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Second Local Death Reported from Coronavirus; Number of Cases Stabilizes

Madison County officials Tuesday reported a second local death from the novel coronavirus that is paralyzing the country and most of the world, and Huntsville City Council President Devyn Keith announced a state-of-emergency extension that will last at least until April 27.

But all news wasn’t negative at the latest daily COVID-19 press briefing at the city council chambers.

Alabama has confirmed 2,063 positive tests of the virus and Madison County 146, which is the fourth-highest in the state after rising to second behind Jefferson County last week.

“We’re much of the same volume we’ve been seeing for the last few days, which is good news,’’ Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson said of her hospital and Huntsville Hospital’s facilities. “Probably our total number of people under investigation or have positive (tests) is less than 30. So again, pretty stable from that standpoint.

“The question usually comes up are we discharging folks home and the answer is yes. Between all the hospitals looks like we have discharged home about 13 folks.’’

Hudson also echoed Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers’ comments Monday that medical supplies such as personal protection equipment (PPE) in Madison County are, at least for now, adequate.

“We are holding our own,’’ she said. “We continue to source from as many places as we can identify for supplies that we need. But for now, we’re in good shape.’’

Madison County Commission Chair Dale Strong, who along with Huntsville-Madison County EMA Director Jeff Birdwell, joined Hudson on the rotating dais of local representatives at the briefings.

He said the county budget was “taking hits on the ‘Rainy Day’ fund.’’ For example, last week $36,500 was spent on N95 masks for emergency and hospital personnel.

But he remained optimistic the local economy, which was booming before the pandemic, will rebound.

“We’ve watched this economy go down a little,’’ he said, “but I believe this economy is going to recover faster than ever.’’

At Monday’s briefing, Keith announced the city’s state of emergency edict will be extended three weeks. The original three-week order was made March 16 by both Huntsville and Madison and will now last until at least April 27.

Also, Spillers said a handful of models have predicted a “peak’’ in positive cases as soon as this week or next to all the way to September.

To see more model results and statistics, visit www.alabamapublichealth.org.

Other highlights from Monday:

  • Spillers said the drive-thru testing site at John Hunt Park would remain closed since demands are being met at the hospital’s clinics.
  • Local hospitals have cleared space in case more beds become necessary and are putting together a strategy in case more space, supplies or staffing becomes a need.

 

Mayor Vetoes Lodging Tax

Mayor Tommy Battle informed City Council this morning that he vetoed the 1 percent lodging tax the  Council approved 3-2 Thursday night to fund the city’s planned amphitheater at MidCity District.

In a message to Council, Mayor Battle outlined his reasons as follows:

  1. The City of Huntsville has a solid financial model to pay for the amphitheater as presented when the architectural contract was approved.
  2. This lodging tax increase puts the City of Huntsville at a disadvantage in competing for travel, tourism and conventions.
  3. The tax is not needed – we have a balanced budget.
  4. Hitting the hotel/motel industry with an additional tax amid the COVID-19 virus exacerbates the financial burden on the hospitality Industry, a critical sector of our economy.
  5. There is no plan for additional funding. All projects in the Capital Improvements Plan have been identified and budgeted.

“We all have the same desire — to do what is best for our community,” said Battle. “Passing a tax just to have future dollars to spend without designation is not right. The people who earn the tax dollars that are paid to the City of Huntsville work very hard, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

“They trust us to spend their resources conservatively.”

The mayor expressed his gratitude to Council for their work and concluded his message by saying, “We all have the same goals, just different ways of achieving them.”

Huntsville Raising the Roof with Hotel Construction

Another hotel is ready to rise in downtown Huntsville.

The city council recently unanimously approved plans to build a Hyatt House on a vacant lot at the intersection of Jefferson Street and Holmes Avenue, across from the federal courthouse building.

The city has designs on having more than 1,000 hotel rooms available downtown for conventions and other large events within walking distance of the VBC.

“We’re getting there,’’ said Shane Davis, city director for urban and economic. “We need to get to about 1,500 rooms. Conferences need available rooms. The Monday through Friday traffic is already reserving existing rooms.’’

Southaven Associates LLC of Birmingham will build the Hyatt, which will add 145 rooms to the city’s goal. NAI Chase Commercial is the development coordinator and Visionquest Capital is the capital and financing partner for the $35 million project.

“Hyatt is one of the most widely recognized brands in the world,” Charlie Grelier Jr., president of NAI Chase Commercial. “We are thrilled to be part of this exciting new downtown development. The hotel is expected to become a top choice for business and leisure travelers due to its ideal location in the heart of the Entertainment District.”

The nine-story hotel will be at the corner of Jefferson Street and Holmes Avenue and will include a full-service restaurant, meeting areas and a rooftop bar.

The restaurant space will be at the lobby level in an open setting with access to a courtyard connecting the restaurant and hotel to the heart of the entertainment district with direct walkable access to additional retail, restaurants and pubs along with a newly constructed public parking deck,” said Mark Elrod Sr., NAI Chase vice president of retail.

Construction is set to begin Jan. 1 with completion date set for Dec. 31, 2021. Davis said construction could be shortened by five months if the weather cooperates.

The city continues to add to not only it’s hotel portfolio downtown but various other businesses such as restaurants. The square and city skyline hardly resemble what they looked like just a few years ago as building in the area continues.

The Hyatt will join other new hotels in downtown such as the AC Hotel that opened this year at the site that once housed the Huntsville Hilton.

Davis said city administrators aren’t fazed by talk from national economists warning a recession might be looming.

“On a national scale there is talk of a small recession,” he said. “(Mayor Tommy Battle) said it best when we recently went for a bond rating. The mayor said there might be a small recession, but we’re not going to participate.”

Davis’s comment was echoed by the financial backers.

“Huntsville is the perfect emerging southeastern market for our capital investment and growth,” said Michael Hanks, founder and managing partner of Vision Quest Capital. “We look forward to investing in its future.”

The city will also purchase land at the hotel site for some $600,000. It will be used to expand the Washington Park area to provide what Davis called a “gathering spot.”

The city will also pay for infrastructure and street improvements at the site that Davis said were budgeted prior to the introduction of the hotel project at an estimated cost of $750,000 to $1 million.

The city will also lease the Hyatt up to 205 parking spaces at the Clinton Avenue garage and a planned garage on Greene Street.

Navistar to make $125M expansion here; add 145 jobs

Navistar, which has an engine plant in Huntsville, will expand its operations here with the addition of a gear box and engine manufacturing facility.

The Huntsville City Council approved an agreement with the company for the $125 million plant that will create some 145 jobs. Navistar employs 126 workers at its diesel engine plant near Huntsville International Airport. The new facility will be adjacent to the engine plant.

Navistar’s International A26 engine built in Huntsville.
(Navistar Photo)

“The Huntsville facility is an important part of Navistar’s manufacturing footprint, and we look forward to the new opportunities this investment allows,” said Lyndi McMillan, Navistar’s director of business communications. “This proposed expansion would increase the company’s capacity to continue to build its International A26 engine as well as produce its next-generation big-bore diesel engines in Alabama.”

Construction is expected to start next year with completion scheduled for December 2021. It will begin operations by the end of September 2022, according to the agreement.