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Mayor: Good News on Horizon in COVID-19 Fight but Vigilance Still Urged

While Madison County and the nation are seeing a surge in positive coronavirus cases, the news wasn’t all negative at the weekly COVID-19 briefing at the Huntsville City Council chambers.

The Alabama Department of Public Health announced earlier it received the antibody drug Bamlanivimad to treat virus patients. The Food and Drug Administration gave emergency approval for the drug.

Also, pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna both said they hoped to ask for emergency authorization for vaccines that were 90 percent effective against the virus in clinical trials.

“The good news is there’s something on the horizon,’’ Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said. “But along with that good news we’ve got to stay vigilant, stay ready and continue to do the basics like we have for the last eight months.’’

Those basics are practicing social distance, sanitizing, wearing a mask and avoiding potential unsafe situations.

Crestwood Medical Center CEO Dr. Pam Hudson also urged people to stay safe.

“No matter what anybody says, wear a mask,’’ she said. “And wear it properly.’’

There are 108 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Crestwood and the Huntsville Hospital system. Of that number 31 are in ICU and 17 are on ventilators.

According to Jeff Birdwell, director of the Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency, the county had 1,558 confirmed COVID-19 cases in October. About a third of the way through November, there were already more than 700 confirmed cases.

“We are seeing what I would say are significant increases in the first part of the month,’’ he said. “There’s considerable concern there.’’

According to the FDA, Bamlanivimab has been shown in clinical trials to reduce coronavirus-related hospitalizations. The drug is designed for those who have contracted the virus and are at a higher risk for developing more severe symptoms.

The Alabama Department of Public Health is developing a plan to distribute Bamlanivimab to those who may need it.

“The therapeutic is approved for certain patients who have medical criteria that put them at high risk for progressing to severe COVID-19 and/or hospitalization,” said the ADPH in a statement. “This group includes persons who are 65 years of age or older, or who have certain chronic medical conditions. Bamlanivimab is an IV drug treatment and certain requirements must be met in order to use this agent. The department is working with providers to develop a strategic plan for distribution and use of Bamlanivimab.”

Hudson said other therapeutics such as Remdisvir have already helped some COVID-19 patients from requiring hospitalization.

She also said when a vaccine is ready it will be rolled out in three phases. Frontline health care workers will be first to receive the vaccine, followed by high-risk people and then the general public. The hope among health officials is a drug will be ready in late December or January for Phase One, the spring for Phase Two and summer for the final phase.

“It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,’’ Hudson said. “This morning a different metaphor came to mind — it’s not a battle, it’s a war.’’

City Opens Haysland Road from Grissom High School to Redstone Road

Things are moving along in South Huntsville and they will be moving along a lot easier now.

On Tuesday, “Phase II” of Haysland Road through the Hays Farm development was opened from Grissom High School to Redstone Road.

Mayor Tommy Battle, City Council President Jennie Robinson, and Director of Engineering Kathy Martin cut the ribbon for the two-mile roadway.

The two-mile roadway includes a 12-foot-wide multiuse path through approximately 250 acres of preserved open space. (Photos/Steve Babin)

Haysland Road provides a parallel road in the city’s growing southern corridor to ease congestion on Memorial Parkway as well as provide direct access to Grissom High School and Redstone Arsenal.

The $8 million project includes a 12-foot-wide multiuse path through approximately 250 acres of preserved open space.

The Hays Farm development will include single-family homes, apartments and townhouses to complement retail businesses and a nine-acre city park.

City of Huntsville Housing Expo Goes Virtual to Help First-Time Homeowners

Owning a home is a central pillar to financial security, and the City of Huntsville’s Community Development Department hopes to make the process easier with its upcoming 2020 Virtual Housing Expo.

Aimed at assisting potential and first-time homeowners in demystifying the home-buying process, the Virtual Housing Expo will take place this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.  During this all-virtual event, local and national subject matter experts will conduct a series of live and pre-recorded workshops on topics ranging from aging-friendly housing to addressing the barriers to Fair Housing.

Free to the public, the Virtual Housing Expo will also feature a virtual exhibit hall offering resources for homeowners, renters, residents facing foreclosure, residents seeking credit counseling, small business owners, seniors, youth and veterans.

“Home ownership is often the most significant financial investment a person can make,” said Mayor Tommy Battle. “Learning how to successfully navigate the purchasing process can seem overwhelming – particularly for first-time buyers and those living in lower income neighborhoods.

“The 2020 Virtual Housing Expo has the resources to help Huntsville residents realize their dream.”

The Housing Expo is designed to provide a “one stop shop” for critical resources related to housing. Residents will find answers to important questions – Is it better to rent or own? Can I receive assistance with a down payment or closing costs? Once I purchase a home, what will it cost to maintain?

“The 2020 Virtual Housing Expo is a great opportunity to learn firsthand from industry leaders who are ready to assist you with your housing needs,” said Community Development Interim Director Scott Erwin.

Turkessa Coleman, the event’s primary planner and a member of the Community Development team, explained how this year’s digital format will help more people attain that all-important firsthand knowledge.

“Because of the public health pandemic, we had to reimagine the format of this important resource,” Coleman said. “With a new, user-friendly website and the ability to rewatch sessions and interact virtually with panelists, we have a safe way for Huntsville residents to get the information they need to make their housing dreams a reality.”

Participants are encouraged to pre-register by visiting Huntsvilleal.gov/HousingExpo. Attendees who pre-register by 5 p.m. Friday will also be eligible for door prizes.

Interested businesses who would like to be included in the virtual exhibit hall may apply until 5 p.m. this Friday.

Who should attend?

Anyone interested in learning more about the following:

  • Home purchasing assistance
  • Tenant & landlord resources
  • Affordable housing showcase
  • Aging in place planning
  • Small business strategies
  • Remodeling & repair demos
  • Financial literacy training
  • Veteran’s resources
  • Millennials and new housing trends
  • Credit and foreclosure counseling
  • Access to affordable rentals

Huntsville Scores Dual Triple-A Credit Rating for 12th Straight Year

For the City of Huntsville, it is the same song, 12th verse.

And it is sweet music.

For the 12th time in 12 years, since Mayor Tommy Battle first assumed office, Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s Rating Services have awarded Huntsville Triple-A credit ratings.

Triple-A is the highest mark a city can achieve and is awarded to a minority of government entities in the nation. Further, just 1 percent of 19,502 cities and counties receive the top ratings from both services.

The credit rating agencies cited the strength of Huntsville’s economy, which is considered broad and diverse.

Strong city management with strong financial policies and practices and budget flexibility were noted as consistent qualities in the credit rating.

“Huntsville continues to show its strength in conservative fiscal management and a thriving economy,” said Battle. “I am grateful to my outstanding administration and to our elected council members for supporting a responsible, balanced budget and prudent investments that make Huntsville a great place to live and a great place for business.”

The rating services pointed to a robust economy mentioning several key developments in the city along with expansion of existing employers.  

“Despite the onset and continued impacts of the pandemic, the local economy remains stable,” they said.

The reports also considered the community’s above average wealth, below average unemployment, strong regional tax base and Huntsville’s position as an economic engine for northern Alabama.

City Finance Director Penny Smith said the recent rating was set for the city to refund/refinance more than $100 million in warrants, which will provide average savings of some $1.5 million in interest per year over the next 10-plus years.

Mayor Introduces $236M Balanced Budget for FY 2021

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle introduced his Fiscal Year 2021 budget which includes $236 million in general fund operations and $140 million in capital spending.

The budget represents the continuing commitment of city government to provide quality services and investments to a growing community while meeting the challenges of current economic events.

“We’ve taken a cautious, conservative approach to next year’s spending while still keeping up with growth and demand for services,” said Battle. “I am grateful to our department heads for their ability to keep this city moving forward while keeping a watchful eye on every penny spent.”

The general fund represents an $8.1 million increase over FY-20 and provides basic level funding for municipal departments. The bulk of any increase supports personnel needs to accommodate growth and staffing at new facilities. Support to the Huntsville City School system remains fully funded and capital projects will proceed as planned.

Finance Director Penny Smith said she is cautiously optimistic about revenue in the coming year. The city is still growing, housing sales are up, and the income base remains steady thanks to Redstone Arsenal, numerous large corporate employers, growth in the construction market and the abundance of new jobs being filled in the community.

“Sales and use taxes are holding steady, but we recognize we will still have COVID impacts and we’ve taken that into consideration,” said Smith. “Revenues from the hospitality sector and some retail are expected to remain down and the budget reflects those projections.”

Half of the FY-20 Fiscal Year was under the pandemic, forcing “normal” out the window and costing the city about $15 million in lost revenues. Thanks to mid-year cuts and adjustments, the city is ending the fiscal year on an even note.

“I am proud of how our departments adapted to meet these everyday challenges,” said Battle. “We placed a limited freeze on hiring and cut operating budgets 5 percent, forcing everyone to do more with less.”

The City did not cut the budgets of outside agencies during the pandemic but asked them to consider reducing their annual appropriation by 5 percent for FY-21. Nearly every agency cooperated with the request, an indication of the community’s shared commitment to get through this pandemic together.

“The proposed budget is structured to meet the goals and objectives demanded by our growing city, to keep our reserves healthy and uphold the conservative fiscal spending principles that have made Huntsville a leader in municipal fiscal management,” said Battle.

Highlights of the FY-21 Budget

  • New fire station for Huntsville’s western area
  • New fire ladder truck for Station 18
  • 2 new buses for Huntsville Transit
  • $10.2 million in street resurfacing
  • $14 million in roads maintenance, sidewalks and drainage
  • $26 million in new street construction
  • $46.7 million for municipal facilities (includes new City Hall)
  • $8.9 million for recreation projects
  • $24.3 million for outside agency appropriations
  • 1 percent cost of living increase for employees

The City Council will hold a work session Tuesday at 5 p.m. to review the budget and is expected to vote on the spending plan Sept. 24.

 

Construction Complete – Cecil Ashburn Drive Opens 4 Lanes of Traffic

Cecil Ashburn Drive opened four lanes of traffic Thursday, resetting a 3.4-mile transportation corridor that will support commuter growth in Huntsville’s southeastern sector.

The $18.1 million project was part of Mayor Tommy Battle’s 2012 “Restore our Roads” initiative that jointly funded more than $250 million in major road improvements with the Alabama Department of Transportation.

Construction began on Cecil Ashburn in January 2019 when Carcel & G Construction shut down the former two-lane road to fast-track roadwork. The expedited timeline allowed the city to reopen two lanes of new road 10 months later. Since that time, crews have been working to complete the project before the end of 2020.

“We are pleased to give this road back to our community, four months ahead of schedule and under budget,” said Battle. “This is a beautiful, scenic road that will serve us for decades to come.”

The road’s extra capacity will allow Cecil Ashburn to accommodate more than 34,000 daily commuters. A number of safety improvements were included in the design and construction including the addition of 8-foot-wide shoulders for cyclists and pedestrians. The result is a safer, quicker and higher capacity route that connects East Huntsville’s Big Cove/Hampton Cove area to downtown Huntsville, Redstone Arsenal, Cummings Research Park and beyond.

“Our goal was to increase capacity and improve safety on Cecil Ashburn,” said City Engineer Kathy Martin. “I want to thank the mayor for such a unique opportunity to work on this challenging project with a dedicated team. Not everyone gets to work on such a dynamic project within their career.”

Martin credited City Project Engineer Alan Clements, City Inspector Woody Maples, and Carcel & G Superintendent Greg Wynn for their work in making this project a success.

“Wynn’s determination and attention to detail made all the difference to bring this project in on schedule and within budget,” she said.

Mazda Toyota Manufacturing Makes Additional $830M Investment for Technology, Training Programs

Mazda Toyota Manufacturing announced Thursday an additional $830 million investment to incorporate more cutting-edge manufacturing technologies to its production lines and provide enhanced training to its workforce of up to 4,000 employees.

Construction continues on the massive $2.311 billion Mazda Toyota Manufacturing plant. (Photo/MTM)

“This newest investment by our partners at Mazda Toyota Manufacturing shows the company’s continued confidence in the ability of our community to provide a strong, skilled workforce to meet the demands for quality and reliability,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. “We look forward to the day when the first vehicles roll off the line.”

Total funding contributed to the development of the state-of-the-art facility is now $2.311 billion, up from the $1.6 billion originally announced in 2018.

“We are excited to learn of this additional investment being made by Mazda Toyota Manufacturing,” said Limestone County Commission Chairman Collin Daly. “We continue to be grateful to MTM for their belief in our county and look forward to our partnership with them for many years to come.” 

Mazda Toyota Manufacturing made an additional $830 million investment to incorporate more cutting-edge manufacturing technologies to its production lines and provide enhanced training to its workforce. (Photo/MTM)

The investment accommodates production line enhancements made to improve manufacturing processes supporting the Mazda vehicle and design changes to the yet-to-be announced Toyota SUV that will both be produced at the plant.

The new facility will have the capacity to produce up to 150,000 Mazda crossover vehicles and up to 150,000  of the new Toyota SUV each year. 

MTM continues to target up to 4,000 new jobs and has hired approximately 600 employees to date, with plans to resume accepting applications for production positions later this year. Construction of the plant continues, with 75-100 percent of the roofing, siding, floor slabs, ductwork, fire protection and electrical completed. 

“Mazda Toyota Manufacturing is proud to call Alabama home,” said Mark Brazeal, MTM vice president of administration said. “Through strong support from our state and local partners, we have been able to further incorporate cutting-edge manufacturing technologies, provide world-class training for team members and develop the highest quality production processes.

“As we prepare for the start of production next year, we look forward to developing our future workforce and serving as a hometown company for many years to come.” 

 

 

Mission and Vision: Region’s Largest Spec Industrial Facility Breaks Ground

All it takes is a mission and a vision for Huntsville’s long-term strategic plan to build a multicounty regional economy in North Alabama to take shape.

One of the components of that vision dropped into place recently as the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce and the Limestone County Economic Development Authority joined the Hollingsworth Cos. in breaking ground on the largest speculative industrial facility in North Alabama.

It is the 11th facility Hollingsworth has built in the SouthPoint Business Park, which has already provided hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in investments. When finished, the new building will be home to more than 1.9 million square feet of industrial space.

Located off Interstates 65 and 565 and five miles from the Mazda Toyota Manufacturing plant, the park is suitable for high-growth manufacturing and distribution companies who benefit from a location along the I-65 corridor in North Alabama.

SouthPoint Business Park is already home to HDT Global, Custom Assembly, Redline Steel, Woodbridge, Supreme Beverage and Aldez.

While shovels moved dirt for the sprawling new building, local and state officials and members of the business community toured two industrial buildings now available in the park. The two buildings provide 173,888 and 109,080 square feet for companies looking to expand or relocate their manufacturing and distribution facilities.

“In spite of the economic pressure of COVID-19 and this being an election year, we are very bullish on the North Alabama market,” said Joe Hollingsworth, CEO of The Hollingsworth Cos., the largest nonurban industrial real estate developer and construction firm in the Southeast. “We have grown our business on the belief that American manufacturing will continue to prosper, and the Southeastern United States will lead this growth. I would like to thank the community for being willing to invest time, effort, and money into being a true partner in making this park successful.

“It is my belief that the next eight years will be the best economic period of our lives.”

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said the park will help ensure job creation and business development for the Rocket City.

“Over the past 10 years, we’ve been able to announce new and expanding companies in our community that have created 30,000 jobs,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. “To do that requires many assets. You need a workforce, you need access to markets, and you need sites and buildings. Today’s groundbreaking gives us another tool to help us in our continuing efforts to diversify our economy and to make sure that anyone in Huntsville who wants a job can get a job. 

“We thank the Hollingsworth Companies for its continued investment and belief in our community,” 

Limestone County Commission Chairman Collin Daly said, “The groundbreaking of the largest speculative industrial building in North Alabama, despite being in the middle of a pandemic, is positive news for our county. We look forward to this new location assisting with the demand for industrial facilities needed for the continued growth in our county.”

Brooks Kracke, president and CEO of the North Alabama Industrial Development Association, said, “This latest Hollingsworth building in Southpoint Industrial Park is much needed and is very timely in order to meet the demands of our regional growth.” 

 

Area Tourism, Conventions are Looking to Rebound in Wake of Pandemic

Tourism has taken a hit in the Tennessee Valley as the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted daily activities across the nation as well as globally.

The good news is some of the impact will not be long-lasting.

For example, the United States Tennis Association’s girls clay court championships that were held here for the first time in 2019 was canceled this year but will return to the Huntsville Tennis Center in 2021-24.

That’s an economic loss of around $175,000.

“The good news is they were so happy with the way it went last year the USTA awarded it to Huntsville through 2024,’’ said Mark McCarter, sales manager for the Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

“We’ve been through months of cancelations. The focus now is on how do we get the business back. We got lucky in that a lot of things that were canceled this year were annual events. You hate to lose it for sure, and it’s had an impact, but it’s people who have a history here and they’re coming back next year.’’

In March, the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) canceled its 2020 Global Force Symposium and Exposition, which is one of the largest conferences Huntsville hosts annually. It brings over 6,000 attendees and represents an estimated $3.6 million in economic impact.

 “We understand AUSA’s desire to prioritize the health and safety of their delegates, and look forward to welcoming them in 2021, said Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Judy Ryals. “Going forward, the CVB will continue to work with our hospitality partners and public health officials to ensure that the health and safety of our visitors remains a top priority.

“Supporting our local hospitality industry is also of utmost importance – as travel is impacted, we encourage our residents to explore their own backyard and be patrons to our Huntsville/Madison County restaurants, attractions, hotels, and others.” 

Jamie Koshofer, vice president of conventions for the CVB, has worked closely with AUSA over the past year.

“AUSA has long been a close partner of the CVB, and we will continue to provide support for them in all ways that we can,’’ Koshofer said. “2021 is right around the corner, and we look forward to bringing that business back to the Rocket City.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said, “The City of Huntsville has developed a great partnership with AUSA over the past several years. While we share in the disappointment of the community, we respect their decision to make the health of AUSA members, participants, and our citizens a top priority. We will continue to work with them and look forward to seeing AUSA in Huntsville in the coming years.”

Kristen Pepper, marketing director for the CVB, said the AUSA was one of three large conferences that were planned for spring that had to cancel. 

“Obviously the tourism and hospitality industry has been hit pretty hard, especially compared to other industries,’’ she said. “I know just from talking to our hotel partners we’re starting to be on the upswing now.’’

Pepper said local hotels were operating at about 10 percent occupancy during spring at a time where 80-90 percent is the norm. Now, she said, hotels are reporting closer to 50 percent occupancy.

She also said conventions moving forward are “wait-and-see.’’

“Everyone’s kind of playing it by ear,’’ she said. “We have some conferences that as of now you know they’re moving forward for fall and winter 2020. Some have canceled. It’s very dependent on the meeting planners and kind of the general makeup of their attendees. A lot of the conventions that have an older demographic we’re seeing them be a little bit more cautious, but conferences that maybe have a little bit of a smaller headcount or maybe a different age makeup they might feel comfortable continuing for later this year.’’

Health, Civic Officials Plea: Wear Face Coverings, Use Hand Sanitizers, Practice Social Distancing.

Wear face coverings, use hand sanitizers and practice social distancing.

It’s neither a broken record nor a cliche, just the repeated pleas from health and civic officials urging Madison County residents to practice these safety measures to battle the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

That checklist continues to be the theme at the bi-weekly pandemic press conference at the Huntsville City Council chambers. Especially in light of the number of positive cases in the county spiking the last two weeks in the wake of protests and as restaurants, bars and businesses re-open.

And even for those who refuse to wear a mask, following those guidelines might keep at bay an ordinance to require them to wear masks at all public places.

“The last time I reported in our system hospitals across Alabama, we had about 30 inpatients; today we’ve got 70 inpatients in our hospitals across North Alabama,” Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers said. “So we’ve seen a fairly substantial increase in the number of people who have COVID, who need hospital care.”

The number of local and area residents needing inpatient and ventilator care has also increased. Of the 70 patients in Huntsville Hospital facilities, there are 23 in Madison County with 16 in Huntsville and seven in Madison. Of the 23, seven are in intensive care and six are on ventilators.

Statewide, 348,687 people have been tested for the virus. Confirmed positives are at 30,031 and 831 deaths because of the coronavirus have been reported. In the county, there have been 23,865 tests with 711 confirmed cases and six deaths attributed to COVID-19.

The state has a population of nearly 5 million and Madison County has a population nearing 400,000. Less than 20 percent in both instances of the population have been tested.

“For the longest time, I presented to this group that about three percent of all of our tests were running positive,” Spillers said. “That’s now up to around six to eight percent of the tests we run are coming back positive.”

Spillers warned that younger people feeling immune to the deadly aspect of the disease should take caution while the average age of a COVID-19 patient admitted to the hospital is 54.6.

“People tend to think this is much more skewed toward the elderly and, if you look at mortality, it is much more skewed toward the elderly. For me, 54 is not old at all.”

Meanwhile, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said he’s heard from both sides of the mask-wearing debate. He doesn’t see a clear path to making it work but acknowledged a city-wide requirement is not off the table.

“It’s a fine line to walk,’’ he said. “We want to make sure that we have public health, and we want people to do that, the question is, ‘If you did have a mask ordinance, how would you enforce it?’

“If we see numbers start to spike up, then we’re going to consider it much more than we have in the past.”

Battle said that if around 700 new cases develop, a mark ordinance would be given more “consideration.’’

Spillers fully supports wearing masks.

“In areas where you can stay separated, you may not need to wear a mask,” he said. “But in those areas where you come close to people, you’ve got to wear a mask.

“I think that that’s the single most important thing we could do to try to minimize the spread of coronavirus.”