Merit Bank to Open Headquarters in Huntsville

Merit Bank will open its doors this month as a newly established financial institution headquartered in the Huntsville market.

In less than 60 days, Merit Bank raised $25 million from hundreds of investors with diverse backgrounds from across North Alabama. In that same time, the bank gained approval from all three regulatory agencies – the Alabama State Banking Department, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Federal Reserve – to rebrand and relocate its headquarters from Valley Head to 659 Gallatin Street. Merit Bank had acquired Citizens Bank of Valley Head.

Merit Bank is led by an executive team with decades of experience and success in the Huntsville market, including President/CEO Hill Womble, COO Frank Aldag, and Executive Vice Presidents Mark McIntyre and Will Heaps.

In addition, the Board of Directors, representing a vast range of industry and investment experience across North Alabama, will help shape the vision and growth of Merit Bank.  Board members include Chairman Kevin Heronimus, Steven Cost, Chad Falciani, Jeff Huntley, and Brent Romine.

“In any industry, including banking, success starts with the people,” said Womble. “We have built a team of established bankers with proven track records and highly successful board members.  The overwhelming response to our initial private stock offering shows we have the confidence of investors. 

“We are committed and poised to do big things for our clients and our community.”

With Huntsville’s continued growth and repeated accolades, funding and investment in this market is critical. Merit Bank will specialize in commercial lending and private executive banking, expansions, capital improvements, and agricultural lending, among other opportunities.

“Obviously, Huntsville and the North Alabama market is an ideal setting for commercial banking,” said Heaps, executive vice president of commercial banking. “Merit Bank will focus primarily on providing a high level of service and support to our clients, along with a secure, easy-to-use platform for efficiency.  We are excited for this opportunity to support economic development and growth in our community.”

Operations of Citizens Bank will not be interrupted and former President E.N. “Buz” Jones will continue overseeing Valley Head operations.

Razing Buildings to Raise Opportunities in North Huntsville

Devyn Keith ran to represent District 1 on the Huntsville City Council in 2016 vowing to make north Huntsville a destination.

He wasn’t making empty promises.

Devyn Keith helping bring redevelopment and opportunity to North Huntsville.(Photo by Eric Schultz)

With Keith leading the way, eyesore buildings bought by the city have been razed along North Parkway. There have been eight reduced to rubble so far and, if Keith gets his way, more will follow.

Blight isn’t welcome in Keith’s district where he grew up in the Northwoods development.

“We’ll be going after the rest of them shortly,’’ he said of privately owned buildings that have seen better days. “I’m not sure of the time frame.’’

Keith has been a mover and shaker since he unseated longtime District 1 Councilman Richard Showers. Just two years into the job, he was voted council president by his colleagues.

Meanwhile, he created the North Huntsville Business Association, which will soon move into office space near the corner of Oakwood Avenue and the Parkway in a strip mall that has been renovated.

Keith, who holds degrees from Samford and the University of Massachusetts, ran on the platform of reducing crime, increasing property values, investing in infrastructure and enhancing a vibrant quality of life for all of the district.

Some of his initiatives have already taken shape.

Along with the city, the Neighborhood Resource Center, a program that brings city government to the neighborhood, was launched. The Johnson HIgh School campus will soon become the Johnson Legacy Complex complete with indoor volleyball courts, soccer fields, a rock-climbing wall and even a sauna.

Those are just two of the projects Keith is overseeing.

There have been neighborhood block parties and ice cream socials. Streets are being repaved. The public library serving north Huntsville will move from a trailer into the new Berachah Park. There’s also the Council High Park planned for the site where the old building no longer exists.

One of the many empty buildings along North Parkway, the former Gander Mountain store, will soon be filled by Rural King, a farm/home department store slated to open in August/September.

For Keith, nothing is more important at the moment than erasing the blight that corrupts his streets.

“That was the first policy — start tearing things downs,’’ he said. “That was one of the things I ran on. Tearing down blight is a positive to let people know the city is serious about this.

“It’s, ‘What can we bring to north Huntsville?’ There hasn’t been a new subdivision in north Huntsville in a very long time.’’

Keith has his battle lines drawn. Imagine an area encompassing Oakwood Avenue, Pulaski Pike, University Drive, Jordan Lane and the Parkway.

“We’ll work from the outside in,’’ he said.

Drive past the intersection of the Parkway and Lantana these days and there’s an empty lot where dilapidated buildings once stood. It’ll soon be home to Lantana Way, a green space with a planned public art wall.

“We’re just trying to make it clean,’’ said Harrison Diamond, business relations officer for the city. “We’re tearing them down to make green space.

“We’ll work with the private sector to help make it better. We’ve got projects in the hopper.’’

That’s music to Keith’s ears.

“The city is making it advantageous (for businesses and homeowners) to come to north Huntsville,’’ he said. “For us it’s, ‘What can we do to make it easier?’ ‘’

White Bison Coffee-Twice Daily Opening in Town Madison

MADISON – Combining convenience and coffee, the state’s first Twice Daily-White Bison Coffee store will open in Town Madison this fall.

The new concept store from Nashville-based Tri Star Energy merges Twice Daily’s convenience store and White Bison Coffee’s artisan coffee beverages and fresh, handcrafted café menu.

This will be the first brand-in-brand retail location for Tri Star Energy outside of Tennessee.

“We are thrilled to bring White Bison Coffee and Twice Daily to the people of Alabama,” said Steve Hostetter, CEO of Tri Star Energy. “Whether it’s enjoying coffee with friends, grabbing food on-the-go or fueling up, we’ve got you covered. We pair convenience with quality to accommodate our guests and their busy lives.”

The White Bison Coffee concept offers expertly roasted, handcrafted specialty coffee drinks –– featuring single origin pour-over coffees, cold brew, nitro coffee, espresso beverages and more. Guests can also enjoy freshly baked pastries and handmade breakfast and lunch items including sandwiches, salads and Bistro snack boxes.

In addition to traditional convenience items, Twice Daily’s premium offerings range from grab-and-go snacks, including organic brands, to a selection of staple groceries. There is also a fresh deli case with handmade and healthy options featuring fruits, sandwiches, salads and snacks. Additional offerings include donuts and pastries, freshly prepared breakfast & lunch sandwiches and an extensive beer cave featuring local and craft beers.

For information, visit whitebisonTN.com and twicedaily.com. They can also be followed on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

A Driving Force for Local Entrepreneurs, Urban Engine Turns 4

Called a “driving force” for entrepreneurs, Urban Engine is at the forefront of innovation in the area.

Known for hosting its weekly co-working nights, Urban Engine is more than a social platform, it is a springboard for ideas and a cultural movement that resonates with our growing community of innovators, founders, and leaders.

Housed in Huntsville West, the former West Huntsville Elementary School and now a home to start-up businesses, Urban Engine helps to develop high-growth potential businesses and generate the workforce needed to support these endeavors.

And Urban Engine has a lot to celebrate: Four years of a solid upward growth trajectory.

And what better way to celebrate than to host a catered party in the “lunchroom” at Huntsville West and to invite hundreds of sponsors, startup success stories, the local community, and of course, the Mayor.

The fourth anniversary event highlighted Urban Engine’s success story.

Starting off small, Urban Engine began with programs and resources for those who are interested in technological innovation. Since then, there have been more 200 Co-Working Nights, 37 Founder Stories have been shared, more than 1,000 collaborative learning workshops have been presented, and nearly 100 new business ideas have been propelled forward.

Since 2016, more than 20 startups have been supported by Urban Engine and close to 10,000 people have benefited from its programming and services.

“It’s been great, celebrating four years at Huntsville West,” said Urban Engine founder Brendon Malone. “In 2015, I had a dream to give back to the city, to give businesses the best possible start, and to offer classes. We hit the ground running.

“There are now 175 people working in this building that are partners with Urban Engine, in support of the business ecosystem.”

Ashley Ryals, Demetrius Malone, Mayor Tommy Battle, Toni Eberhart, Sameer Singhal. (Photo by Steve Babin)

When introducing Urban Engine Director Toni Eberhart, Demetrius Malone, Huntsville West’s community manager, said, “Always in the best possible mood, one of the most supportive and encouraging people, Toni is our dreamer, a cheerleader, and a good friend to many.”

As she took the stage, Eberhart laughed and said, “I didn’t know how great I was until Demetrius spoke.”

Eberhart saluted the sponsors of the not-for-profit organization, saying “it would not be possible without our partners.”

“Our sponsors are in front of the Urban Engine community saying that they believe in doing business with startups, that they invest in professional development and growth opportunities for our workplace to keep them on the edge of innovation and that they value the Urban Engine as a critical partner in cultivating a desirable culture and climate for startups to launch and grow. How it’s made an impact would not be possible without the support of sponsors, Intuitive Research Technology, Brandon Kruse, and the team.”

She said Huntsville’s environment is conducive to businesses flourishing.

“People ask me, ‘Why Huntsville?’ I believe it’s because anything is possible here,” Eberhart said. “The landscape is totally open to incredible things. Businesses can launch and grow and do things in our local market that would be so difficult to break into on the coasts.

“Investment opportunities are possible. Educational opportunities are possible; career changes are possible, and everyone here is Ultra-supportive. Urban Engine is a cheerleader for these possibilities, and it is how we propel ideas forward at the core.”

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle delivered the keynote address to a packed audience.

“We have seen the vision, the driving force, making it a reality,” said Battle. “We need to make sure our city thinks outside the box. We are a city on the move, with 25,000 jobs added over the last year. 15,000 of those have been in high tech.

“The end result is that you’ve made this count. We’re more competitive, there’s more jobs, thank you for the job you are doing. Huntsville is a place that’s made for the future. The job we do today sets us up for the next 10 years. What you’re doing today will be the technology of tomorrow.”

For more information, visit www.UrbanEngine.org

Successful Business Family Brings Hand & Stone Massage to Huntsville

Ayesha Patel may be one of Huntsville’s youngest new business owners but, at 26, she comes from a long line of successful Huntsville franchise owners who have built multiple restaurant concepts that were new to Huntsville when they opened.

Now the owner of Alabama’s first Hand & Stone Massage and Facial Spa is introducing Huntsville to a new pampering and relaxation concept.

Just opened in the Shops at Merchant Square next door to Chuy’s Tex-Mex, Hand & Stone Massage and Facial Spa offers a membership-based massage and facial experience that is affordable and convenient.

Ayesha Patel, right, is the latest member of a Huntsville family to join the franchise industry. (Photo by Steve Babin)

“For $60 a month, Ayesha and her Stone & Massage staff are going to pay a lot of attention to you for the hour you are there, for not a lot of money,” said Bob McQuillan, vice president of franchise development for the chain. “A massage and facial are luxury items but, with us, not expensive ones. When you think about it, you can’t get a plumber to come to your home for less than $90 an hour, so this is really a great value.”

“We were thinking about getting involved in a health and wellness concept and, when I saw this, I thought, everybody loves massages and facials and the two seem to really complement each other,” said Ayesha Patel. “I think Huntsville is ready for an experience like this. We have our membership, which is unique and a great value, but we’ve also had so many calls already looking to book last minute appointments.

Clift Farm: Breland Companies Bought the Farm That Jack Built

MADISON — In 1850, the population of rural Madison was less than 500 residents. Alabama farmers were producing nearly 565,000 bales of cotton and nearly 29 million bushels of corn a year.

John Henry Clift bought a small piece of rural farmland in what was then called Madison Station.

Since then, six generations of the Clift family have farmed that land for cotton, corn, soybeans, fresh fruits, and vegetables, mostly for local consumption.

Construction is underway on the Clift Farm development.

It was Jack Clift, known as Pawpaw to his many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, who moved home from Atlanta after World War II and took over the family farming business. Jack, who turned 100 years old in December, expanded the farm to more than 600 acres off U.S. 72 between Wall Triana Highway and Balch Road in Madison.

Several years ago, he sold off a sliver to developers who built the shopping plaza where Planet Fitness sits today.

Last fall, Jack officially sold the remaining 550 acres to The Breland Companies who, with his blessing, will develop it into a pedestrian-friendly residential community, park, and retail center.

The Breland development recently broke ground across the highway from the Target Shopping Center and Madison Hospital, but according to Joey Ceci, president of The Breland Companies, the development will in every way, honor and represent the Clift legacy.

“Jack has always been a conservationist at heart,” said Ceci. “His original vision for the land was to keep it agricultural, but he realized later in life that it was going to be sold. He wanted to be an active participant in the process and after much discussion with his family, he entrusted the development and preservation of his property to Louis Breland.”

“To understand this property, you need to understand the history of the Clift family and what faithful stewards Jack and Lillian Clift have been for this land,” said Breland. “I have ridden every inch of this property with Mr. Clift to understand its history and his vision for this wonderful piece of land.”

The goal is to create a community that will have a timeless feel, that will preserve many of the existing natural attributes, while providing retail, dining, residential, office space, multifamily homes, and medical opportunities.

“There is a lot of retail in that area already, but this one is different from those you are seeing at MidCity Huntsville and Town Madison, which will draw a regional audience,” said Ceci. “This one will be mostly residential and will have a relatively small, town center retail and restaurant component that supports the Clift Farm community.”

He said it will have a very real element of green space: a passive park area planted with wildflowers and fruit trees as opposed to soccer fields; a man-made pond surrounded by greenways, and a lot of walking trails. The residential component will consist of townhomes starting at $300,000 and homes ranging from $400,000 to $600,000.

In March, the Madison County Commission approved $8 million for Breland to spend on the development, to build roads and a utility infrastructure for the project.

“We have already done a little bit of groundbreaking, but we are currently building arterial roads and putting in that infrastructure,” said Ceci. “Breland is building a third lane into the property from (U.S.) 72 to alleviate the already heavy traffic in that area, and we have brought in traffic engineers to help us install a couple of red lights.”

An expanded farmers’ market is part of the Clift Farm development plan.

The front of the development along U.S. 72 will be retail and restaurants. The back will include three-story luxury apartments and townhomes with an overall pedestrian environment similar to Huntsville’s Village of Providence. Several out-parcels of land may be developed as medical office space, located conveniently across from Madison Hospital.

One of the most unique aspects of the project, according to Ceci, is that they carved out a modest plot of land on which Clift’s son and grandson will continue small-scale farming and they are building an enlarged farmers market where they will continue to sell fresh fruit and produce from the very land they continue to harvest.

“You have heard restaurants talk about farm-to-table ingredients? In this case, if you order a salad, you can almost sit there and watch the guys go pick it for you,” said Ceci.

Breland expects to begin selling residential lots possibly at the end of this year or early 2020. Some of the retail will likely open in April or May next year.

First avid Hotel in Alabama Breaks Ground at Town Madison

MADISON — Shovels in hand, the Breland Companies, Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong, and Madison Mayor Paul Finley joined the leadership team for avid Hotels to break ground on their first hotel in Alabama.

“We are excited about this great location in the City of Madison and to be a part of Town Madison’s success,” said Pritesh Patel of Jalasai Hospitality. “This new and thrilling brand will bring a tremendous new option for both business and leisure guests.”

Located at the western end of Town Madison off I-565 at Wall Triana Highway, the four-story, 87-room midscale avid Hotel is the first of its kind in the Southeast. It is also the newest addition to the 563-acre Town Madison development., which is home to the new Madison baseball stadium and dozens of retail stores, restaurants, residences, and Pro Player Park.

“Another hotel here is desperately needed,” said Finley. “Minor league baseball (Rocket City Trash Pandas) will be here in less than a year, housed in our multi-use venue at Town Madison. The way we fund that multi-use venue is a deal with Ballcorps LLC who owns the Trash Pandas, to rent it from us, but also through lodging tax.

“Town Madison has always been a regional destination location,” said Louis Breland, founder of Breland Cos. who is building the hotel and working to bring more businesses to the multi-use venue. “We are in negotiations with many retailers, many restaurants, and numerous other hotels about coming to Town Madison, so today’s groundbreaking will be the first of many businesses coming this spring and summer.”

The newest mainstream brand from IHG, avid hotels was designed for travelers and meets their expectations for the type of hospitality they value most: the basics done exceptionally well at a fair price. The location at Town Madison will feature modern, comfortable design, guest rooms designed for a sound-sleep, a focused, high-quality breakfast consisting of name-brand options, and will deliver the latest technology for a seamless guest experience

“So this is one more thing that makes a difference in our Master Plan of bringing something of quality to this area that helps the overall Tennessee Valley and makes a major difference in the City of Madison,” Finley said.

He went on to explain that the 12 baseball fields that make up Pro Player Park, located between the Madison baseball stadium and the new Avid Hotel, is a huge draw for travel baseball. 

“What do they need? They need places to stay,” said Finley. “So, they will be right here close by, and the restaurants will follow.”

“As our newest partner, avid provides not only Town Madison residents a new way to connect, relax and work, but our constantly-expanding business community yet another option to show out-of-town clients, customers, and employees everything we have to offer in Madison County,” said Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong.

Port of Huntsville Wins Governor’s Trade Excellence Award

MONTGOMERY — The Port of Huntsville received a 2019 Governor’s Trade Excellence Award Wednesday in a ceremony at the State Capitol with Gov. Kay Ivey. The annual awards recognize companies that fuel Alabama’s robust export business and sell their innovative designs and products in markets worldwide.

The Port of Huntsville was one of eight honorees chosen for the key roles they played in the critical transportation industry, which has sparked new jobs and investments in communities across the state. Also recognized were Huntsville-based RMCI, Aerostar, GKN Aerospace–Alabama, Help Lightning, Polyvance, Trinity Highway Products, and Zorn Molds.

“The Port of Huntsville is honored to be acknowledged by Gov. Kay Ivey and Export Alabama Alliance for trade excellence,” said Rick Tucker, executive director of the Port of Huntsville. “We are grateful to our partners LG Electronics, Toyota, Panalpina and Norfolk Southern for joining us today.

“We also thank (Huntsville) Mayor Tommy Battle, (Madison County) Chairman Dale Strong and representatives from the North Alabama International Trade Association for supporting us not just today at the Capitol as we received this award, but always in our efforts to stimulate the economic growth and development of the Tennessee Valley region.”

Alabama export figures topped $21 billion last year as shipments reached 191 countries according to information from the Alabama Department of Commerce earlier this month. The total, which came during a year marked by global trade tensions, is just 2 percent shy of the record $21.8 billion in exports set in 2017.

Known officially as the Huntsville-Madison County Airport Authority, the Port of Huntsville incorporates Huntsville International Airport, International Intermodal Center and Jetplex Industrial Park. The Port of Huntsville has the only scheduled international cargo flights in the state and ranks 18th among continental U.S. airports in international air cargo volume. The International Intermodal Center ships and receives ocean containers by rail, to and from both East and West Coast seaports. 

“We are especially pleased to recognize the Port of Huntsville this year,” said Hilda Lockhart, director of the International Trade Office at the Alabama Department of Commerce. “Without this first-class multimodal transportation operation, many of Alabama’s products would not be shipped from our state. 

“This facility is certainly a critical part of our state’s international infrastructure.”

American Airlines Increases Service at Huntsville International

Beginning in June, American Airlines will offer more early morning and evening flight options for passengers traveling direct from Huntsville to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Customers in Huntsville will have the opportunity to make one stop in Dallas/Fort Worth to travel to places such as Dublin and Munich, where American is launching seasonal service for the first time in June.

“We are very excited that American made the decision to add service to the Huntsville market and we know that our customers will appreciate more options and will utilize this service,” said airport Board Chairman Dr. Carl J. Gessler Jr.

While airport officials recognize the benefits of the added service, they are quick to point out that continued growth will require the support of the community.

“These additions are another step to provide all of the citizens of the Tennessee Valley more air travel options and phenomenal savings,” said airport Executive Director Rick Tucker. “American sees potential in Huntsville’s market, and we are glad they chose to expand their presence (here).

“This is great news and if the business community and our residents support our local airport we will all enjoy more air travel options with guaranteed lower fares.”

For more information or to make reservations, visit aa.com. Reservations can also be made at no additional charge using the Huntsville Hot Ticket Hot Line service by calling 256-258-1944, Monday – Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

A Brand New Time in South Huntsville or, Rather, a New Brand

In the next couple of months, south Huntsville will enter a new era. In fact, a “brand’ new era.

South Huntsville business owners, community members and government officials are coming together to create a vibrant and thriving district.

Extending from, essentially, Martin Road south to the Tennessee River, South Huntsville Main Street will be a corridor reflecting a diverse lifestyle of work and play.

Just imagine, driving south on the parkway through the Martin Road “tunnel.” On the “ceiling” and the sides are row upon row of colored lights.

Talk about a grand entrance!

And as you exit the “tunnel,” laid out in front of you are banners on the light poles welcoming visitors.

There are local businesses along the road, each touting their wares and inviting customers inside.

The South Huntsville Business Association, with Executive Director Bekah Schmidt and President Jerry Cargile, has been the impetus to improving this part of the city.

A major step was being accepted into Main Street Alabama, a nonprofit organization that uses a national model with a 40-year track record of revitalizing downtowns and neighborhoods.

The process concentrates in four areas: organization, design, promotion and economic vitality. Each one is guided by Main Street’s transformation strategy to remain focused on a specific market-based outcome.

With a solid and active SHBA, the organization stage is answered. The design aspect concerns itself with aesthetics and function, such as the tunnel lights, improved landscaping and redesigned parking areas.

Promotion will incorporate some of the design aspects as well as sharing information and marketing the district. Economic vitality is key in that there must be room and desire for businesses to grow and prosper.

To help in the process, SHBA has launched a South Huntsville Community Survey. It is anonymous and the feedback will help provide direction for businesses to grow in South Huntsville. The findings will be shared with the public at a community meeting June 6. You can find the survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/sohunt. For information, visit http://shba.biz/

Also at the meeting, the Main Street Alabama officials will revisit south Huntsville to launch a branding presentation, which includes a logo for the district and several variations of it; a marketing strategy; and other information to help south Huntsville soar to new heights.

(Bud McLaughlin is editor of the Huntsville Business Journal. He can be heard every Wednesday at 6:30 a.m. with Fred Holland on WTKI-FM 105.3 and 1450 AM.)