GADSDEN — After taking it on the chin for most of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, North Alabama’s $3 billion tourism industry found plenty of good reasons to celebrate at the Alabama Mountain Lakes Association’s 2020 PEAK Awards.
Presented as part of the AMLA Annual Meeting in Gadsden, the awards recognized 11 North Alabama hospitality industry professionals and venues for their leadership despite extraordinary challenges that threatened to devastate the North Alabama tourism industry.
Five of the 11 awards went to venues based in Huntsville – including one of three President’s Awards.
Jana Kuner, public relations and customer service manager at Huntsville International Airport, received a President’s Award, presented to any person or organization whose tourism-related project created awareness or presented a positive image for North Alabama in the past year. Kuner’s role in helping stop a human trafficking incident at the airport this year earned her the recognition.
“We were honored to receive the President’s Award from Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourism this year,” said Kuner. “Even more than that, we are pleased to be able to shed more light on human trafficking and to hopefully be able to continue to make a difference by keeping our passengers safe.”
“The Peak Awards showcase the work, service, creativity and contributions of those who are leading the way in the North Alabama tourism industry,” said Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association President/CEO Tami Reist. “With the COVID-19 pandemic still looming, it has been and continues to be a challenging year for the tourism industry. This year’s winners have demonstrated a commitment … to showcase the best of North Alabama during these unprecedented times. It is a well-deserved win for each of the recipients.”
Awarded Organization of the Year, the Land Trust of North Alabama was recognized for opening its eighth nature preserve – Bethel Spring Nature Preserve in February, offering new trails for the community and visitors to explore.
“Land Trust of North Alabama was thrilled to be recognized by Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association as Organization of the Year,” said Marie Bostick, the Land Trust’s Executive Director. “North Alabama has a wealth of natural beauty and throughout this unusual and challenging year we were reminded how beneficial and rejuvenating those spaces can be.”
The Apollo 50th Anniversary Celebration at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, a multimonth series of events that culminated the week of the Apollo 11 mission was named Event of the Year.
“We are honored the Alabama Mountain Lakes Association selected the Apollo 50th Anniversary Celebration for its event of the year award,” said Pat Ammons, senior director of communications for the center. “Two years of planning went into the events that brought people from all over the world to Huntsville to celebrate Alabama’s role in putting Americans on the moon.
“It was thrilling to be able to share those accomplishments with so many.”
Pete Doyle, general manager of the Holiday Inn Research Park, an anchor in Huntsville’s MidCity development, brought home the Tourism Professional of the Year award. He moved to Huntsville from Nashville in 1990 to manage the former Holiday Inn Space Center on University Drive and took the helm at the larger Research Park property in 2000. He led the 195-room hotel property through a newly completed $4.5 million renovation.
He is past president of the Huntsville Lodging Association and the Huntsville/Madison County Hospitality Association and serves on the City of Huntsville Lodging Recruitment Committee.
“I am quite honored to be recognized in an industry that has been my life is very humbling and appreciated,” Doyle said. “In over 30 years of work here in Huntsville, I have witnessed massive growth to our community that seems at warp speed now. That makes it a very exciting time and it has always been my pleasure to assist and give my input when asked by either our Convention and Visitors Bureau, Von Braun Center, Chamber of Commerce or City Hall to improve our stature.”
Zenovia Stephens of Black Adventure Crew was named Top North Alabama Ambassador of the Year. Originally from Chicago, Zenovia and her husband’s love for exploring North Alabama with their sons and finding creative ways to be adventurous at home, have her active in the community. She serves as a board member for Chaffee Elementary School PTA and a volunteer at the Southeast YMCA.
“I’m honored that my work in promoting the adventure and beauty of Alabama, and the need to diversify the great outdoors has been recognized,” Stephens said. “I’m looking forward to continuing to showcase all our state and lead in helping to change the outdoors narrative.”
AMLA is dedicated to the promotion and development of the travel industry in the 16 counties that make up the North Alabama tourism region. The membership consists of chambers of commerce, convention and visitors bureaus, attractions, campgrounds, festivals, communities, counties, golf courses, restaurants, tour operators, accommodations, vendors, financial institutions, and individuals.
Other winners were Decatur’s Cook Museum of Natural Science chosen as Attraction of the Year; Philip Formby, operations director for the Sand Mountain Park and Amphitheatre, won the Good Neighbor Award; and Haley Newton, facilities operator for Joe Wheeler State Park, won the Northern Star Award.
Maryanne Floyd, communications director for Decatur Morgan County Tourism, was named Young Professional of the Year; the Lasting Impression Award went to Scotty Kennedy, curator of the Red Bay Museum; and the Chairman’s Cup went to Fred Hunter of Absolutely Alabama.
There were two additional President’s Award winners: Hilda Smith, director of sales and events for the Hampton Inn by Hilton in Winfield, and Mindy Hanan, president/CEO of the Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Association.
(Top photo: Jana Kuner, public relations and customer service manager at Huntsville International Airport, receives a President’s Award from the Alabama Mountain Lakes Association. Photo by John Dersham)
After months of consulting with and gaining input from community leaders, business owners, and residents on the future of the Huntsville International Airport, a new master plan has been accepted by the Federal Aviation Administration, laying out a new blueprint for the long-term development of the region’s busiest airport.
The new master plan has several goals. Among them:
- Provide a graphic representation of airport features, and use anticipated land-use models to lay out any future development.
- Establish a realistic schedule for the implementation of that proposed development along with a realistic financial plan to support it.
- Establish a framework for a continuous planning process while taking technical, economic and environmental issues into consideration in that process.
The plan will be presented to the public while addressing relevant issues and satisfying local, state and federal regulations.
According to the FAA, a key objective of the future airport plan is to assure the effective use of airport resources to satisfy aviation demand in a financially feasible manner. The new plan is centrally focused but uses local, state and national guidelines and goals to be efficient in its development.
The project team was led by Michael Baker International, a provider of engineering and consulting services that specializes in municipal governments.
“Huntsville International Airport team members, regional leaders, local business owners, and residents in our community worked in tandem discussing and developing this long-range vision for the airport,” said Rick Tucker, Huntsville International Airport CEO. “This was a collective effort from many individuals that both care about the airport and understand that Huntsville’s economic future is tied to our airport’s success.”
Huntsville International Airport (HSV) is operated by the Port of Huntsville. It was recently named by USA Today as the No. 1 Small Airport in the U.S., and is the largest commercial airport in North Alabama, serving more than 1 million passengers annually.
“Having thwarted a human trafficking attempt inside our own airport” said Jana Kuner, Huntsville International Airport Public Relations Manager. “We realized just how prevalent this issue is in society today and we wanted to do more to be sure that more people knew what to look for and how to seek help.”
Launch 2035’s ambitious vision of a 70-mile trail system connecting Madison, Limestone and Morgan counties, took shape this week with the appointment of former University of Alabama-Huntsville history professor Dr. John Kvach as the Singing River Trail’s first Executive Director.
In an outdoor luncheon at the Huntsville International Airport, John Allen, Operations Director of Launch 2035; Madison Mayor Paul Finley; Land Use Chairs Nancy Robertson and Joe Campbell; Regional Co-chair Rick Tucker; and Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling introduced Kvach as the choice for implementing the trail’s bold Master Plan.
According to Joe Campbell, Kvach could not have written a better resume for the job.
Kvach has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Tennessee. He interned with the C&O Canal Trail between Washington, D.C., and Cumberland, Md., and worked for the Washington, D.C., Park Service for seven years. He is Smithsonian Scholar for the state of Alabama and has traveled to 64 of 67 counties speaking on Alabama history. He was also associate professor of history at UAH for 10 years and grant director for two years.
“This is a passion for me,” Kvach said. “My goal in life is to make history come alive. I feel as if everything I have done in my life led me to this moment.
“The Singing River Trail is going to be a world-class experience. It’s important that it is not a trail. It is important it is not just a ribbon of concrete, pavement, and gravel. What it has to be and will be, I promise, is an economic incubator.”
As executive director, Kvach will identify stakeholders and guide the construction and overall direction of the three-county project in collaboration with local and regional leaders and Launch 2035.
According to Allen, the Singing River Trail is the land-use glue that will hold the three counties together not just physically, but digitally.
“The physical and digital development of the Singing River Trail will serve as an economic incubator, educational resource, health, and wellness outlet, historical and cultural landmark, and as a Native American Heritage corridor,” said Allen.
Launch 2035 is a regional partnership that rethinks and imagines our region’s economy over the next 20 years. United by the belief that our region’s prosperity depends on the three surrounding counties working and planning together, the Launch 2035 stakeholders are committed to fostering regional economic growth and quality of life for all residents.
Huntsville International Airport is among the entities to receive aid in the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress and signed by President Trump last week.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act provides financial assistance to the air travel industry to help overcome the staggering impacts of COVID-19. The legislation provides some $10 billion to the industry, including airports across the nation.
Commercial airports have reported 50 to 85 percent revenue loss since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Huntsville International is among the hardest hit, according to the Aviation Council of Alabama.
“Huntsville International Airport projects that we will lose 75 percent of revenue for the next three months or a total of $7 million to $10 million,” said Rick Tucker, HSV CEO. “Our airport is operating in mission critical mode and without emergency assistance the outlook for us seems grim.”
Decatur’s Pryor Field Airport Authority is reporting a drastic decrease in business traffic as well.
“Tenants are not flying very much and none of the airport’s regular business travelers have utilized the facility in the last week,” said Airport Manager Adam Foutz.
Tucker said airports are economic drivers that provide vital transportation infrastructure to give communities access to business opportunities across the nation and the world.
“This is why we are tremendously grateful that the federal government has worked so hard to support the airline and airport workforce during these unprecedented times,” Tucker said. “We are pleased to see that after a week of negotiations, lawmakers, staff and the administration worked tirelessly to find an agreeable way to infuse needed funds into our organizations. These funds will protect our workforce so that we can continue providing passengers with an economic and cultural lifeline via the air transportation network.
“Huntsville International Airport will now do our part to continue safely operating and providing transportation services that will move our region past this pandemic and into the future.”
Tucker also thanked U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby, R, and Doug Jones, D, and U.S. Reps. Mo Brooks, R, and Robert Aderholt, R, for their work on the legislation.
This is an update to our original story. Our intent is to share more details about the incident in order to better inform the public about how human traffickers operate.
It began with a lost car in the parking garage at Huntsville International Airport and ended with three airport employees and a Delta Airlines manager halting what the Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration confirmed as an attempted human trafficking incident – the first known incident of its kind at HSV.
Airport Public Relations and Customer Service Manager Jana Kuner; Airport Chief of Public Safety Chris Scott; Airport Public Safety Lt. Heath Murphy; and Delta Station Manager Randy Tiemann implemented DHS’s “If you see something, say something” Blue Campaign protocol when the circumstances surrounding a young female passenger and her mother triggered their attention.
Kuner encountered a woman in the airport parking garage, distressed because she could not find her car. In helping her locate it, Kuner and the woman struck up a conversation in which the woman shared how excited she was for her daughter who had answered an ad for a modeling job. The “modeling agents” had bought her an airline ticket, and her mother had just dropped her off at the terminal to go meet them.
Kuner has been trained to recognize that human traffickers often use manipulation or false promises of fame and fortune, well-paying acting and modeling jobs, or romantic relationships to lure vulnerable victims into trafficking situations.
Knowing the daughter would be waiting alone at the gate, Kuner walked down to the terminal to see if she needed anything and immediately recognized her based on her mother’s description. She was immediately suspicious because modeling candidates tend to be tall and this young woman was petite.
Kuner sat down and struck up a conversation with her and introduced her to a public safety officer at the airport. The officer talked about how human trafficking works and to get reassurances from her that the people on the other end were legitimate. The officer then offered to have a public safety escort meet the young woman at her destination, to assist her in finding her party.
The young woman, 21, was capable of making her own decisions, and Kuner was unable to convince her there might be a problem.
All the time they were chatting, however, the woman was getting a barrage of texts asking her questions like, “Where are you now?”, “Who is with you?”, “Have you boarded yet?”
Kuner spoke with a woman on the other end of the line who sounded convincing, although Kuner was still suspicious as the passenger boarded the plane.
Kuner returned to her office to call airport security for a public safety escort to meet the passenger at the other end of the flight. Less than 10 minutes later, Kuner got a call from airport security that the passenger had gotten off the plane and asked to speak to Kuner.
As it turned out, while the young woman was on the plane waiting to take off, her contact texted her they had cancelled her flight and told her to get off the airplane.
Authorities are now certain she was walking into a human trafficking trap and believe she had already been sold before boarding the plane.
“That was all I could hope to accomplish, to stop her from taking that flight because the circumstances didn’t make sense,” Kuner said. “The customer later called us to tell us how thankful she was for our actions.”
The Department of Homeland Security said millions of men, women, and children are trafficked worldwide every year and if it can happen here in Huntsville, it can happen in any community to anyone.
“On Jan. 14, 2020, three Huntsville International Airport employees and one Delta Airlines employee became aware of and took action that prevented a young woman traveling out of the Huntsville International Airport from becoming a victim of human trafficking,” said Gail Linkins, TSA Federal Security Director for Alabama.
Rick Tucker, CEO of Huntsville International Airport, credits the airport’s customer service training for the stop.
“The Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force stated that human trafficking is now the fastest growing criminal industry in the world and notes that this is not just a global epidemic, but a local one as well,” said Tucker. “We teach our employees and all of our partner organization’s employees at HSV to always be alert to customer needs.”
He said this awareness includes everything from requests for simple conveniences, all the way up to security measures utilizing the DHS’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign.
“In this instance, we had several employees that took that training to heart, noticed some irregularities and ultimately saved the life of a passenger that was confirmed to have been targeted for human trafficking,” Tucker said.
“We will continue this training with our employees because our passengers are our priority at Huntsville International Airport.”
The shovels dug deeply into wet but fertile ground as Navistar officially broke ground this week on a 50-acre, $125 million expansion of its manufacturing facilities in the Jetplex Industrial Park in Huntsville.
The build-out will drive Navistar’s total Huntsville footprint to 80 acres and add 110,000 square feet to its 300,000 square-foot plant. It will also add 145 skilled manufacturing jobs to build next-generation, big-bore powertrains.
“Over the past two decades, the city of Huntsville has been a valuable partner and we are eager to expand our presence here,” said Persio Lisboa, executive vice president and chief operating officer, Navistar. “The local skilled workforce has proudly supported the implementation of our product strategy, and we look forward to incorporating some of the most advanced manufacturing standards into our Navistar Diesel of Alabama facility to continue to bring best-in-class products to the market.”
Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle tied Navistar’s truck engine production here to the rocket engines under development just a few miles away’
“Our skilled manufacturing workforce is ready to take on the production of Navistar’s global powertrain, adding capacity to Huntsville’s reputation as the ‘propulsion capital’ of the world,” he said. “Whether it’s across the country or across the universe, Huntsville gets you there.”
Already using the latest state-of-the-art technology, the company will implement a “manufacturing 4.0 strategy” in the plant.
Next-level software and assembly lines will drive everything from receiving components to delivery to the customers, revving up production while giving them more control over that production.
Navistar’s principal engine built in Huntsville is the International A26 – a 12.4-liter big-bore engine. The current 300,000 square feet of manufacturing space is dedicated to the A26 engine.
Navistar will use the additional space to produce next-generation big-bore powertrains developed with its global alliance partner Traton.
According to Brandon Tucker, Director of Operations, Navistar has built more than 1 million engines in Huntsville over the past 20 years.
“It’s easy to say one million engines, but if you step back and think about that – it’s a lot of engines,” he said. “It’s a lot of parts. It’s a lot of overtime. It’s a lot of work fixing problems. It’s a lot of hard work.
“Engines are what makes us great, it’s what gives us the competitive advantage … so this is really about a big job, well done.”
Tucker said it is also about business continuation.
“It’s a line in the sand, a jumping off point for big things to come,” he said. “Like any industry, we ride the tide of ebb and flow … but today it is time to focus on the future.”
He said things will move quickly on the new building with center office construction starting in March, site work and grading should begin by spring with core construction expected to start by midsummer. It is slated for completion the first half of 2023.
“Jetplex Industrial Park at Huntsville International Airport is proud to be home to Navistar,” said Rick Tucker, CEO of the Port of Huntsville. “Having been a corporate partner of theirs for over two decades, it means a lot to us that they would desire to continue to grow both the facility and their relationship with us.
“I’m certain that we will all work together to continue to propel Alabama forward.”