

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood that is Mazda Toyota Manufacturing US.

On Thursday, executives of DaikyoNishikawa US joined state and local leaders at a groundbreaking event on the MTMUS campus in Limestone County to launch construction on its $110 million manufacturing plant. It will be DNUS’s first U.S. manufacturing plant.

The DNUS facility, which will produce plastic automotive parts for the MTMUS assembly plant, will employ approximately 380 people at full production.

In May, DNUS became the first supplier to announce plans to locate on the site of the Mazda Toyota joint venture assembly plant, which will have the capacity to produce up to 300,000 vehicles annually.

“As our first manufacturing facility in North America, DNUS is proud to serve Mazda Toyota and call Huntsville our new home,” said Nariaki Uchida, president of DaikyoNishikawa Corp. “Together with our business and community partners, our aim is to be a good corporate neighbor and a premiere Tier I automotive supplier.”

By establishing the Huntsville operations, DNC aims to further strengthen relationships with major customers.

The DNUS project represents one of the latest in a string of supplier announcements tied to the MTMUS assembly plant in 2019. So far, a total of five MTMUS suppliers have pinpointed sites in North Alabama for production locations that will create almost 1,700 new auto-sector jobs, most of them in Huntsville.

The DNUS plant will supply resin auto parts, such as bumpers and instrument panels, to Mazda Toyota.

“DaikyoNishikawa is a key manufacturer in the growing cluster of Tier 1 automotive suppliers for MTMUS, and we’re excited to provide the skilled workers for this high-performing auto industry leader,” ​Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said.

“I’m proud to welcome another great Japanese company, DaikyoNishikawa … and I know that together we will build a lasting partnership,” Gov. Kay Ivey said. “Today marks another pivotal moment for Huntsville as it becomes the next vital production hub for the global auto industry.”

Construction on the 3.1 million-square-foot MTMUS facility is well under way, with as many as 2,500 construction workers expected on the site this summer. The Mazda-Toyota partnership is investing $1.6 billion to open the Huntsville assembly plant, which will employ up to 4,000 people.

Once the DNUS facility begins operations to coincide with the start of MTMUS vehicle production in 2021, DNUS will manufacture large resin parts such as bumpers and instrument panels for the automakers.

“By selecting Alabama as the site for its first U.S. manufacturing facility, DaikyoNishikawa joins a long list of world-class Japanese companies with growing operations in the state,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “We look forward to working with this high-caliber company to assemble a workforce in Huntsville that can fuel its growth plans.”

Auto Supplier Vuteq to Join Mazda Toyota Campus; Creating 200 Jobs

Another supplier will soon be breaking ground at the massive Mazda Toyota Manufacturing plant campus in Huntsville.

Japan-based Vuteq, which has operated in North America for more than three decades, will hire approximately 200 workers for its first production location in Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey announced Wednesday.

Vuteq USA plans to invest more than $60 million to open a manufacturing facility to serve the Mazda Toyota Manufacturing U.S.A.  auto assembly plant in Huntsville. The company joins a growing list of Tier 1 suppliers that have announced plans to set up operations in the region.

“The automotive cluster growing around Mazda Toyota Manufacturing U.S.A. is gaining another significant addition with Vuteq’s decision to open a manufacturing facility in Huntsville,” Ivey said. “Vuteq has established a large industrial footprint in the United States, and it’s great to see the company expand that presence to our state. We look forward to working with Vuteq …”

Vuteq USA will produce interior and exterior plastic-injected parts and various sub-assemblies for Mazda and Toyota at their shared assembly plant, now under construction on a 2,500-acre tract in the Limestone County portion of Huntsville.

“Vuteq USA Inc. is very pleased and excited to be opening our next plant in Alabama,” Kazumasa Watanabe, president of Vuteq USA, said in the governor’s press release. “Our company is thankful for the support provided by the city of Huntsville and state of Alabama as we begin a new chapter.”

Construction work at Vuteq’s site at 7306 Greenbriar Parkway, just outside the MTMUS campus, is scheduled to begin in October and completed in September 2020. A production launch is targeted for 2021.

“We’re pleased that Huntsville will be home to Vuteq’s first venture in Alabama and we welcome them to our growing network of automotive suppliers,” Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said.

Vuteq USA has begun hiring the first of its Alabama workforce, with full employment at the Huntsville facility projected to be reached in 2021.

Interested applicants can email the company at VuteqAlabamaJobs@vuteqky.com. The company is also working with AIDT, the state’s primary workforce development agency, for hiring and training support.

Within its Huntsville facility, Vuteq USA will host several other manufacturing companies, one of which will be Diversity Vuteq LLC, a minority joint venture, and others yet to be named.

The Mazda-Toyota partnership is investing $1.6 billion to build and equip its Huntsville assembly plant, which will have up to 4,000 workers producing up to 300,000 vehicles annually. Construction on the facility began this year.

MTMUS is expected to begin vehicle production in 2021.

By that time, a network of parts suppliers will be in place in North Alabama to support the Huntsville assembly operation. Counting Vuteq, five suppliers have already announced plans for facilities that will create nearly 1,700 jobs. Their combined investment in Alabama totals $440 million.

“Vuteq is a superb addition to Alabama’s rapidly growing network of high-caliber international auto suppliers,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “I’m confident that Vuteq will benefit from the capabilities of Alabama’s skilled workforce and the state’s business-friendly environment. I know we can build a solid future together.”

Vuteq, which has more than 13,000 employees, has a long-established relationship with Toyota and plans to build a strong partnership with Mazda.

Since 1965, Vuteq has supplied Toyota with various services including logistics and parts such as interior trim, door trim and cockpit assemblies, among other things.

Vuteq launched North American operations in 1987 at Georgetown, Ky., where Toyota operates an assembly plant. Vuteq has U.S. plants in Indiana, Texas and Mississippi and a facility in Ontario.

Mazda Toyota Manufacturing Sets Diversity Spending Target for Construction

As construction progresses on the Mazda Toyota vehicle assembly plant in Limestone County, Mazda Toyota Manufacturing is poised to make a large investment in minority and women-owned business enterprises.

The company said it plans to spend at least 20 percent of the overall cost of construction with those entities.

“Every aspect of MTMUS’s business must closely reflect our customers’ diverse backgrounds and experiences, including our team members, suppliers and business partners,” Mark Brazeal, vice president of administration of MTMUS, said in a press release. “Together with our general contractors and structural steel supplier, we have set an ambitious target that will set the foundation for MTMUS’s future to compete as a world-class manufacturer of vehicles.”

It’s difficult to put an exact figure on how much Mazda Toyota Manufacturing will spend. The total investment in the project is around $1.6 billion, but that includes non-construction costs like equipment and tooling.

Officials say construction of the plant is on schedule and they expect vehicle production to begin in 2021. (Huntsville Business Journal Photo)

Last year, Toyota alone had about a $3 billion diversity spend across the board, according to Victor Vanov, a spokesman for Toyota.

“That includes direct and indirect suppliers,” Vanov said. “What we mean by that is direct is like the specific car parts or components that go into our vehicles; on the indirect side, it might be things like janitorial services, printing, office supplies or maybe hiring a communications firm or consultant group.”

Construction sourcing has progressed and includes recent awards to diverse companies such as Aristeo Construction, a certified Woman-owned Business Enterprise general contractor; and Indiana Bridge, a Minority Business Enterprise structural steel supplier.

Officials say construction of the plant is on schedule and they expect production to begin in 2021.

The project is expected to bring around 4,000 new jobs to the area and the hiring process for some of those is already underway. Those interested can apply for jobs at MazdaToyota.com.

As far as construction is concerned, the company said there are about 2,500 workers on site building the facility with about 70 percent from Alabama.

When finished, the plant will span nearly 65 football fields or 3.1 million square feet; consist of 26,000 tons of steel with some 1,600 steel beams that, if stacked end to end, would reach a height of 80,000 feet – 15 miles.

Burgeoning Regional Economy Ensures Everyone a More Valuable Slice of the Pie

Envision Huntsville as an average size pie.

Standing at city center, look outward in all directions toward the far edges of the pie crust – north toward the state line where visitors from Tennessee get their first glimpse of the city. South where many Huntsville businesses draw daily commuters. East across the mountain, west from neighboring communities and all points in between.

For Huntsville and Madison city leaders, this vision of the pie’s edge does not represent boundaries but, instead, corridors of growth.

“That’s always been our vision for Huntsville’s future and the basis for our regional economic strategy,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. “The first part of revitalizing your city is to take the center point, known as the living room of your city, and revitalize it to make it economically viable. Get one area going and stretch it out to other areas.

“Year after year, we have pinpointed growth corridors that help us grow both economically and residentially. The result is an economic revival like what you have been seeing in Huntsville and Madison the past 10 years.”

Private investment land developers have that vision too. During the 1990s, brothers Jim and John Hays and their nephew Jeff Enfinger of Enfinger Development opened a growth corridor to the southeast in Hampton Cove and the Hays Nature Preserve.

In 2000, that development led to the expansion of a residential growth corridor along Taylor Lane in Big Cove, and, by 2010, it had extended into the Goldsmith-Schiffman community.

Also during the 1990s, Huntsville opened a residential growth corridor off Zierdt Road in the Edgewater and Mountain Brook communities southwest of the city. In 2010, it expanded into the Williams community further south.

Battle said that by looking at the local economy like a pie, you will see their strategy unfolding.

“Instead of dividing the pie into fifteen different pieces that get smaller the more users you add, we made the whole pie bigger so we could divide it up differently with more restaurants, entertainment and activity venues, more places to spend retail dollars,” he said. “With a bigger pie, each slice is more valuable.”

The Western Corridor

The Town Madison development along I-565 between Zierdt Road and Wall-Triana Highway in Madison will open a gateway to the city.

Anchored by the new Rocket City Trash Pandas baseball stadium, the development is surrounded by residential, retail, commercial, and entertainment components that have thrown open a west side growth corridor that never existed.

“The location off I-565 is perfect catchment for a broad audience across the Southeast,” said Madison Mayor Paul Finley. “As the interchanges off the highway are completed, you can expect ease of traffic getting to and from the area.

“If people come for a game or event, we hope they stay and experience all that Madison has to offer, including our historic downtown that offers livability with local boutique shopping and dining.”

Finley also believes Madison’s central geography in North Alabama positions it perfectly to feel the positive impact from economic development in the whole state as well as southern Tennessee.

“Madison benefits from Huntsville’s growth with the FBI and other tech development workforce to our east, as well as from the Mazda-Toyota plant to our west. We look to collaborate with Limestone, Morgan and Marshall counties,” said Finley.

The development is envisioned to become a regional destination.

“Right on the interstate, convenient if you are coming from Cullman or Decatur, and where everybody who passes by can see it,” said Joey Ceci, president of The Breland Companies, which is developing Town Madison and the new Clift Farm project on U.S. 72 in Madison. “We are creating a regional destination with baseball, a food hall, and resort style hotels, similar to, but more diverse than Chattanooga.”

Open Southern Border

Recently, Enfinger and his uncles who are also developing McMullen Cove, announced the development of a multi-use Hays Farm development in South Huntsville that will replace the old Haysland Square and turn a 500-plus acre swath of undeveloped land into a new growth corridor to the south that will draw retailers and residents from Airport Road south to the river and beyond.

“There will be a commercial center all the way up to the Enfinger Building on South Parkway with a Village of Providence-type entertainment district surrounded by a city park, a ballfield, and 500-acre Hays Green with a passive walking park,” said Enfinger. “We’d like to maintain the natural green spaces. The Hays Nature Preserve in Hampton Cove has been a regional draw for a lot of people.”

In many ways, Ceci believes that with population growth and so many people commuting here to work every day from other counties, we already have an active regional economy at work.

“You see workers buying groceries, going out to eat and shopping during the workweek, even if they live outside the city,” he said. “I think there is some pent-up demand for some of the development that is occurring.”

Max Grelier, co-founder of RCP Companies who has developed the AC Hotel as part of CityCentre and developing MidCity on the old Madison Square Mall property, has been watching those employee migration patterns into Huntsville for more than a decade.

“We see the regional trade area as about 50 miles and incorporates the 14-county commuter hubs from which Redstone Arsenal and Cummings Research Park draw its employment,” said Grelier. “As a result, Huntsville has become the region’s primary center for healthcare, civic, cultural, shopping, and dining activity.”

Annexation of Morgan & Limestone counties

Add to all this, the annexation of a small portion of Morgan County to the southwest and a huge chunk of Limestone County due west of city center, and you can see the pie expanding!

“Yes, this annexation is a game-changer because it results in the ability to get infrastructure to certain areas and thus create major employment opportunities,” said Charlie Sealy of Sealy Realty. His company has developed several residential properties including The Belk Hudson Lofts and The Avenue in downtown Huntsville, and is building a sister community, The Avenue Madison. “These new jobs will be an economic driver for the economy and create an incredible multiplier effect.”

The annexation is a precursor to the economic development that follows it, said Grelier.

“Annexing was necessary for the economic development of the Mazda-Toyota plant and other larger manufacturers,” he said. “It’s also helpful in attracting investment into commercial real estate projects across the metro area.”

“We’ve only made a foray into Morgan County,” said Battle, “The annexation of Limestone County where Mazda Toyota made a $2 billion land investment has seriously expanded our metro and opened an industrial growth corridor that is a win-win for both parties.”

City funds, thanks to Huntsville’s AAA credit rating from the S&P and Moody’s Investment Services, have pulled their share of the weight. With the power to borrow $85 million for city and countywide projects, of that, Huntsville will allot $25 million for the Mazda Toyota project infrastructure; and another $55 million for capital plans and schools.

Northern Exposure

Included is the revitalization of North Memorial Parkway. Since widening the well-worn highway into a viable parkway traffic corridor, it has encroached on many properties there, making them less viable.

“They don’t have enough depth to sustain retail, so we’ve taken them out and we’re turning that area into a park with greenways and walking trails,” said Battle. “Perception becomes reality.

“Instead of seeing boarded-up buildings when you enter from the north, you see it more as an entryway into North Huntsville – an economically viable area to move into and to be a part of.”

Among the projects is the upgrading of parks that will be instrumental in bringing in sports teams from all over the Southeast, including recreational rugby fields and soccer fields that can also be used for lacrosse.

“We are putting money into the tennis center and into the golf course, which now has cross-country running and mountain bike trails. All of these things tie back to what we call ‘quality of life’ for our residents and activities for our guests,” said Battle. “Travel sports bring people and their families to our area from all over, where they compete, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, and shop in our stores.”

Quality of Life

Town Madison’s $12 million Pro Player Park project with 12 synthetic baseball/softball fields, the $22 million Huntsville Aquatic Center, and the expanding Huntsville Tennis Center are already national attractions for travel sports competitions and events.

“To have a viable and growing economy, we have to offer a ‘quality-of-life’ that attracts people to the area, and quite frankly, we have a lot of jobs on the table too,” Battle said. “To recruit highly-skilled, higher income workers requires a quality of life that is equal to or higher than where they are moving from.”

Battle said “quality-of-life” is found in Lowe Mill, in craft beer, in a vast array of recreation facilities, disc golf, pickleball, art museums and public parks.

“But we still have work to do because people are coming from around the world to work for companies like Blue Origin, Facebook, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Mazda Toyotas,” said Battle.

Finley is ready for whatever challenges lay ahead for Madison.

“As Madison grows our focus is making sure we are responsible with our citizen’s tax dollars by improving infrastructure and providing a good quality of life in every district of our community,” said Finley. “While areas to the West are experiencing booming growth and increased traffic, we need to not only keep pace with growth but foresee areas that will need improvements down the line.”

Huntsville is also adding hotels, apartments, and homesites as more people move into the city. With a goal of adding 1,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of the Von Braun Center, Battle said it will help draw larger conventions and business meetings.

“Part of the strategy for building smaller hotels instead of one big convention center hotel is to prevent people from living inside the hotel the whole time they are here,” said the mayor. “We want people to experience our city, eat in our restaurants, visit our museums, and shop in our stores.”

Enfinger believes that as we become a more affluent society, people’s wants, and expectations become more demanding.

“It looks like we are evolving in unison with the rest of the country as far as the type shopping we do and the kind of developments we build,” said Enfinger. “Our growth rate is higher than most cities, but I think we follow a national trend in the type developments we can sustain.”

Private Investment is Leading the Way

Private investment must still lead the way and developers such as Breland, RCP, Sealy, and Enfinger are leading the charge.

“When the City can support infrastructure needs or improvements, private investment can take those dollars further,” said Mayor Finley. “This is a win/win for both the City and for the investors. Ultimately, our citizens also reap the benefits of this growth and development.”

“Buy-in is good so far, but much harder than it may seem,” said Grelier. “Huntsville has a great story to tell, but many larger institutional investors are not aware of it or view the market as too small.

“Our team spends most of our time discussing and selling the regional market rather than the immediate project. A big part of Huntsville’s growth moving forward will be how the region is branded to compete for private investment and workforce internationally. It’s a regional story that should include our sister communities.”

He would also like to see the Gen Y & Z workforce move to the area because it’s a cool, fun place to live, and then find a job once they get here rather than moving here for the great job.

“Once this trend reverses, larger private investment and more economic development will follow quickly,” Grelier said.

From the city’s perspective though, Huntsville’s first mixed-use/multi-purpose development at Twickenham Square in 2014 has been a driver in enlarging the pie.

Join us for Part 2 of our series on Huntsville’s growing regional economy in the September issue of the Huntsville Business Journal as we investigate how multi-purpose/mixed-use developments are helping build Huntsville’s regional economy.

 

Huntsville Receives Commerce Dept. Rail Infrastructure Grant

The city has been awarded a $4.1 million grant to help build a bridge to serve the Mazda-Toyota Manufacturing plant.

In a statement, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced the Department’s Economic Development Administration‘s grant to the city will also provide opportunities for further industrial and commercial development adjacent to the site. The grant will be matched with $4.1 million in local funds and is expected to help create 320 jobs and generate $128 million in private investment.

“This bridge will help provide Huntsville’s thriving auto manufacturing industry with the critical infrastructure needed to ensure its future success,” Ross said.

“EDA’s recent announcement is excellent news for Alabama’s automotive industry,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “The $4.1 million grant will continue to boost economic development and improve rail infrastructure throughout North Alabama. I am grateful that the Department of Commerce and EDA continue to invest in our state, bringing jobs and long term economic benefits to the region.”

The bridge is needed to accommodate increased commercial vehicle traffic for the plant, which is slated to go on line in 2021 and employ some 4,000 people to produce up to 300,000 vehicles annually.

This project was made possible by the regional planning efforts led by the Top of Alabama Regional Council of Governments.

“Reliable infrastructure is crucial to Alabama’s economic success,” said Sen. Doug Jones. “This grant will be welcome news for the Huntsville community as it prepares for the arrival of our state’s newest state-of-the-art auto manufacturing facility. Investments like these are critical to Alabama as we continue to grow and attract new businesses.”

Dynetics Technical Solutions Adding Hemisphere’s Largest Electron Beam Welding System

Big things are happening for Dynetics Technical Solutions.

In fact, some of the largest things in the world are happening for the Huntsville company.

Executives from Dynetics and Pro-Beam signed the electron beam welding system agreement in Burg, Germany. (Dynetics Photo)

Dynetics Technical Solutions recently signed an agreement with Pro-Beam to acquire the largest electron beam welding system in the Western hemisphere. The 22 feet long, 22 feet wide and 22 feet high system will be capable of supporting government and commercial programs at both the unclassified and classified levels.

“This unique welding facility will establish North Alabama as the U.S. leader in advanced electron beam welding for aerospace, defense and commercial sectors,” said Steve Cook, DTS president.  “We are proud to partner with Pro-Beam and our customers to bring this revolutionary capability to bear on programs of national importance.”

Pro-Beam partners with international high-tech companies to provide precision welding and mass production of components. DTS officials said Pro-Beam’s electron beam welding capabilities provided the type of product they needed.

“Pro-Beam is extremely pleased to partner with Dynetics, and excited to be part of this great project that will provide the largest and most modern electron beam welding system for the U.S. market,” said Rod Mourad, president of Pro-Beam USA. “This installation will provide Dynetics with electron beam welding capabilities of large structures that are essential for the U.S. market needs.”

The system includes a large vacuum chamber and an 80 kilovolt/40 kilowatt power supply capable of welding high strength/high temperature alloys up to four inches thick in a single pass, said DTS manufacturing division manager Bob Meadows.

“It is equipped with a five-axis robotic positioner and automatic seam tracing software providing the ability to weld complex shapes quickly and precisely,” he said. “The system will be an essential addition to our precision machining and fabrication center.”

Dynetics Technical Solutions has also acquired a smaller system from Pro-Beam, which will be operational in October. The larger system will be delivered from Germany and installed in 2020. Both systems will be located at the company’s Huntsville headquarters.

New Manufacturing Technologies Helping Create the ‘Smart’ Factory

Manufacturing innovations such as Blockchain, Additive Manufacturing, and Augmented Reality are a few of the hot new technologies that were discussed at the recent Society of Manufacturing Engineers-National Defense Industrial Association Technology Interchange Symposium.

Blockchain and Digital Thread

According to Forbes, Blockchain offers manufacturing great potential to deliver business value through increasing operational transparency across every area of manufacturing. From shop floor operations to the suppliers, manufacturers will be able to meet delivery dates, improve product quality, and boost sales by improving supplier order accuracy, product quality, and effective track-and-tracing technology.

“Companies generally lose $500 milllion a year in the counterfeit parts market,” said Chris Adkins, CSO at Identify 3D. “With cybersecurity, there’s always a level of vulnerability you’re going to have to live with.”

Adkins said although risks cannot be fully eliminated, there are ways to minimize risk.  Blockchain technology promises to tighten those gaps while delivering operational transparency.

However, not all supply chain partners are open to adopting blockchain technology.

“Think of this as recording data, sharing data across the supply chain,” Adkins said. “Information sharing poses one of the biggest obstacles. How do you convince suppliers to share core data?”

“Every process step should have traceable data, which allows you to have analytics. Although you might not be able to stop hacking, the information will allow you to find who stole it.”

Additive Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing is the official industry standard term for all applications of the technology. It is defined as the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data.

Essentially, it is printing 3D copies of replacement parts. The ability to produce manufacturing aids, such as jigs or fixtures increases efficiencies and reduces costly traditional machining.

When properly implemented, additive manufacturing can significantly reduce material waste, streamline production steps, and reduce the amount of inventory and specific parts needed for an assembly.

Augmented Reality

According to the Franklin Institute, augmented reality is one of the biggest technology trends and it’s only going to get bigger as AR-ready smartphones and other devices become more accessible. A popular example of AR technology is the “Pokémon Go” mobile phone app.

All fun and games aside, there are many everyday applications for AR. Enhanced navigation systems use AR to superimpose a route over the live view of the road. A helmet visor AR that projects altitude, speed, and other data allows fighter pilots to keep their focus without the need to glance down at the instrument panel.

Smart glasses are a great example of Augmented Reality technology. Lightweight and durable, smart glasses fit easily over regular prescription glasses, or they can be worn alone.

Tech support calls can be made directly from the glasses using a voice command feature, which keeps both hands-on equipment repair or calibration, without taking one’s hands off the machinery.

For the factory floor, the peer-to-peer calling features enables the repair tech to see exactly what the shop floor specialist is seeing. Precise, effective repairs and shorter equipment downtime easily translates into dollars and cents.

Enhancements in the manufacturing technology landscape promise to deliver first time quality, the kind of quality that’s crucial for the warfighter.

From Rockets to Autos: Panalpina Expects to See More Use for the Giant Antonov 124

Today, a delivery for Huntsville’s aerospace industry.

Tomorrow, overly large, very heavy crucial parts and pieces for Alabama’s growing automotive manufacturing industry.

Workers show the huge space available to fly cargo in the giant Antonov-124. (Eric Schultz / Huntsville Business Journal)

As North Alabama’s automotive manufacturing industry takes off, so are heavy air freight cargo planes likely to soar in and out of the Port of Huntsville’s intermodal cargo center – and we mean really, really big birds such as the Russian Antonov 124, the second largest commercial cargo plane in the world.

In recent weeks, an Antonov sat for the first time alongside Panalpina’s Boeing 747–8 freighter at Huntsville International Airport.

While Panalpina operates Boeing 747-8 contour freighters out of Huntsville four times a week on a fixed schedule, the Antonov provides ad hoc flights on demand from Point A to Point B from just about anywhere in the world. At least, up until now, it only flies into Huntsville a couple times a year for special, overly large deliveries, primarily for the aerospace industry.

Matthias Frey, senior vice president and global head of the Panalpina Charter Network, said that is about to change.

“Manufacturing is among Panalpina’s most important industry verticals,” he said. “Automotive has become a growing priority for us in the state of Alabama and we expect it to get even bigger as they begin installing the assembly lines at the Mazda Toyota plant, and as automobiles begin rolling off that line.”

Frey said Panalpina’s Alabama delegation foresee a growing need for heavy cargo and air freight, especially in Huntsville and Mobile, and he said there is a need for all types of cargo aircraft to accomplish it.

“When you look, for instance at Amazon, their U.S. network uses the Boeing 767 because, although they ship tens of thousands of parcels, most of them are relatively small and stackable and they require speed,” he said.

Panalpina’s 747-8 is a stretch 747 that allows for higher cargo capacity and is a workhorse for standard heavy cargo.

“If you are talking about pharmaceuticals, engines, and mechanical parts, then normally you would go to a Boeing 747-8 like Panalpina,” Frey said.

The giant Antonov-124 has a 25 percent higher transportation than the Lockheed Martin C-5 Galaxy (Eric Schultz / Huntsville Business Journal)

However, the Antonov’s substantially wider body, significantly higher overhead clearance, and hinged nose opens upward for front cargo loading. Built for paradropping and cargo-handling equipment, it is also equipped with two traveling cranes, two winches, a rollgang shifting device and tiedown equipment.

Aircraft and cargo specialists compare it to the Lockheed Martin C-5 Galaxy, but it has a 25 percent higher transportation capability.    

“If you are moving something tall, wide and exceptionally heavy like large machinery and components, especially if you need a wider berth or a crane and winch for loading, then you are more likely to need the Antonov with its front-loading capability,” Frey said.

In 2018, the Panalpina Charter Network set a record with more than 1 million tons in air freight volume, according to a recent press release. The company expects the air freight market to grow by about 3 percent this year, with aerospace, perishables, and, now, automotive expected to be the biggest areas of growth.