Singing River Trail a Merger of Native American History and Smart Technology

Native Americans called it the “River that Sings” and many tribes were said to use the Tennessee River to “sing” their dead into the afterlife.

Two hundred years was not that long ago in the grand scheme of history and, in 1819, Creek and Cherokee tribes lived up and down the river leaving behind a rich legacy in places where rockets and genomics, missiles and cyber security now dominate.

The past and the future are coming together in a historical and high-tech way as the Land Use Committee of Huntsville’s Launch 2035 debuts the first quarter-mile of North Alabama’s 70-mile-long Singing River Trail along Governors House Drive in Huntsville.

In what is one of the most ambitious legacy projects Launch 2035 has undertaken, the Singing River Trail project hit a major milestone last month debuting a $225,000 master plan funded by municipal and county governments, regional businesses, and congressional officers. The plan by Alta Planning + Design lays out a 70-mile bike-hike-walk trail that will physically connect Huntsville to Madison, Athens, and Decatur.

Fully embracing the Native American heritage, the plan reveals a route starting at Bob Wallace Avenue in Huntsville. It will follow Madison Boulevard and bear south at Zierdt Road to Triana, crossing over County Line Road to Mooresville. Another leg will bear north off Madison Boulevard toward Belle Mina, and dip south to the river at County Road 6 crossing into Decatur. On the Decatur leg, it will turn north along U.S. 31 toward Athens.

Although it is expected to shift in some places, especially along U.S. 31, the master plan reveals a trail that will offer estimated economic benefits of $10,890,000; transportation benefits of $866,000, and health benefits of $1.4 million.

It will also offer $23,631,000 in indirect economic spending; $7,079,000 in earnings from direct economic spending; and provide approximately 900 temporary and 100 permanent jobs per year.

“We see the master plan as the first milestone in this legacy project,” said John Allen, CEO of Huntsville’s Committee of 100, the backbone of the Launch 2035 effort to forge a coalition between city and business leaders in Madison, Morgan and Limestone counties. Their purpose is to build an economy that is inclusive of communities across the entire region that benefits the entire region.

“Land-use planning is one of the three legs of the stool on which Launch 2035 has its focus. If you look at Huntsville regionally, the Tennessee River passes through all three counties and four major cities.”

Joe Campbell, legal counsel for Huntsville Hospital, is on the Launch 2035 Land Use Committee. He had been working on a connectivity idea for the Huntsville and Decatur campuses of Calhoun Community College.

They had discussed a trail or bike system that would connect the two campuses, making him the perfect person to spearhead an expansion of that concept to include the bike-hike-walk trail that connects the entire three-county region.

“I have been amazed at the response,” said Campbell. “Everyone we talk to says ‘Yes’.”

One of those yeses is the Smithsonian Institute.

“One of our law partners came to our firm from having worked for the Smithsonian institute,” Campbell said. “Upon talking to her, she put John and I in touch with Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

“She mentioned they have a storehouse of American Indian artifacts and said if we were to do a Native American museum along the trail, there was a chance the Smithsonian would be interested in loaning us all sorts of exhibits for it.

“John and I were stunned to be honest, when we met with him, thinking we needed to convince him that what we wanted to do would be beneficial to the museum. But instead, his response was that this may be the kind of venture the Smithsonian had been looking for. They have been wanting to take the Smithsonian outside of the four walls of their building and take it to the people!”

Campbell said Gover brought up possibly incorporating the Trail of Tears into the project.

“He suggested we set it up as a smart trail. Pinpoint sites that were part of the Trail of Tears, that were heavily populated villages along the way, or that held historical significance,” Campbell said. “If we do that, the Smithsonian would provide exhibits and facts from those events.”

Campbell said he and Allen came away excited about the possibilities, able to envision a technologically advanced digitally-enabled walking and biking trail where people are listening on their headphones to historical recordings that tell the story of the area at different locations, along with signage and exhibits where they can stop and take in what occurred there.

Another consideration is to have sensors and other technology that warns walkers and riders. For example, because of recent rains, a specific route through the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge was too wet. It would then recommend a different route. This would be helpful to people planning out a 20- or 50-mile route.

Allen agrees that in terms of funding, nearly everyone they talk to loves the idea and they already have sponsors in all aspects of business from Huntsville Hospital to the TVA and Rotary, banks, colleges, and more.

“The trail also has health benefits that are part of our workforce retention programs,” he said. “It’s not just something our community has to have as an amenity to keep workers here, it’s something to do that’s cool, attractive and a magnet for our talent pool.”

The city was about to authorize the building of a new car bridge and Campbell said they stepped in and negotiated putting in a bike lane.

“They did it and will consider it for any future roads as well,” Campbell said.

“When you look at the economic impact, you realize how it will change the dynamics of communities along the route,” he said. “For instance, I pitched the idea at a quality of life panel at a chamber leadership meeting and afterward, a commercial developer on an economic development panel wanted to talk to me about the restaurants they’re trying to bring in. He wants to discuss where the trail will run because for some clients, it may be more feasible to locate on an off-road location you can access by bike or walking than along a five-lane high traffic area in town.

“I did a presentation to the Rotary Club about it and they have taken us on as their five-year project.”

Allen said the question became, ‘How are we going to manage that from a municipal perspective?”

They started with looking at other successful trails as a baseline for what the Singing River Trail could be.

One of those is the 62-mile Silver Comet Trail that runs from Smyrna, Ga., outside Atlanta, to the Alabama state line where it connects to the Chief Ladiga Trail, winding for 33 miles through the countryside to Anniston.

They have also studied the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 38-mile off-road shared-use trail in northwest Arkansas; and the Wolf River Greenway Trail from Memphis to Germantown, Tenn., which is a little over seven miles.

Decisions about the trail’s width, whether to pave it or use crushed gravel, who will maintain it, and providing security are all still in the planning stages.

“We’ve had the National Park Service at the table talking about these things,” said Campbell. “But you know different parts of it will be under different jurisdictions so each community will be responsible and will have to step up.

“Right now, our target is to get it on the ground.”

Monroe Manor to Offer Luxury Living Outside the City Lights

MERIDIANVILLE — A new residential development offers home builders a chance to live just off a golf course of a winding waterway in the northern part of Madison County.

Casey Stafford of Stafford Realty is introducing Monroe Manor, a 150-plus acre spread that sits hard against the south end of Colonial Golf Course on one side and Beaverdam Creek on another.

There are 48 lots ranging from .75 acre to just under five acres.

“It’s less than 10 miles to downtown Huntsville,’’ Stafford said.

Several large employers such as the Toyota plant and the Facebook data center are just a few miles away.

Stafford Realty bought the land two years ago and broke ground in January.

“It’s the first development I’ve ever done,’’ Stafford said. “It’s been a learning experience. But, me and (real estate attorney Ty Stafford) had an idea about what we wanted it to be.’’

Aerial photo shows layout of Monroe Manor development. (Photo Courtesy of Stafford Realty/Marty Sellers)

The Staffords bill Monroe Manor as a luxury community with lots selling from $75,000 to $150,000. Houses will be a minimum of 3,000 square feet and each buyer can choose the contractor.

“They’ll be custom made,’’ Stafford said. “We’re just selling the lots. Each customer can use their own builder.’’

According to a post made by Stafford, the Monroe Manor “community provides some of the most peaceful lots to build on in the area. Monroe Manor offers golf course lots and creek lots up to five acres. This is a community you and your family will be excited to call home.’’

Stafford Realty also includes Casey’s uncles Roger and Stanley Stafford, who many area residents will remember as a former basketball player and coach. He won a state championship as a player at Hazel Green and a coach at Sparkman and is a member of the Huntsville-Madison County Athletic Hall of Fame.

Casey also played high school basketball at Hazel Green. The 6-foot-3 Stafford was named to the Alabama Sports Writers Association Class 5A All-State second team as a senior in 2004. After starring for the Trojans, he played for former UAH and current Lipscomb coach Lennie Acuff at UAH from 2005-09.

“Those five years were awesome,’’ he said of his time with the Chargers.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Management. After finishing college, he worked for Science and Engineering Services and entered the family real estate business.

Stafford also revealed he’s made a living in another field of work not too many people know about.

“It might surprise you,’’ he said, “but I’ve been a Huntsville firefighter for four or five years.’’

 

Study: Local Housing Market Stronger than National Trends; Low Inventory a Concern

While Madison County continues to outpace the national residential real estate market, the inventory of available houses remains a concern, according to a recently released study.

The Huntsville Area Association of Realtors, in partnership with the University of Alabama-Huntsville College of Business,  released its real estate economics report, which compares the local housing market in Madison County to its national counterpart.

 “Huntsville and Madison County appear on so many Top 10 lists for several good reasons: great job opportunities, low cost of living, a diverse economy and entertainment culture, and responsible management by our elected officials,” said HAAR President Cindi Peters-Tanner. “As a result, our real estate market has out-performed national trends and it continues to be the best place in the nation to buy or sell a home.”

As a result of the local market’s success, inventory remains a concern.

According to the reports, Madison County held 6.4 months of housing supply at the end of 2015. Since then, that number has dropped to 1.8 months while, nationally, inventory has risen from 5.1 months to 5.9 months.

The report said local new construction will need to grow considerably to meet future demand.

Additional findings of the HAAR / UAH report include:

  • Home prices are rising locally and national at the same rate of 4.5 percent.
  • Heightened labor force participation and median household income have increased the number of local residents with the ability to afford a house.
  • Local population growth continues to outpace national growth.
  • New construction accounts for roughly one-quarter (26 percent) of all home sales, beating the national average of 21 percent.
  • Since 2015, the Madison County residential real estate market has led the national average in new home sales percentage and population growth rate. 

HAAR has partnered with the UAH College of Business to produce quarterly real estate economic reports to provide Realtors, their clients, public officials, community stakeholders, and the general public an up-to-date snapshot on the local housing market. This information helps our community anticipate positive or negative changes as we look ahead to new growth and the challenges it brings. 

For information, visit HAAR.realtor/real-estate-economics-reports

 

Watermark at Bridge Street Developer Expands to Clift Farms

MADISON — Watermark Residential, owners of Watermark at Bridge Street Town Centre – Cummings Research Park’s first residential community, will develop the first luxury multifamily apartment community at the new Clift Farms multi-use development on U.S. 72 in Madison. Construction will begin in January on a three-story, 324-unit, garden-style community.

The complex will provide amenities such as granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and a resort-style swimming pool.

“The strong job and population growth of the Huntsville market has played a large role in Watermark’s commitment to the second project in the Huntsville [area],” said Tyler Sauerteig, the company’s director of land acquisitions for the Southeast. “Watermark has had great success with the lease-up of Watermark at Bridge Street Town Centre, and we feel that Clift Farms is going to be a similar destination development with immediate area amenities and great proximity to jobs.”

The Breland Companies broke ground at Clift Farms across from the Target and Madison Hospital in May. Their goal is to create a community that will have a timeless feel while preserving the natural attributes of the historic family farmland.

The Clift Farm community will provide retail, dining, residential, office space, medical opportunities and multifamily homes, as well as luxury apartments such as Watermark at Clift Farms.

Watermark Residential is a Thompson Thrift company, a multifamily development company based in Indianapolis, Ind. Established in 2008, Watermark Residential has developed or is in the process of developing more than 39 projects in 12 states totaling over 10,000 units.

City Receives $1.3M Grant to Renovate Butler Terrace Area

The announcement didn’t come gradually or with the drama that accompanied the rollout of the top four teams participating in the college football playoff, but for the city’s civic leaders the news was just as exciting and filled with suspense for the future.

Huntsville is one of four cities nationwide to receive a Choice Neighborhood Planning grant. The Rocket City joined Rome, Ga.; Trenton, N.J.; and Omaha, Neb.; in receiving the award.

The cities were notified in September and Huntsville officials unveiled plans Thursday on how the $1.3 million grant will be used.

“We’ll renovate west of downtown and around Butler Terrace,’’ said Scott Erwin, the city interim director of community development.

Plans call for new affordable housing, commercial opportunities and entertainment options.

Erwin said the blueprints are designed to renovate “distressed public housing’’ and improve blight in a one-mile radius around Butler Terrace, which was built in the early 1950s. The area is from Bob Wallace and Memorial Parkway west to Triana Boulevard and I-565.

A packed house gathered at First Baptist Church to hear details of the renovations, which are a joint venture between the City of Huntsville and the Housing Authority. Council President Devyn Keith and Councilmembers Frances Akridge, Will Culver and Jennie Robinson, along with Urban and Long Range Planning Manager Dennis Madsen, Real Estate Development for the Housing Authority Quisha Riche and Camiros Planning Coordinator Bill James attended the meeting.

Camiros is a Chicago-based company with experience in planning, zoning, urban design, economic development and landscape architecture. The firm has worked with Choice Neighborhood Planning grant cities, including Mobile.

“Today was about introducing Camiros as partners,’’ Erwin said.

He said community members and not just city authorities will have a voice in the planning of renovations and upgrades.

Residents in areas affected by new construction, he said, won’t be dislocated immediately since the project is only in the planning process. However, residents may have to eventually move for a period of time.

If that happens, Erwin said, the city will relocate residents temporarily and those who were moved will have first options on returning to their community once renovations are complete.

The Choice Neighborhood Planning grant lasts for three years. Once planning goals are met, Huntsville can compete for a $30 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant to complete construction.

Erwin said residents in areas including Butler Terrace, Lowe Mill and Terry Heights and Campus 805 are welcomed to voice their opinions.

“They’re engaged in this,’’ he said. “They will have input in this.’’

The Choice Neighborhoods Initiative is a program of HUD. Its goal is to transform neighborhoods of extreme poverty into functioning, sustainable mixed-income communities.

South Huntsville Businesses Receive Facade Improvement Grants

There will soon be a new look to some South Huntsville businesses.

Nearly a dozen small businesses will be able to improve their storefronts, facades and even landscaping thanks to Façade Improvement Grants, the South Huntsville Main Business Association announced.

Business owners applied for the grants, sponsored by Redstone Federal Credit Union. The businesses demonstrated how the improvements to their storefronts would affect the overall appearance, quality, growth and vitality of the South Huntsville district.

The grants provide up to two-to-one in matching funds for 11 projects ranging from $800 to $4,000. The total economic impact is $184,000 in the South Huntsville community.

“The Façade Improvement Grants are contributing to a positive business environment in South Huntsville,” said Bekah Schmidt, executive director for the South Huntsville Main Business Association. “Through the grant, we are encouraging the revitalization of buildings and supporting business improvement. We look forward to seeing these projects completed over the next six months, and greatly appreciate our presenting sponsor, Redstone Federal Credit Union for making this all possible.”

The grant program is part of South Huntsville’s participation in the Main Street Alabama, a statewide effort to build stronger communities through effective downtown and neighborhood commercial district revitalization. South Huntsville was designated a Main Street Alabama community in June 2018.

The following businesses and or shopping centers will be utilizing the matching grant funds to complete façade renovations, building enhancements, or landscape improvements.

  • Angel’s Island Coffee Shop
  • Apollo Animal Hospital
  • Bubby’s Diner
  • Das Stahl Bierhaus
  • Earth Touch Garden Center
  • Eleanor Murphy Library
  • 8200 Memorial Parkway
  • Off the Rack Boutique
  • Main Street South
  • Sabghi’s Jewelers
  • Village Center

For information, call 256-701-2290, email bekah@shba.biz or visit southhuntsvillemain.org/façade.

CityCentre to Become City’s Social/Cultural Epicenter

As Huntsville continues to grow and evolve, its downtown is going through a metamorphosis of its own.

And, sometime in the next decade, Huntsville will eclipse other cities in the state economically, culturally and in population.

Speaking of Eclipse, that’s the name of the newest project that will add to the downtown skyline.

We are thrilled to bring the Eclipse – a Spring Bay Residence to our Huntsville community,” said Lindsey
Pattillo Keane, manager of Marketing and Property Activation for RCP Companies. “CityCentre is a destination that strengthens Huntsville’s urban core and complements a growing number of new downtown offerings and existing cultural amenities.

CityCentre will feature a three-part public art commission, artisanal market and social hall across from Big Spring Park. (Rendering/RCP Companies)

“This is the epicenter of downtown Huntsville where important connections are made that will improve pedestrian movement and enhance already-successful city-sponsored activities.”

Eclipse is a 278-unit, multifamily residential project will include studio, one- and two-bedroom units above 18,000-square feet of upscale restaurants and retail.

“This dynamic design highlighting modern luxury and classic charm will offer residents a courtyard pool, gated dog park, and stunning panoramic views of Big Spring Park,” Keane said.

Eclipse will be adjacent to the AC Hotel and will include a unique art walk and market place.

“This site will feature Huntsville’s largest three-part public art commission thanks to partnerships with CityCentre, Arts Huntsville, City of Huntsville, Community Foundation, and Redstone Federal Credit Union,” Keane said. “We are also currently finalizing design on our carefully curated, artisanal market and social hall.”

The project is expected to be finished by the end of 2020.c

Vertiv Joins Stovehouse as Newest Office Tenant

Vertiv, a global IT infrastructure provider, will join the Stovehouse development on Governors Drive in West Huntsville, according to a release from Crunkleton Commercial Real Estate and Stovehouse Properties.

Recently ranked as the No. 1 supplier of remote IT management devices worldwide by analytics IHS Markit, Vertiv  expects to complete its move by the first quarter next year and will remain open at its facility on Corporate Drive during the move. Vertiv brings together hardware, software, analytics and ongoing services for data centers, communications networks and commercial and industrial facilities.

“Our new site at Stovehouse will help us match the facility to our people and our business,” said Patrick Quirk, vice president and general manager, IT systems at Vertiv. “When we decided to relocate, we prioritized finding a facility that captured the innovative nature of our company. We have roots as a small, Huntsville-based IT management device startup (formerly Cybex, then Avocent), so having the chance to connect our history with the historic Martin Stove factory was an opportunity we couldn’t miss. It should be able to accommodate our growth for years to come.

“We are excited to create a modern, collaborative work environment that builds on the bones of this historic structure. Our new office will incorporate a state-of-the-science development data center, training and demo space within a high-energy, community-driven environment. We plan to make it a place that will draw in fresh new talent and take care of our current employees.”

The owners of Stovehouse said they are excited to have Vertiv on board.

“It’s an honor to have Vertiv join our list of office tenants at the Stovehouse campus,” said Danny Yancey, owner and developer of Stovehouse. “We hope that the development will offer several amenities that are coveted in the modern workplace, like access to local cuisine, fitness studios, leisure activities, and many other things we plan to add in the future.

“Vertiv will be able to highlight these features when attracting new talent to its team.”

Estimates show when Stovehouse is at full capacity there will be around 500 people working on campus daily at the businesses along with thousands of visitors coming for food and nightly entertainment throughout the week.

“Stovehouse was created to blend the modern workplace with opportunities for leisure,” said Crunkleton’s Eric St. John. “Developers have put together an exceptional space for both emerging and established businesses like Vertiv. Office users have an enhanced quality of life thanks to other nearby services that make their workday more enjoyable and productive.”

 

Huntsville Prepares for the Future: Parking Problems or Problem with Perception?

Change is hard but it has never stopped Huntsville from rising to a challenge.

In the same way we adjusted to becoming the Rocket City in the 1960s; to becoming a booming defense industry maven in the 1990s; and a five-county regional economy over the past decade; Huntsville is looking yet again to the future and sometimes – just sometimes – we get a whiff of frustration as the construction holds up traffic, a red light seems to be holding longer than it used to, or there does not appear to be enough parking at a popular new shopping venue!

Parking spaces have become precious commodities.

As Huntsville continues to grow and expand, city planners are trying to get ahead of the headaches seen in large, fast-growing metropolitan cities by redesigning it as they go for the future, and a central tenet of this strategy involves Land Use.

Land Use is the management and modification, or “urbanization” of a natural environment into residential, commercial, and public “urban open” sectors.

In the past, especially in the past 50 years, Land Use has been geared toward making room for urban sprawl and commercialization at all costs. Shopping centers have focused on gigantic asphalt parking lots where drivers battle constantly for the closest parking spot. Stores sit back off the main thoroughfare to accommodate it, while anxious holiday drivers follow on the heels of customers exiting the storefront like automotive stalkers until they reach their vehicle, either sniping the spot or deciding to try for one that’s closer.

Most of the time however, these parking fields are more than half empty, always built larger than required, leaving an asphalt eyesore and a tremendous waste of land.

In the past few years, Huntsville city planners have been studying Land Use analyses to help reshape Huntsville’s character and to better manage Huntsville’s land and natural environment to fit a more contemporary view of how people live, work and play.

The Shops at Merchants Walk and Shops at Merchants Square on Bob Wallace Avenue are based on “New Urbanism.” While the tenants and some customers perceive there to be insufficient parking, Merchants Square was designed to sit close to the street with some ground-level parking, backed up by a three-floor parking deck.

Jessica Partington, property manager for RCP Properties which developed both shopping centers, said the overwhelming success of the developments has put the need for additional traffic and parking solutions front and center.

“The Shops at Merchants Square has been wildly popular, which is something we will never be upset about, but perhaps a bit more popular than we anticipated,” she said. “When Chuy’s opened, it was a record-breaking opening for them nationwide and no one anticipated how popular it was going to be.

“Of course, we are not upset by that but with that came some unexpected challenges.”

She said that as of now, the parking ratios required for that venue are not showing they are under-parked in terms of code compliance, but there are a couple of things at play.

“Employees are required to park on the upper level of the deck but because there is not what most people perceive as being much parking at ground level, we find that people don’t always go all the way up the deck,” she said. “And on weekends, we find there are parking spots at that last hook in the parking deck and up top that people miss.”

Partington said there is a lot of construction work during the day and construction vehicles in the deck that take up a lot of room and are taking up some spaces that would normally be available.

“But we are nearing the end of that, so it won’t be a problem much longer,” she said. “Also, Aspen Dental will have their own ground-level parking and when they are finished, people can park there at night and on weekends when the problem seems to be worse.”

According to Kelly Schrimsher, director of communications for Mayor Tommy Battle’s office, Huntsville is experiencing some growing pains that can be easily addressed by changing people’s perception.

“The Shops at Merchants Square and the Shops at Merchants Walk on Bob Wallace Avenue are the perfect example,” Schrimsher said. “There is actually plenty of parking. You just have to look at it from a more efficient Land Use perspective and tie it to where the future will be taking us.

“We are rethinking parking requirements to better fit a model for the not so distant future where people are walking more, are driving more electric cars, where more people are using services like Uber, and where people will walk outside the store or restaurant and ‘dial their car’ to come pick them up. Although it may sound farfetched now, it is not so far away from reality.”

Rendering shows an example of a crosswalk idea for Bob Wallace Avenue.

The city is also working on a couple of solutions they believe will help alleviate the Bob Wallace traffic and parking issues as well.

“We are building a decorative pedestrian crosswalk from the much larger parking lot at the Shops at Merchants Walk that will be visually appealing and substantial enough to slow the traffic down on Bob Wallace so people can safely cross back and forth,” said Shane Davis, director of urban and economic development for Huntsville. “The city is acquiring material quotes for the intersection improvements and expect to have it completed in early January. It will also really dress up the area.”

Made of “stamped thermoplastic material” with a brick, stone and slurry concrete design, Davis said it will provide for improved pedestrian crosswalk safety, more driver awareness at the intersection, and overall improved aesthetics of the area.

Over the next year, visitors to that part of the city will also see sidewalks up and down both sides of Bob Wallace from the Parkway to both shopping centers, and down the road there are plans for an equally decorative crosswalk across Memorial Parkway at the Bob Wallace intersection.

“The city also has a plan to connect Regal Drive on the Parkway Place side next to Belk, to the Shops at Merchant Square,” said Partington. “Those through-roads will alleviate some of the traffic flow and allow people to walk a little bit, which we are doing more of in Huntsville.”

“It is a little bit of educating people and preparing them for what we know is coming in the future,” said Schrimsher. “Downtown Huntsville residents have been going through this same evolution since its revitalization began.

“The days of fighting for a parking spot right in the front door and every individual business having their own asphalt parking lot is being phased out and shared parking is being phased in,  If you live downtown, strangers may park in front of or near your home. And they are using parking decks and Uber rather than driving their car everywhere.

“But people who choose to live downtown in areas like Twickenham Square and Avenue Huntsville, do so for the convenience, the amenities, and the pedestrian-friendly environment. They do not have to jump in the car to drive to the grocery store or a restaurant or to have their hair cut or grab a cup of coffee. If they live in these areas, they adjust to it and even enjoy it.”

According to the city’s statistics, Huntsville is a sprawling city overall, but it has population density pockets such as downtown of more than 5,000 people per square mile, making it comparable to cities such as Pittsburgh, Pa., and St. Paul, Minn.

Interestingly, Five Points is an excellent example, originally developed in the early 1900s as a “streetcar suburb” that was not designed for the automobile and is still, today, easily walkable because of it.

Compare that to Cummings Research Park, which was established in 1962.

Designed for driving, originally, there were no restaurants, retail or residential originally allowed within the park.

That began to change when, 1982, the city purchased land and it evolved into Cummings Research Park West. In 2007, Bridge Street Town Centre was developed and it now includes more than 80 restaurants and stores and two hotels. An apartment building has since opened and a third hotel will open soon.

Some sections of Research Park East are being rezoned for small, very condensed multi-use developments, multistoried and sitting close to streets so as not to waste land. The parking will be enough, but it will not be a sprawling field of asphalt.

Tenants can expect some retail-like coffee shops and cafes, and perhaps even hotel rooms on the upper floors to alleviate having to jump in your vehicle for every errand.

Residents are already seeing bikeshares in Cummings Research Park for quick and emissions-free runs.

There are more pedestrian-friendly multi-use developments such as the Village of Providence, downtown’s Twickenham Square, Town Madison along I-565, and MidCity on the old Madison Square Mall property, following a popular trend across the U.S. where people are demanding less pollution, less asphalt, less traffic and more outdoor-friendly landscaping, easier accessibility, and more walkability.

“We recognize that our residents need more mobility options, especially when it comes to urban development,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. “With each new project, we look to create safe and unusable connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists as well as public transit and motor vehicles.”

Huntsville Business Journal Sitdown with Success: Bill Roark

Sitdown with Success is a feature of the Huntsville Business Journal spotlighting local entrepreneurs and their path to success and advice for future entrepreneurs.

It’s easy to see why employees on Torch’s campus, that is home to Torch Technologies and Freedom Real Estate and Capital, LLC, are so happy.

We sat down and spoke with Bill Roark, Torch’s co-founder and Freedom Real Estate’s CEO, and it was clear to see that employees are a top priority of the 100 percent employee-owned companies.

Bill Roark on his key to success: Good people. I’ve been able to surround myself with really good people. (Photo/Steve Babin)

And it is because of the employees and management’s vision and direction that Torch Technologies was one of the Top 100 Fastest Growing Companies in America, according to Entrepreneur Magazine, and on multiple selections on the Inc. 5000 list recognizing the Fastest Growing Private Companies in the U.S.

How did you get started in the business?

Torch Technologies was founded in 2002 and I stepped down as CEO from Torch at the end of 2018. Torch and Freedom are sister companies and under the umbrella of Starfish Holdings for which I am chairman of the board. Freedom Real Estate was started, mostly in the beginning to be an alternative investment for the profits Torch Technologies was making. It was a way to diversify a little bit and it’s been very successful.

What obstacles did you face/how did you overcome them?

Early challenges were cash flow.  The company grew very quickly and started to hire people.  We had to have cash to pay them.  We initially used my home equity line of credit, but as the company continued to grow, we took on some angel investors.  We were fortunate to get good investors who were supportive of the company and were not invasive into the operations.

How are you able to keep your business relevant?

We are constantly updating and changing things to respond to a changing market.  Every year assess exactly where the company is.  We also look at where we want to be two years from now.  We then develop a detailed plan to make the changes to make that happen.

To what do you attribute your success?

Good people. I’ve been able to surround myself with really good people.

Early on, I reached out to a lot of folks I had worked with in the past that I knew who were good and those people knew others who were good. We generally get people who fit our culture that want to be here; that want to be doing what we are doing. The people and the culture are really what have driven us.

One of the key things is that everyone has a stake in the outcome.

Everybody is an owner. If the company does well, then they do well. There’s motivation for them to have the company do well.

When the employees are the owners, they benefit from the success of the company.

What is important to your company culture?

Being good stewards of the community.

That has been with us since the early days. We try to always give something back to the community and grow that as we grow. Some of the big projects that the company will take on are decided on the executive level, but we have created a community within the company that decides how to spend the company money.

Any employee can volunteer and help with Torch Helps, the employees decide which community charities are selected.

Several years ago, we considered leaving south Huntsville, but the mayor encouraged us to stay and asked us to help revitalize South Huntsville, so we did. We started buying buildings such as the Freedom Center and Office Park south.

We have spent close to $20 million revitalizing old buildings in southeast Huntsville and bringing them back to a premium where people would want to be in them again.

What advice do you have for future entrepreneurs?

Learn as much as you can about the business area you want to go into.

If you want to start a business in engineering, you will need to get a college degree, a few years of experience and get some customer relationships such that you have the influence to be able to bring the contracts to the company that you start and the experience to justify bringing in those contracts.

It’s important to build relationships with companies that can help you and with government personnel that would be willing to provide the funding.

Also, for decades, we had that belief that everyone needs to go to college to be able to do business. I don’t think that’s as true anymore. There are lots of good trades out there and there’s a shortage of people to work those skilled trade jobs.