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Singing River Trail Brings History Alive with its First Executive Director

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.

Singing River Trail Executive Director John Kvach. (Photo/Kimberly Ballard)

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.

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.”

Region’s Job Outlook Demands an Increase in the Supply of Workers

We need more people singing “Sweet Home Alabama!”

That is the overarching conclusion from the North Alabama Region Labor Market Analysis commissioned by Huntsville’s Launch 2035, the strategic regional partnership between business and elected officials in Limestone, Madison, and Morgan counties.

How many more people?

How about some 25,000 new jobs to be filled by 2023?

To answer that challenge, Launch 2035 is rethinking and re-imagining North Alabama’s regional economy over the next 20 years.

Conducted by Deloitte, the assessment had six objectives: provide a snapshot of the overall supply and demand of the North Alabama labor market; identify and assess talent and potential talent/skills demand and trends; capture insights from regional employers concerning the skill sets they will need; secure guidance concerning growth projections by worker type and skill sets; provide Launch 2035 with an understanding of the perceived quality of the workforce pipeline supplied by the region’s higher education; and provide examples of strategies to address anticipated labor shortages.

While North Alabama’s unemployment rate stands at 2.6 percent compared to the national rate of 3.7 percent, the study showed that there won’t be enough workers to fill those jobs that are on the horizon.

The region has seen $6.7 billion in capital investment over the past five years and added 14,000 jobs. Huntsville’s Metropolitan Statistical Area has the highest concentration of engineering talent; and the regional GDP increased 4.9 percent versus the national GDP growth of 3.1 percent.

North Alabama is a leader in innovation and has the highest concentration of advanced research and development capabilities in the region. The quality of life and booming economy are among the best in the nation and due to the large federal presence and ecosystem of federal contractors in North Alabama, the area can weather a recession more favorably than other communities.

The key findings of the report however, come down to the basic economic principle of supply and demand.

In fact, according to the findings, jobs will outpace the work force in key skill areas, specifically in the areas of cyber, IT, engineering and production.

The need for talent is rapidly evolving, however, despite such training programs as Toyota’s Federation of Advanced Manufacturing Education program, there are not enough of these types of programs to keep up with the need.

The organic job pipeline is slowly improving as graduates from two-year programs are finding alternatives to four-year colleges; but a tight labor market has led to “poaching” the most in-demand talent using the allure of higher wages.

While millennials value non-wage related benefits more than past workers, North Alabama has not yet reached its potential in attracting national talent, and must address housing needs in order to support and stimulate the needed increase in inbound migration to North Alabama.

According to Claire Aiello, vice president of marketing and communications at the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce, seeing is believing.

Chamber CEO/President Chip Cherry: “Recruitment is an ongoing exercise”

“Once people get here, they are sold,” she said. “They see how affordable it is, how beautiful it is, the warm climate, an easy commute in and out of the city, the people are friendly.

“Companies admit that even if they get resistance from potential recruits who don’t know anything about Alabama, once they get here – they get it. They understand.”

Chip Cherry, president and CEO of the Chamber, said leaders from the three counties are working on a long-term strategy to address ways to increase awareness about what a desirable region this is for potential workers from other parts of the country.

“There have been myriad things happening for a while,” Cherry said. “When we did the evaluation and economic impact model for Polaris and some others, we pulled down the area by ZIP code for that particular model and that site, and we were within a half a percent of where our projections were for the number of people from Morgan County who will come over and work at that site.

“So, we have some pretty good models … and recruitment is an ongoing exercise. In Huntsville, about 60 percent of our portfolio is existing companies considering expansion, so we will continue to work with those companies to help them grow.

“The challenge is making sure we secure the labor workforce from other parts of the country, to bring them here so we can continue that growth going forward.”

That challenge – to bring the three counties together to create a strategy for long-term success is being spearheaded by Launch 2035. In the coming weeks and months, they will be coordinating among the Chambers of Commerce, business leaders and city officials from the three-county area to develop an economic and image strategy that addresses these problems.

“We are them. They are us,” said Cherry about Launch 2035. “At the end of the day, we want to create a perception of what can happen in North Alabama, and to find a way to effectively communicate that to people who don’t know anything about how dynamic our region is.”