Women in Hardhats are a Growing Trend in the Construction Industry

MADISON, Ala. — Nationally, women make up less than 10 percent of the construction industry – 9.1 percent according to the National Association of Women in Construction.

That number has been steadily increasing over the past decade, so much that the NAWIC started a Women in Construction Week, held annually in March. It highlights women as viable components of the construction industry and raises awareness of the opportunities available for women in the construction industry.

Hoar Construction, headquartered in Birmingham and contracted to build the new Rocket City Trash Pandas’ baseball stadium in Madison, has long since broken through.

When it comes to women wearing hardhats on a construction site, Hoar Construction says women are beginning to dominate in engineering and project management positions within their company. Hoar’s female workforce is up to 20 percent, but what kind of challenges do women face on a construction site and how do so many find their way into the business?

Meet Amanda Black, Safety Manager

Amanda Black

Amanda Black is a safety manager for Hoar Construction and is with the crew at the baseball stadium. Amanda is 29 years old and her parents have worked for Hoar for over 32 years.

“I grew up on a construction site,” said Black. “As a child, I picked things apart to see how they were built. Even with toys, I wasn’t interested in the thing itself.

“I was more interested in how it was put together and what was inside that made it work.”

Black went to college on a scholarship, but the school didn’t offer academics in engineering or construction.

She came back to what she knew. Eleven years later, she is working for Hoar and is back in school for construction management.

“No one should be limited in what they want to be, if they have the heart for it,” Black said. “You have to have a thick skin to be a woman among so many men, but you need a thick skin in life anyway, right?”

As a safety manager, Amanda notes that everyone on a construction site has a very important job and the more skills sets you have, the more it benefits you.

“I started out as a laborer trying my hands at carpentry work, concrete, and I know how to operate some of the equipment,” she said. “I also help with the shell work on empty buildings and cross over to quality control when they need help.

“It’s what you do – you work your way up.”

Meet Jessica Yarbrough, Assistant Superintendent

Jessica Yarbrough

Jessica Yarbrough grew up learning the cabinetry trade from her father who worked as a boat captain three days on and three days off. Cabinetry was a hobby he excelled in and still does.

Jessica can build cabinets, but she chose not to pursue the craftsmanship side of construction. Instead, she has spent the past 7½ years traveling from project to project with her husband who is a superintendent for Hoar Construction.

Yarbrough has worked on a Disney World project in Orlando; built a physical fitness facility for the Army in Clarksville, Tenn.; built an outdoor shopping center in Baton Rouge, La.; and a commissary at Naval Air Station Jacksonville (Fla.)

Now she is in Arlington, Va., working for the first time without her husband on a 12-story midrise apartment building.

“I am an exterior scan superintendent,” said Yarbrough. “I am responsible for the brick, metal panel, glass storefront, and glass curtain wall that makes up the exterior on this project. Every day, I oversee the work of our trade partners, including brick masons, a metal panel guy, our window installer, and ironworkers.

“I work a little bit with the exterior framers and with our air barrier system, and I handle all the scheduling, coordination, and I manage workflow to ensure the project gets built on time.”

Yarbrough started college in premed but, while in the process of switching to nursing, an advisor noticed she was taking extra math classes. She asked Jessica if she was good at math and when she answered “Yes,” they encouraged her to pursue engineering rather than the medical field.

“I feel I have grown into the job,” she said. “There were opportunities for workers to pull a fast one on me or to get by with stuff but, instead, we worked through some teachable moments that made us all better at our jobs.”

Since then, there have been only a handful of times when she felt being a woman negatively impacted what she was trying to do.

“I find the day-to-day challenges – getting the job done on time and on budget – is harder than any challenges I face as a woman in a male-dominated field.”

Meet Donna Strange, Assistant Superintendent

Donna Strange

Donna Strange, like Jessica Yarbrough, is an assistant superintendent for Hoar Construction and she coordinates among multiple trade partners, documenting and making notification of field changes in real time on any project.

“I am the boots in the field,” she said. “I communicate with the project superintendent the challenges and opportunities that need to be addressed with schedule and cost impacts. I listen to the concerns of our trade partners, always keeping one eye open for safety; and I have to make on-the-spot executive decisions to keep the project moving – not just the daily progress – but I have to be prepared to make the calls needed to keep the wheels on the bus during the challenging days ahead.”

Donna said she bounced around a few different professions, all of which left her feeling stuck, without a chance to get out and learn and explore.

“I found myself on a construction project as it was nearing the final stages and I fell head over heels in love with all aspects of the experience,” she said. “I found a profession where everyday there was potential for learning something new.” 

She said her biggest challenge at being a woman in a predominantly male industry is her 5-foot-2, 110-pound stature. It can be hard to show authority when you are petite, but she gets around it by being knowledgeable.

“I keep my eye on the big picture – giving our client a facility that meets expectations and I don’t let my size hinder my authority and responsibilities,” she said. “I focus on always staying calm, listening, and sharing my experience in a situation, before making decisions that affect others.”

Meet Sarah Horton, Project Engineer

Sarah Horton

Sarah Horton joined Hoar Construction officially this past year as a project engineer, but she worked for Hoar throughout college and was a co-op student with them in 2014. Sarah has a degree in architectural engineering from the University of Alabama but, from a general contractor’s perspective, she is at the management level of the job cost perspective.

Most of the work Sarah is involved with is renovated buildings rather than new construction, and she has been assigned to the Samford University campus in Birmingham. Her most current project is the University Center.

“We went in and took everything out including the slabs used to create two floors,” said Horton. “Now we have a shell of a building all on one floor, so we can start over.”

Structural and procedural changes are commonplace in renovations and Sarah’s architectural engineering background allows her to run software programs that a typical project manager ordinarily wouldn’t, such as the popular Building Information Modeling software.

“Typically, when we get a set of documents, they are printed on paper, but obviously building construction is seen much better in 3-dimension,” Horton said. “I use BIM and my architectural engineering background in HVAC design, power distribution and design, and structural concepts of building to get that into a 3-D space and coordinate changes from a general contractor’s perspective.

“Being able to run BIM gives us some control over the original designs using Virtual Design & Construction (VDC), so we can say, ‘You designed this, but we have a sprinkler system that must fit in this space too and it has certain code requirements. Let’s work together to make it all fit in this space with 25-foot high ceilings.’ ”

Sarah was exploring scholarship options while enrolled at the University of Alabama studying dentistry when she was approached by the engineering department, who had her test scores in math and science.

“Because I was a female, I was going to receive a nice engineering scholarship to declare general engineering as my major,” she said. “After one engineering foundations class, I was hooked!

“I agree with Amanda that you have to have thick skin, know who you are, and from a professional standpoint, be confident and understand the depth of your experience,” she said. “Now when I sit down at the table, I may be the only woman at that table, but I feel confident enough to give my opinion.

The Male Perspective

Horton said a lot of older men in the construction industry are against having women on the construction site because they believe it to be too dangerous from a safety standpoint. Unanimously, all four Hoar Women in Hardhats say, “No! We belong here just as much as you do!”

“It puts more pressure on me to make sure I know what I’m talking about,” said Horton. “I don’t get a free pass because I’m a girl. I have to know my stuff and back up what I say because they will go toe-to-toe with me on some things.”

“Construction is an amazing business to be in,” said Black. “For me, construction isn’t just a job. It’s a lifestyle. Construction provided for me when I was growing up, and now it provides for me as a mother.”

Although she did not pursue the craftsmanship side of construction, Yarbrough admits building cabinets is still in her cards.

“My dad still has a shop and all the tools and equipment, so it’s always been sort of like … if all else fails … I can always build cabinets!”

If she does, she will be an even rarer phenomenon since women make up less than 2 percent of carpenters nationwide!

What’s Hot in Huntsville? #LinkedInLocalHSV, That’s What!

For those of us using LinkedIn, how many actually meet contacts face-to-face and have a discussion over coffee? In most cases, only a handful, and it’s likely that those are people we already know. What if we could meet up with those local contacts that we only know at the virtual level?

A group of local businesspeople hope to make those in-person connections a reality: Enter LinkedIn Local.

Getting its start in Australia, LinkedIn Local has quickly grown into a global movement. LinkedIn Local wants to put the “social” back into social media by hosting events where people could meet their online connections – offline. What began as a hashtag movement in 2017, LinkedIn Local has grown exponentially and is currently hosted in more than 300 cities worldwide.

Last fall, Huntsville joined the global community of LinkedIn users taking online relationships offline. #LinkedInLocalHSV came about after a Friday morning networking event.  A handful of local influencers met to brainstorm and came up with a way to make #LinkedInLocalHSV a reality, right here in the Rocket City.

After the initial brainstorming session, Mike Bean, Gary Choukse, Jared Wasdin, Angela Graham, Brad Wallace, Pam Marmon, and Carla Stiles soon formed a board and quickly got to work in developing #LinkedinLocalHSV.

Built on the concept of authenticity, respect, and collaboration, #LinkedInLocalHSV is a great opportunity to connect in an informal business context, to build strong, long-lasting relationships, all in your local community.

Presented quarterly, the second LinkedInLocalHSV event was recently held in the UAH Student Services Building.

“Thus far, we have sold out both events and we are in the planning stages of our next event,” said board member Carla Stiles. “It’s a great event for our growing community to get people to meet. We have over 100 people attend the events.

“This is great way for those that are new in the community to come and meet other businesses in the area.”

Chamber Chair Kim Lewis: ‘We Need to Create a Trained Workforce’

One of the Huntsville-Madison County’s key business influencers has been recently named as the 2019 Board Chair of the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce.

Kim Caudle Lewis, the first African-American woman to hold the board position said her top goal for the year-long volunteer job is helping workers gain the skills they need to match the many jobs available locally.

“I’m pretty excited!” said Lewis.

“We’ve done a great job as far as economic development goes, but we’ve got to work on our workforce,” she said, adding that the unemployed, the under-employed, and those looking for new careers are the chamber’s focus.

With an upbeat, can-do work ethic, Lewis epitomizes hard work, soft-skills, and solid business savvy, an ideal combination for a board chair. Lewis has keen insight of the big picture, as well as understanding the future industry needs of North Alabama.

Lewis’ primary focus is job skills and workforce development, and the need to create a trained, work-ready job force in anticipation of the exciting new industry coming to Northeast Alabama.

“We need to create a trained workforce to meet the needs of the new industries and jobs that are coming to Huntsville, Madison, and North Alabama,” said Lewis. “The training required is not currently available in the two- and four-year systems, not even in the high schools. We also need to provide education that’s affordable and accessible.”

Even though Huntsville is a high-tech driven city, Lewis said there is a renewed demand for the skilled labor, blue-collar types of jobs.

“With economic growth comes demand,” she said. “Not all jobs are high-tech, there’s a lot of skilled labor jobs. There are jobs in every industry. A lot of them are new industries for this area.

“The Chamber has done a really good job of bringing new industry to Huntsville-North Alabama. There’s more concentration on the workforce now. We’ve promised the companies the workforce. Now, we need to make sure to educate workers to fill those jobs.”

“With the coming of the Toyota plant,” says Lewis, “we’ve never had a full production plant here. This makes it more exciting. You can come to Huntsville and be a part of something that’s done – all in one location.”

And there’s the advancements in aerospace.

“We’ve always had NASA here, but with the arrival of Blue Origin, we will be taking space to a whole new level,” she said.

“Many simply don’t know what skills are required to fill local open jobs,” said Lewis. “We want to show people the path to get there.

“The biggest mistake is that people generalize a lot of jobs, such as engineering. There are so many types of engineers, in various industries. We need to do a better job of explaining.  Asmartplace.com is a site linked to the Chamber’s website which shows a “Day in the Life” of a variety of industry jobs. It’s a sample. A good, brief overview of what they can anticipate in that job.”

Recently, the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber hosted the Second Chance Job Fair in collaboration with the Alabama Career Center, the Alabama Community College System, and several local nonprofits, and community agencies. The event was developed to help bridge the gap between under-resourced job seekers and employers.

“Workforce development is just a small part of what the Chamber does,” said Lewis “There are a lot of activities going on. We help support businesses already here. We provide the resources to help them grow and continue to grow.”

Lewis is no stranger to service work. Growing up in Triana the youngest of 10 children, her parents Charley D. Caudle of Triana and the late Lela Mae Caudle, always instilled the virtues of civic duty and community participation.

Her father set a good example for his children. First serving in the military, he then worked for Tennessee Valley Authority, and was also a volunteer fireman. In retirement, he worked for the town of Triana. One of her sisters, Mary Caudle, is the mayor of Triana.

Lewis has also held several volunteer board leadership roles, including the Chamber Foundation, Public Affairs Research Council of North Alabama, Huntsville Botanical Garden, the National Children’s Advocacy Center, HEALS (Health Establishments at Local Schools), the Huntsville Hospital Foundation, Huntsville Committee of 100, and her alma mater, Calhoun Community College.

As the owner and president of Project XYZ, an award-winning Huntsville company, Kim and her husband Larry provide engineering, logistics, information technology, and alternative energy services, in addition to health care IT.

Comprised of 100 employees, Project XYZ has been honored as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 2017 Woman-Owned Business of the year and won the 2016 “Blue Ribbon Award,” and the 2015 Business of the Year by the local chamber. Project XYZ was also on the Inc. 5000 list of the nation’s top entrepreneurs in 2014-17. 

Now, There are Two Days to Experience the Best of Madison Shopping, Food and Music

MADISON — Two of Madison’s most popular spring events will be on separate days this year to accommodate the participation of more restaurants, pubs and breweries, according to the Madison Chamber of Commerce.

The events – Madison Market and Bites & Brews Food & Beer Tasting – are known as Taste the Spirit of Madison and have been an all-day shopping experience followed by an evening of food, beverage and music.

This year, however, Madison Market will be this Saturday, April 6, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Insanity Complex on Hughes Road.

Bites & Brews will be Tuesday, April 9, from 6-9 at Insanity.

“It is difficult for local restaurants to juggle staff and food preparation on one of their busiest nights of the week, Saturday, with a separate offsite event,” said Pam Honeycutt, executive director of the Madison Chamber of Commerce. “In order to increase participation, we decided to move the Bites & Brews event to Tuesday night.

“If the uptick in food and beverage participation this year is any indication, we expect it to be a successful change for everyone.”

Hosted by the Madison Chamber and sponsored by Madison Hospital, more than 60 local retail businesses will set up booths at Madison Market, offering shoppers a wide variety of goods and services from martial arts to custom teas.

Madison Market is free and will feature health and wellness screenings, compliments of Madison Hospital; discounts on skating, mini-golf, and climbing; and karate, dance and futbol demonstrations. A New Leash on Life will be onsite with shelter dogs looking for forever homes. The LifeSouth Bloodmobile will be available for blood donors.

And, of course, there will be plenty of food trucks offering choices from ice cream to barbecue.

On Tuesday night, more than 25 restaurants and breweries are on display at Bites & Brews, sponsored by Mangia Italian Restaurant.

Attendees can sample coffee and beignets to local craft beer and scrumptious desserts. There will be Greek, Italian, Asian, and pure Americana including popular New Orleans, Texan, urban, and good ol’ Southern cuisine.

Local band, Groove will provide music and there will also be a silent auction.

Tickets for Bites & Brews Food and Beer Tasting are $20 per person in advance and $25 at the door. You must be 21 years or older to sample the brews and an ID and wristband will be required.

“The Spirit of the Taste of Madison offers residents and visitors two days and two ways to experience our amazing City,” said Honeycutt. “We consider it a celebration of everything Madison!”

For tickets, contact the Madison Chamber of Commerce or call Honeycutt at 256-325-8317 ext. 1; or email pam@madisonalchamber.com.

Botanical Garden CEO Paula Steigerwald to Retire

Paula Steigerwald, CEO of the Huntsville Botanical Garden, is retiring after 17 “marvelous” years.

Her retirement is effective Aug. 30, according to a statement from the Garden’s Board of Directors. She joined the Garden in 2002 and oversaw a strong period of transformation and growth at the facility.

Paula Steigerwald

“The past 17 years have been marvelous, and we have achieved great things at the Garden,” she said. “It is my hope that the things we have achieved will be just the beginning of great things yet to come for the garden.”

The Garden was named the Attraction of the Year for the State of Alabama (2008), the Chamber of Commerce Non-Profit of the Year (2008), and the No. 3 tourism attraction which charge admission in the state (2017 and 2018).

“Paula has done an amazing job as CEO of the garden. She provided the leadership, vision, enthusiasm, imagination, and diplomacy to transform this organization into one of the state’s top tourist attractions and a resource we are proud to have in our community,” said Huntsville Botanical Garden Board Chair Penny Billings. “I would like to thank Paula for her service and wish her nothing but the best as she moves into this new phase of life.”

A search committee has been named, and a national search will begin immediately to fill the role. Interested candidates can submit their resumes at hsvbgceosearch@gmail.com.

Entrepreneur Awards Cap Innovate Huntsville Week

Every March, Innovate Huntsville Week is a weeklong, jam-packed event filled with networking, support, collaboration, and the celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit that’s alive and well in the area.

Innovate Huntsville connects entrepreneurs and innovators with local resources to build solid networks and opportunities around Huntsville’s small business economy.

Innovate Huntsville 2019 kicked off with Ignite, the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber-sponsored mixer, providing an opportunity for participants to get acquainted. The week continued with the HudsonAlpha Tech Challenge, Engineer-to-Entrepreneur Tech Roadshow, Small Business Microloan Clinic, Entrepreneur’s Roundtable, the Angels of North Alabama Investment Forum, Urban Engine’s Co-Working Night, a Boost Pitch Competition and R.I.S.E. networking.

Capping off the celebration was the fourth annual Entrepreneur Awards luncheon, presented by the Catalyst Center for Business & Entrepreneurship, at the Campus 805 Stone Event Center.

This year’s winners are:

ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Lee Marshall, founder/CEO of Kids to Love. Awarded to the 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.

“There’s an incredible pool of talent in Huntsville,” she said. “And I’m honored to be selected among so many great people doing amazing things in our city!”

CREATIVE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Rachel Lackey, owner and founder of Green Pea Press. Awarded to a non-technical entrepreneur whose focus is in
the retail, arts, entertainment, or culinary industry and has a proven track record for sustainability.

“I am excited and honored,” Lackey said. “Winning this award feels like a validation of all the hard work that I’ve put in and all the challenges I’ve faced up to this point.

“I appreciate the Catalyst including the creative sector among their honorees; so often we get overlooked in favor of tech entrepreneurism, but I think it’s important to recognize that creatives are the ones on the ground, so to speak, engaging and changing the culture of our community.”

VETERAN ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – LaBerrick Williams, owner of Jell’s 4 Ever BBQ. Awarded to an outstanding military-veteran entrepreneur in the North Alabama region.

“My ‘why’ stems from my late grandparents, Jell and Ever Scruggs, hence, my restaurant’s name – Jell’s 4 Ever BBQ – to carry on their legacy,” Williams said. “Their selfless service and delicious food brought the community together for years. Our intertwined logo J4E is a symbol of their union of 75 years and stands for family, love, togetherness and happiness. This is our ideology for the world.”

EMERGING ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Dr. Morgan L. Goss, Dove Family Health. Awarded to the entrepreneur who has been in business for one to three years and has a proven track record for sustainability with room for growth.

“I do what I do because there is an insatiable desire to see my own people thrive in health,” Goss said. “I desire for my own people have access to affordable, accessible and compassionate health care experiences.”

FEMALE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Edwina Musante, founder/CEO/president, Cortina Solutions. Awarded to an outstanding female entrepreneur in the North
Alabama Region. The winner of this award will be submitted to the Small Business Administration’s Small Business of the Year Award National Award by the Women’s Business Center.

Their mission is to serve God by serving the country, customers, coworkers, and community with excellence and integrity.

YOUTH ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Joshua Wortham, general manager of Peaceful Pastries & Sweets. Awarded to a school-age entrepreneur, in K-12, who has
started their entrepreneurial journey and business at a young age and is working toward their dream.
“I am a 14-year-old chef who enjoys baking people happy,” Wortham said. “As my bakery continues to grow, I’m even more convinced that entrepreneurs should continue to learn new skills, but also stretch their minds and hearts through collaboration and immersion in the community.”

ENTREPRENEUR CHAMPION OF THE YEAR – Joe Newberry, president/CEO of Redstone Federal Credit Union. Awarded to an individual who has a proven track record of championing for the entrepreneurial journey. This can be through volunteering, mentoring, investing, or collaborating.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE ENTREPRENEUR OF THE YEAR – Mel Bowers, Mel B Enterprises. This award was determined by social media and overall community popularity.

“Being an entrepreneur has been a great adventure for me,” Bowers said. “Knowing that I set my own pace, create my own path, and that my future is extraordinary. I won’t make excuses, and never will I shun my hard days, they are what made me who I am.  There are no limits to what I can achieve.”

Urban Engine Salutes Women in Technology, Female Entrepreneurs

Urban Engine, a local nonprofit organization aimed at accelerating STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics)-focused innovation and entrepreneurship through education, announced a series of free events that will celebrate women in technology and showcase female entrepreneurs in conjunction with Women’s History Month.

The series of events includes:

  • Wednesday, March 6: Women in Tech-themed Co-Working Night at Huntsville West, 3001 9th Ave., 6 p.m. – A schedule of one-hour technical workshops ranging from software and web development to digital marketing will be led by women in partnership with Women Who Code Huntsville.
  • March 14: 32/10 Speaker Series at The Camp at MidCity, 5901 University Drive, 5:30 p.m. – Amanda Latifi co-founder/CEO of the Los Angeles-based shopping application, HaftaHave.
  • March 20: Google “I am Remarkable” Women’s Empowerment Workshop at Huntsville West, 3001 9th Ave., 6 p.m. – Led by Lauren Johannesmeyer, city manager of Google Fiber Huntsville.
  • March 27: “Her-story” Panel at Huntsville West, 3001 9th Ave., 6 p.m. – Featuring Joanna White, Governmental Affairs liaison for the Huntsville Area Association of Realtors; Emilie Dover, co-founder/president of Rocket City Digital; and Jessica Barker, president of the Huntsville/Madison County chapter of Alabama New South Coalition.

Urban Engine is celebrating women in technology and female startup founders to bring awareness to equity in STEAM careers and startup opportunities.

National data indicates women make up less than 20 percent of U.S. tech jobs while owning about 40 percent of all businesses. But, for those working on technology businesses, only 17 percent of venture-backed capital is invested in women-led startups.

For more information, visit https://www.urbanengine.org/events/wemonth.

Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez! Celebration Means Big Business

Any celebration that includes parades, costumes, beads, masks, King Cakes, and adult beverages can’t be all bad.

And, like just about every other holiday or celebration in the United States, it’s big business.

Mardi Gras, aka Fat Tuesday, has gone well beyond its Gulf Coast start and is spreading its bead-laden roots throughout the United States. 

The annual celebration seems to have grown exponentially over the past decade. Universal Studios Orlando touts its 2019 Mardi Gras as “Florida’s biggest party,” complete with specialty neon cocktails.

Tracing its origins from 17th and 18th century Europe and France, this traditional revelry of “Boeuf Gras,” or fatted calf, got its start in the United States at the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile, aka Mobile, Alabama, in 1703. 

But, by 1718, soon after New Orleans was founded, Mardi Gras, as we know it, took off.

The combination of southern coastal regions, cities situated along the Mississippi River, and the French ancestry of many of those working near these areas helped to expand Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras is the last night of Carnival season, which begins with the 12th night after Christmas. It’s also the night before Lent.

Depending on where it falls on the calendar, Mardi Gras can occur anywhere from early February to as late as Mid-March.

Celebrated mainly in areas with large Catholic populations, Carnival is the big “blowout” leading up to Lent.  

Huntsville’s local community and city visitors participate in the celebration Mardi Gras, which provides a little boost to the city’s economy.

King Cakes

Available only during Carnival, King Cake is typically made with braided brioche dough, laced with cinnamon. The dough is then glazed with icing and topped with purple, green, and gold sugar. From plain to fruit and cream cheese filling, King Cakes of all varieties are available for purchase at the local grocery stores, specialty bakeries, or ordered online from regional bakeries. What sets a King Cake apart from other kinds of cakes is the small plastic Baby Jesus inside. Tradition has it that whoever finds the baby in their slice is obliged to buy the next King Cake.

Beads

During the late 1800s, glass beads were tossed into the crowds by the parade Krewes, thus becoming an instant hit among the New Orleans revelers. Beads still are the most popular parade “throw” passed out in parades, only now, those beloved tossed beads are usually made of plastic.

Everyone Loves A Parade

Aside from the random smatterings of celebrations at many of the local bars, Huntsville’s present version of Mardi Gras didn’t fully get on the radar until 2014, the year of its first parade. The inaugural Mardi Gras parade and festivities drew about 500 costumed participants, with thousands more watching from the sidewalks.

As in New Orleans, Fat Tuesday in Huntsville will be quiet by comparison, but local eateries, such as Cajun Steamer and PoBoy Factory, and a few others will celebrate March 5.

Matt Curtis counting his blessings after a stellar year

The real estate market is booming and, as a result, Matt Curtis has a lot of blessings to count.

Over the past 13 years, Matt Curtis Real Estate has grown rapidly. In 2018, the agency received the following distinctions: Huntsville Chamber of Commerce Service Business of the Year, Nationally Ranked Website by Real Trends and, for the past two years, Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Companies in the Nation (No. 17 in 2018).

“2018 has been one of the best years – inventory is at an all-time low; growth rate is up at 10 percent,” Curtis said. “Although nationally the market will start to slow down, Huntsville-Madison can anticipate 5 to 10 years of solid growth. This has been the busiest January we’ve ever had.”

After graduating from the University of Tennessee with a degree in computer engineering, Curtis started out selling test equipment for National Instruments to the Army and NASA. Then, after landing his biggest sale, he was offered a job at Woodland Homes. During his stint at Woodland, he honed his business acumen for real estate.

For Curtis and his team, giving back is important.

“For the past three years, we have been building homes in Nicaragua,” he said. “For every 100 homes sold, we build a home in Nicaragua for a family living in unsafe conditions.

“2019 will be our fourth year. There have been 65 houses built to date, with the 20 more being built this year, that’s 85 houses by the end of the year. Habitat for Humanity is also involved with the mission. The way it’s been usually, is that half the funding comes from donation, the other half coming from builders.”

However, this year there will be no building.

“We usually go once a year and I was planning to take my family this year,” Curtis said. “But due to safety concerns, we had to cancel our trip. It was sad not to be able to go.”

In addition to the Nicaragua effort, the Curtis team supports local community projects.

“We have funded numerous charitable initiatives including 88.1 WAY-FM’s local concerts and a new gym for Madison Academy,” Curtis said.

And, there is also a love of sports and supporting the local teams.

“It’s a good, fan-based experience for the family,” Curtis said. “Huntsville Havoc, Rocket City Trash Pandas, we are big fans.

“We have already bought our box seats for the 2020 (Trash Pandas) season.”

Strong Economic Numbers, Distinguished Service Highlighted at Chamber Meeting

Someone said that looking back, 2018 was a year for the record books for Huntsville and Madison County …. “off the charts” and “epic”.

That someone was Chip Cherry, president and CEO of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce. His remarks came Wednesday at the 83rd Annual Chamber Membership Meeting.

According to real numbers, his proclamation was not overstated.

Huntsville finished 2018 ranked sixth in the nation for job growth according to 24/7 Wall Street. In all, five new companies broke ground, bringing more than 4,200 jobs to Madison County. They made capital investments of $2.3 billion while 13 current companies made capital investments of just under $350 million and nearly 1,000 jobs.

The groundbreaking of the $1.6 billion Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA plant at Greenbrier Road and Old Highway 20 was the biggest economic story of 2018. The plant is expected to create 4,000 jobs by 2021 when it opens.

Cummings Research Park, the second-largest research park in the nation, is at 91 percent occupancy, marking three groundbreakings and 10 ribbon-cuttings in 2018.

To provide some perspective, the Economic Growth Index, which reflects combined employment, GDP, and wages, shows Huntsville with a 38 percent growth rate in 2018. Compare that to 23 percent nationally and 15 percent growth for the state of Alabama, and Huntsville more than doubles statewide economic growth!

Keynote speaker Chris Voss, author and founder/CEO of the Black Swan Group and a former international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI, used humor and intrigue in speaking to the membership about the art of business negotiation.

Before passing the gavel to 2019 Chamber Board Chair Kim Lewis, outgoing Chair Gary Bolton honored Alicia Ryan of LSINC with the Distinguished Service Award for her volunteer work serving as the vice chair of the Board of Directors for the Alabama School for Cyber Technology and Engineering, a statewide magnet school created by the Legislature in 2018. She also serves as the chair of the Board of the Foundation supporting the school, which will be the first of its kind in the nation to address the growing demand for cyber and engineering professionals in the workforce.

Huntsville received several significant media recognitions recently. According to The New York Times, Huntsville is one of 52 Places to Go in 2019; Huntsville ranks No. 7 in the Best Places to Live in the U.S. by U.S. News & World Report; and the city is No. 3 on the Wall Street Journal‘s Where You Should Move to Make the Most Money list.

Bolton, vice president of Global Marketing at Adtran, presented a $10,000 donation on behalf of his company to the Alabama School for Cyber Technology and Engineering.