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Huntsville Prepares for the Future: Parking Problems or Problem with Perception?

Change is hard but it has never stopped Huntsville from rising to a challenge.

In the same way we adjusted to becoming the Rocket City in the 1960s; to becoming a booming defense industry maven in the 1990s; and a five-county regional economy over the past decade; Huntsville is looking yet again to the future and sometimes – just sometimes – we get a whiff of frustration as the construction holds up traffic, a red light seems to be holding longer than it used to, or there does not appear to be enough parking at a popular new shopping venue!

Parking spaces have become precious commodities.

As Huntsville continues to grow and expand, city planners are trying to get ahead of the headaches seen in large, fast-growing metropolitan cities by redesigning it as they go for the future, and a central tenet of this strategy involves Land Use.

Land Use is the management and modification, or “urbanization” of a natural environment into residential, commercial, and public “urban open” sectors.

In the past, especially in the past 50 years, Land Use has been geared toward making room for urban sprawl and commercialization at all costs. Shopping centers have focused on gigantic asphalt parking lots where drivers battle constantly for the closest parking spot. Stores sit back off the main thoroughfare to accommodate it, while anxious holiday drivers follow on the heels of customers exiting the storefront like automotive stalkers until they reach their vehicle, either sniping the spot or deciding to try for one that’s closer.

Most of the time however, these parking fields are more than half empty, always built larger than required, leaving an asphalt eyesore and a tremendous waste of land.

In the past few years, Huntsville city planners have been studying Land Use analyses to help reshape Huntsville’s character and to better manage Huntsville’s land and natural environment to fit a more contemporary view of how people live, work and play.

The Shops at Merchants Walk and Shops at Merchants Square on Bob Wallace Avenue are based on “New Urbanism.” While the tenants and some customers perceive there to be insufficient parking, Merchants Square was designed to sit close to the street with some ground-level parking, backed up by a three-floor parking deck.

Jessica Partington, property manager for RCP Properties which developed both shopping centers, said the overwhelming success of the developments has put the need for additional traffic and parking solutions front and center.

“The Shops at Merchants Square has been wildly popular, which is something we will never be upset about, but perhaps a bit more popular than we anticipated,” she said. “When Chuy’s opened, it was a record-breaking opening for them nationwide and no one anticipated how popular it was going to be.

“Of course, we are not upset by that but with that came some unexpected challenges.”

She said that as of now, the parking ratios required for that venue are not showing they are under-parked in terms of code compliance, but there are a couple of things at play.

“Employees are required to park on the upper level of the deck but because there is not what most people perceive as being much parking at ground level, we find that people don’t always go all the way up the deck,” she said. “And on weekends, we find there are parking spots at that last hook in the parking deck and up top that people miss.”

Partington said there is a lot of construction work during the day and construction vehicles in the deck that take up a lot of room and are taking up some spaces that would normally be available.

“But we are nearing the end of that, so it won’t be a problem much longer,” she said. “Also, Aspen Dental will have their own ground-level parking and when they are finished, people can park there at night and on weekends when the problem seems to be worse.”

According to Kelly Schrimsher, director of communications for Mayor Tommy Battle’s office, Huntsville is experiencing some growing pains that can be easily addressed by changing people’s perception.

“The Shops at Merchants Square and the Shops at Merchants Walk on Bob Wallace Avenue are the perfect example,” Schrimsher said. “There is actually plenty of parking. You just have to look at it from a more efficient Land Use perspective and tie it to where the future will be taking us.

“We are rethinking parking requirements to better fit a model for the not so distant future where people are walking more, are driving more electric cars, where more people are using services like Uber, and where people will walk outside the store or restaurant and ‘dial their car’ to come pick them up. Although it may sound farfetched now, it is not so far away from reality.”

Rendering shows an example of a crosswalk idea for Bob Wallace Avenue.

The city is also working on a couple of solutions they believe will help alleviate the Bob Wallace traffic and parking issues as well.

“We are building a decorative pedestrian crosswalk from the much larger parking lot at the Shops at Merchants Walk that will be visually appealing and substantial enough to slow the traffic down on Bob Wallace so people can safely cross back and forth,” said Shane Davis, director of urban and economic development for Huntsville. “The city is acquiring material quotes for the intersection improvements and expect to have it completed in early January. It will also really dress up the area.”

Made of “stamped thermoplastic material” with a brick, stone and slurry concrete design, Davis said it will provide for improved pedestrian crosswalk safety, more driver awareness at the intersection, and overall improved aesthetics of the area.

Over the next year, visitors to that part of the city will also see sidewalks up and down both sides of Bob Wallace from the Parkway to both shopping centers, and down the road there are plans for an equally decorative crosswalk across Memorial Parkway at the Bob Wallace intersection.

“The city also has a plan to connect Regal Drive on the Parkway Place side next to Belk, to the Shops at Merchant Square,” said Partington. “Those through-roads will alleviate some of the traffic flow and allow people to walk a little bit, which we are doing more of in Huntsville.”

“It is a little bit of educating people and preparing them for what we know is coming in the future,” said Schrimsher. “Downtown Huntsville residents have been going through this same evolution since its revitalization began.

“The days of fighting for a parking spot right in the front door and every individual business having their own asphalt parking lot is being phased out and shared parking is being phased in,  If you live downtown, strangers may park in front of or near your home. And they are using parking decks and Uber rather than driving their car everywhere.

“But people who choose to live downtown in areas like Twickenham Square and Avenue Huntsville, do so for the convenience, the amenities, and the pedestrian-friendly environment. They do not have to jump in the car to drive to the grocery store or a restaurant or to have their hair cut or grab a cup of coffee. If they live in these areas, they adjust to it and even enjoy it.”

According to the city’s statistics, Huntsville is a sprawling city overall, but it has population density pockets such as downtown of more than 5,000 people per square mile, making it comparable to cities such as Pittsburgh, Pa., and St. Paul, Minn.

Interestingly, Five Points is an excellent example, originally developed in the early 1900s as a “streetcar suburb” that was not designed for the automobile and is still, today, easily walkable because of it.

Compare that to Cummings Research Park, which was established in 1962.

Designed for driving, originally, there were no restaurants, retail or residential originally allowed within the park.

That began to change when, 1982, the city purchased land and it evolved into Cummings Research Park West. In 2007, Bridge Street Town Centre was developed and it now includes more than 80 restaurants and stores and two hotels. An apartment building has since opened and a third hotel will open soon.

Some sections of Research Park East are being rezoned for small, very condensed multi-use developments, multistoried and sitting close to streets so as not to waste land. The parking will be enough, but it will not be a sprawling field of asphalt.

Tenants can expect some retail-like coffee shops and cafes, and perhaps even hotel rooms on the upper floors to alleviate having to jump in your vehicle for every errand.

Residents are already seeing bikeshares in Cummings Research Park for quick and emissions-free runs.

There are more pedestrian-friendly multi-use developments such as the Village of Providence, downtown’s Twickenham Square, Town Madison along I-565, and MidCity on the old Madison Square Mall property, following a popular trend across the U.S. where people are demanding less pollution, less asphalt, less traffic and more outdoor-friendly landscaping, easier accessibility, and more walkability.

“We recognize that our residents need more mobility options, especially when it comes to urban development,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. “With each new project, we look to create safe and unusable connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists as well as public transit and motor vehicles.”

Leidos Consolidates MDA Support in Cummings Research Park

After supporting the Missile Defense Agency in Huntsville for more than 15 years, Leidos spent $3 million to retrofit its first physical systems and support center in Huntsville.

Leidos Defense Group President Gerry Fasano. (Leidos Photo/Shileshia Milligan)

The 63,000-square-foot building at 915 Explorer Boulevard in Cummings Research Park consolidates the defense division of the company into one Huntsville location. Defense Group President Gerry Fasano headlined the ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday along with Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle and several foreign military delegations.

“This new facility signifies our continued growth in Huntsville, but it also supports our customers in helping them solve problems from a city and a region known for its innovation,” said Fasano. “We help our customers in the defense industry achieve effective, sustained military advantage … from support for C4 (command, control, communications, and computers/cyber) to cyberspace.

“We are doing that from right here in Huntsville. Let’s keep it local.”

In 2016, Lockheed Services Group took $5 billion and merged it with another $5 billion from Leidos to create a $10 billion organization carrying the Leidos name. The move gave Leidos a much bigger footprint in each of the company’s four major areas of expertise: defense, civil, health and intelligence.

Three of those four groups have roots in Huntsville.

The Leidos team has been part of the Patriot and THAAD missile programs and supports MDA requirements and critical services to the warfighter. The new location features automated test equipment that helps provide those systems to Leidos customers at home and abroad.

“Leidos’ civil division has been contracted to NASA here in Huntsville for several years, providing logistics for all the different materials made for the International Space Station,” said Barry McDaniel, vice president of Maritime for Leidos, overseeing support for all branches of the military including the Army.

“Intelligence is also coming to Huntsville soon because the FBI is here; but our missile defense teams have been scattered. This building is an opportunity to consolidate everything related to the Department of Defense Missile Defense Agency counter unmanned air systems. That includes supporting customers all over the world including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and all of Europe.”

Military delegations from Germany and the Netherlands were in attendance.

“It’s not just about what is happening in this building, but we have five other locations and we are about to put more customers in Huntsville,” said Fasano. “That includes technical field support for U.S. Army RQ-7 Shadow unmanned aircraft systems right here at Redstone Arsenal; end-user IT services for ten NASA centers; and end-user IT services for 37,000 Army Corps of Engineers from our corridors right here in Huntsville.”

The RQ-7 Shadow is the Army’s unmanned aerial vehicle, also used by the Australian and Swedish armies for reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, and battle damage assessment.

Fasano also announced the arrival of Leidos Live – the company’s Innovation Virtual Experience coming to Huntsville in November. Leidos Live is an immersive technology lab and showcase on wheels where visitors will find some of Leidos’ top innovations brought to life. Fasano said it is a must-see.

Leidos, the name comes from the word kaleidoscope – the centerpiece of the instrument from which complex problems are seen from every different angle, is an IT and engineering services company. Leidos employs 235 people in Huntsville out of 34,000 in every state and more than 30 countries.

“To the Leidos team, we are so delighted to see the growth and the expansion and all the things that have happened here that make our economy move forward,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. “Five years ago, we started with a very small Leidos group. Today you are threefold, and it’s a story told about Huntsville time and time again – companies throughout Research Park and throughout this city who are growing organically, growing where they are, getting bigger and bigger. Leidos has grown so much they needed a new building.

“We are so glad to be able to help them build it.”

New System Allows Firefighters Access to Businesses After Hours

A locked door is intended to keep people out, but when a building is on fire, that creates a problem. Now, business owners in Huntsville have a solution.

The electric rapid access system consist of a lockbox used to store keys, like the device on the left, and a base unit that stores the e-key to allow firefighters to have access to the box. (Photo/Jonathan Stinson)

The City of Huntsville has partnered with the Knox Company to implement an electric rapid access system, which is designed to give firefighters access to various businesses should the establishment be closed or the doors locked when they need to gain access to fight a fire.

“What we’re actually doing is we’re making it a better system of firefighting for our firefighters by using technology to save buildings, to save dollars, to make sure we can make our community as safe as possible,” Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said. “We looked at this for two, three years. We ran some pilots on it and after we got finished with the pilots, we thought it was a great system.”

In 2018, Huntsville Fire & Rescue responded to 9,800 calls to during the evening or weekends when most businesses were closed.

According to the department, when firefighters need to gain access to these locked businesses it can increase the overall response time, pose additional safety risks to the firefighters and end up costing the business owner more because they have to break through a door or nearby window to gain access to the building and extinguish a fire.

Huntsville Fire Chief Howard McFarlen demonstrates how the rapid access e-key and the lockboxes work. (Photo/Jonathan Stinson)

“You know the big fires we go to, when they’re big and we get there, we know what we have to do, Huntsville Fire Chief Howard McFarlen said. “A lot of the times we just do a forceful entry and we take care of the problem. The ones we worry about are the ones where you pull up and there may be a small incipient fire somewhere in a business that we can’t see from the outside.

“… We don’t see any signs from the outside that warrants us to break down doors, so we’re kind of in a ‘Catch 22,’ but we can solve that now.”

The electric rapid access system is simple. A business owner purchases a lockbox from the Knox Company and stores any keys emergency personnel would need to access the business in it. The boxes start around $550 and increase depending on size and the exact configuration. Exact pricing and specifications can be found at knoxbox.com/huntsville-al.

Then, once the box is installed, local firefighters would have access via an electronic key.

The key is charged and programmed via a base unit and, according to McFarlen, if the key isn’t returned to the base unit within about 30 minutes, then it becomes a paperweight.

So, if the e-key gets left behind after a fire, someone walking along would not be able to access other key boxes with it.

The tamper-proof silver cap is designed to go on the fire department connections at local businesses to ensure the system hasn’t been tampered with and functions when needed. (Photo/Jonathan Stinson)

There is also a record kept in the cloud any time an e-key is accessed.

In addition to the electric rapid access system, Huntsville Fire & Rescue is also encouraging local businesses to add a special fire department locking cap to their fire department connection systems.

These caps are designed to protect the integrity of a building’s sprinkler system and ensure firefighters can get supplemental water when they need it.

It also eliminates opportunities for vandalism and damage to the sprinkler when a connection is uncapped and ensuring the sprinkler system is operable when they’re needed can reduce the overall long-term disruption to an affected business, according to Knox.

Information about the Fire Department Connection caps can be found at knoxbox.com/huntsville-al-fdc.

“Addressing fire and life safety issues is a priority for us,” Battle said. “I am proud that Huntsville is the first city in the nation to implement both of these programs, reinforcing our commitment to be a leader in public safety.”

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.

A Kick in the Grass: New Use for Joe Davis Stadium Proposed

There may be some new life breathed into Joe Davis Stadium.

Think football.

Think soccer.

Think multi-use.

The City Council heard a presentation Thursday of plans to transform Joe Davis Stadium into a multi-use stadium, which could possibly be used to host high school football games and sporting events.

The presentation was in response to a City Council resolution in June, asking the administration to assess the condition of the vacant stadium.

View the city’s presentation here.

The stadium opened in 1985 as a multi-use facility (football games were played there in the first couple years; the stadium has also hosted concerts) and closed in May 2015.

The estimated price tag for the transformation is $8 million; the cost to build the stadium was about $7.5 million.

“In short, the answer is, yes, we believe that taking a portion of the stadium and converting it to a multisport athletic facility is a viable option and we could consider doing that,’” said City Administrator John Hamilton.

Designs show a stadium that would seat about 6,200 people and could play host to soccer, football, lacrosse and other activities. Hamilton said the ability to hold high school football in the stadium is a big piece to the plan.

The field would fit a FIFA standard soccer field – 120 yards by 70 yards. This would allow for large soccer events and possibly a minor league soccer team at the stadium. (Rendering by Chapman Sisson Architects)

“The biggest issue that can be addressed by using the stadium is lack of high school football stadiums,” Hamilton said. “We have five high schools in Huntsville and we only have one stadium (Milton Frank Stadium) that they all share. Most every high school in Alabama has its own stadium, so you’ve got one stadium for one school. Our community has one for five, so it’s really become an issue.”

The field would also fit a FIFA standard soccer field – 120 yards by 70 yards. This would allow for large soccer events and possibly a minor league soccer team at the stadium, possibly a National Women’s Soccer League franchise or games or a National Premier Soccer League franchise. There are NPSL teams in Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville and Chattanooga, as well as Asheville, N.C., and Miami.

The proposed renovations would include new exterior finishes and decorative fencing; new roofing; demolition of the skyboxes and renovating the press box, restrooms, locker rooms, concession stands and offices. The electrical system, fire alarm system and elevator would all be upgraded and repaired. Chapman Sisson Architects provided the existing Architectural Assessment.

“What we’ve presented is very preliminary right now, so we’d have to bring a full design contract and turn the concept into something that could be built,” Hamilton said. “That would be the first significant step.”

(Rendering by Chapman Sisson Architects)

According to the assessment by PEC Structural Engineering, “the overall concrete members appear to be in excellent condition.”

But, there were some issues with the stadium’s foundation. The report said “poor drainage has resulted in erosion issues under the lower tier seating and the foundations of lower tier seating is compromised.”

Mayor Tommy Battle believes repurposing the stadium could be another home run for high school sports.

“I was proud to be part of city government in 1984 when we built the stadium,” he said. “And I’m proud to present this effort to restore the old Joe into a community asset.”

 

DaikyoNishikawa US Breaks Ground on $110M Plant to Supply Mazda Toyota Factory

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood that is Mazda Toyota Manufacturing US.

On Thursday, executives of DaikyoNishikawa US joined state and local leaders at a groundbreaking event on the MTMUS campus in Limestone County to launch construction on its $110 million manufacturing plant. It will be DNUS’s first U.S. manufacturing plant.

The DNUS facility, which will produce plastic automotive parts for the MTMUS assembly plant, will employ approximately 380 people at full production.

In May, DNUS became the first supplier to announce plans to locate on the site of the Mazda Toyota joint venture assembly plant, which will have the capacity to produce up to 300,000 vehicles annually.

“As our first manufacturing facility in North America, DNUS is proud to serve Mazda Toyota and call Huntsville our new home,” said Nariaki Uchida, president of DaikyoNishikawa Corp. “Together with our business and community partners, our aim is to be a good corporate neighbor and a premiere Tier I automotive supplier.”

By establishing the Huntsville operations, DNC aims to further strengthen relationships with major customers.

The DNUS project represents one of the latest in a string of supplier announcements tied to the MTMUS assembly plant in 2019. So far, a total of five MTMUS suppliers have pinpointed sites in North Alabama for production locations that will create almost 1,700 new auto-sector jobs, most of them in Huntsville.

The DNUS plant will supply resin auto parts, such as bumpers and instrument panels, to Mazda Toyota.

“DaikyoNishikawa is a key manufacturer in the growing cluster of Tier 1 automotive suppliers for MTMUS, and we’re excited to provide the skilled workers for this high-performing auto industry leader,” ​Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said.

“I’m proud to welcome another great Japanese company, DaikyoNishikawa … and I know that together we will build a lasting partnership,” Gov. Kay Ivey said. “Today marks another pivotal moment for Huntsville as it becomes the next vital production hub for the global auto industry.”

Construction on the 3.1 million-square-foot MTMUS facility is well under way, with as many as 2,500 construction workers expected on the site this summer. The Mazda-Toyota partnership is investing $1.6 billion to open the Huntsville assembly plant, which will employ up to 4,000 people.

Once the DNUS facility begins operations to coincide with the start of MTMUS vehicle production in 2021, DNUS will manufacture large resin parts such as bumpers and instrument panels for the automakers.

“By selecting Alabama as the site for its first U.S. manufacturing facility, DaikyoNishikawa joins a long list of world-class Japanese companies with growing operations in the state,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “We look forward to working with this high-caliber company to assemble a workforce in Huntsville that can fuel its growth plans.”

Good Eatin’ Ahead as Huntsville Restaurant Week Kicks Off

Some tasty offerings during the Huntsville Restaurant Week press conference at Stovehouse. (Photo/Steve Babin)

Guests were met with the delicious aroma of roasting garlic and were served complimentary spicy veal meatballs and seafood Fritto Misto from Mozzara’s Italian Kitchen at the Stovehouse during the official kickoff for the eighth annual Huntsville Restaurant Week, Aug. 9-18.

Mayor Tommy Battle laughed that Restaurant Week is 52 weeks a year at the Battle house as he and Madison Mayor Paul Finley joined the Huntsville-Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau in highlighting the culinary events ahead.

“As Huntsville grows, so does our local dining scene, and we’re excited to have so much to offer to visitors,” said Judy Ryals, president/CEO of the Convention & Visitors Bureau, “There are culinary experiences in Huntsville that can’t be found anywhere else: from dining under the National Historic Landmark Saturn V rocket at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s Biergarten, to the one-of-a-kind settings at venues such as Campus No. 805, Stovehouse, MidCity, and so many others.

Judy Ryals

“Huntsville is truly a destination that attracts visitors seeking unique dining and travel experiences.”

More than 50 local eateries and breweries will participate in “ten tasty days of deals” beginning Friday to encourage people to try some of the new cuisine that has come to Huntsville in the past couple of years. Straight to Ale, Old Black Bear, and InnerSpace breweries are also participating with specialty Restaurant Week craft beers.

“As the coordinator of Huntsville Restaurant Week, it has been my pleasure to see this promotion grow,” said Pam Williams, Tourism & Education sales manager for the CVB. “Each year it is surprising to see how many new places have joined the Madison County culinary scene, and 2019 is no different.

Pam Williams

“Ultimately, the CVB’s goal for Restaurant Week is to showcase the Madison County dining scene to visitors, and to remind locals to try something new.”

Patrons will find lunch specials featuring two courses at fixed prices of $10 and $15; with three-course dinner specials in the $10, $20, $30, and $40 range. Restaurants can choose one or any combination of those specials and offer other specials beyond these categories.

The event also features a special “Bonus Bites” category for establishments that do not offer a traditional lunch or dinner, but offer breakfast, desserts, appetizers, or small bites exclusively.

At Stovehouse in Huntsville, Madison Mayor Paul Finley, left, and Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle encourage visitors to take in the best food the area has to offer during Restaurant Week. (Photo/Steve Babin)

The CVB has partnered with OpenTable, an online restaurant reservation platform and the official online reservations provider for Huntsville Restaurant Week. With just a few clicks, patrons can view all participating restaurants and secure a reservation.

The CVB’s #iHeartHsv blog will feature dedicated food and beverage content throughout the month in hopes of attracting “foodie” visitors from out of town.

For information on the events of Huntsville Restaurant Week, visit huntsville.org/events/restaurant-week/.

Bon appetit Madison County! There’s some good eatin’ ahead!

Burgeoning Regional Economy Ensures Everyone a More Valuable Slice of the Pie

Envision Huntsville as an average size pie.

Standing at city center, look outward in all directions toward the far edges of the pie crust – north toward the state line where visitors from Tennessee get their first glimpse of the city. South where many Huntsville businesses draw daily commuters. East across the mountain, west from neighboring communities and all points in between.

For Huntsville and Madison city leaders, this vision of the pie’s edge does not represent boundaries but, instead, corridors of growth.

“That’s always been our vision for Huntsville’s future and the basis for our regional economic strategy,” said Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. “The first part of revitalizing your city is to take the center point, known as the living room of your city, and revitalize it to make it economically viable. Get one area going and stretch it out to other areas.

“Year after year, we have pinpointed growth corridors that help us grow both economically and residentially. The result is an economic revival like what you have been seeing in Huntsville and Madison the past 10 years.”

Private investment land developers have that vision too. During the 1990s, brothers Jim and John Hays and their nephew Jeff Enfinger of Enfinger Development opened a growth corridor to the southeast in Hampton Cove and the Hays Nature Preserve.

In 2000, that development led to the expansion of a residential growth corridor along Taylor Lane in Big Cove, and, by 2010, it had extended into the Goldsmith-Schiffman community.

Also during the 1990s, Huntsville opened a residential growth corridor off Zierdt Road in the Edgewater and Mountain Brook communities southwest of the city. In 2010, it expanded into the Williams community further south.

Battle said that by looking at the local economy like a pie, you will see their strategy unfolding.

“Instead of dividing the pie into fifteen different pieces that get smaller the more users you add, we made the whole pie bigger so we could divide it up differently with more restaurants, entertainment and activity venues, more places to spend retail dollars,” he said. “With a bigger pie, each slice is more valuable.”

The Western Corridor

The Town Madison development along I-565 between Zierdt Road and Wall-Triana Highway in Madison will open a gateway to the city.

Anchored by the new Rocket City Trash Pandas baseball stadium, the development is surrounded by residential, retail, commercial, and entertainment components that have thrown open a west side growth corridor that never existed.

“The location off I-565 is perfect catchment for a broad audience across the Southeast,” said Madison Mayor Paul Finley. “As the interchanges off the highway are completed, you can expect ease of traffic getting to and from the area.

“If people come for a game or event, we hope they stay and experience all that Madison has to offer, including our historic downtown that offers livability with local boutique shopping and dining.”

Finley also believes Madison’s central geography in North Alabama positions it perfectly to feel the positive impact from economic development in the whole state as well as southern Tennessee.

“Madison benefits from Huntsville’s growth with the FBI and other tech development workforce to our east, as well as from the Mazda-Toyota plant to our west. We look to collaborate with Limestone, Morgan and Marshall counties,” said Finley.

The development is envisioned to become a regional destination.

“Right on the interstate, convenient if you are coming from Cullman or Decatur, and where everybody who passes by can see it,” said Joey Ceci, president of The Breland Companies, which is developing Town Madison and the new Clift Farm project on U.S. 72 in Madison. “We are creating a regional destination with baseball, a food hall, and resort style hotels, similar to, but more diverse than Chattanooga.”

Open Southern Border

Recently, Enfinger and his uncles who are also developing McMullen Cove, announced the development of a multi-use Hays Farm development in South Huntsville that will replace the old Haysland Square and turn a 500-plus acre swath of undeveloped land into a new growth corridor to the south that will draw retailers and residents from Airport Road south to the river and beyond.

“There will be a commercial center all the way up to the Enfinger Building on South Parkway with a Village of Providence-type entertainment district surrounded by a city park, a ballfield, and 500-acre Hays Green with a passive walking park,” said Enfinger. “We’d like to maintain the natural green spaces. The Hays Nature Preserve in Hampton Cove has been a regional draw for a lot of people.”

In many ways, Ceci believes that with population growth and so many people commuting here to work every day from other counties, we already have an active regional economy at work.

“You see workers buying groceries, going out to eat and shopping during the workweek, even if they live outside the city,” he said. “I think there is some pent-up demand for some of the development that is occurring.”

Max Grelier, co-founder of RCP Companies who has developed the AC Hotel as part of CityCentre and developing MidCity on the old Madison Square Mall property, has been watching those employee migration patterns into Huntsville for more than a decade.

“We see the regional trade area as about 50 miles and incorporates the 14-county commuter hubs from which Redstone Arsenal and Cummings Research Park draw its employment,” said Grelier. “As a result, Huntsville has become the region’s primary center for healthcare, civic, cultural, shopping, and dining activity.”

Annexation of Morgan & Limestone counties

Add to all this, the annexation of a small portion of Morgan County to the southwest and a huge chunk of Limestone County due west of city center, and you can see the pie expanding!

“Yes, this annexation is a game-changer because it results in the ability to get infrastructure to certain areas and thus create major employment opportunities,” said Charlie Sealy of Sealy Realty. His company has developed several residential properties including The Belk Hudson Lofts and The Avenue in downtown Huntsville, and is building a sister community, The Avenue Madison. “These new jobs will be an economic driver for the economy and create an incredible multiplier effect.”

The annexation is a precursor to the economic development that follows it, said Grelier.

“Annexing was necessary for the economic development of the Mazda-Toyota plant and other larger manufacturers,” he said. “It’s also helpful in attracting investment into commercial real estate projects across the metro area.”

“We’ve only made a foray into Morgan County,” said Battle, “The annexation of Limestone County where Mazda Toyota made a $2 billion land investment has seriously expanded our metro and opened an industrial growth corridor that is a win-win for both parties.”

City funds, thanks to Huntsville’s AAA credit rating from the S&P and Moody’s Investment Services, have pulled their share of the weight. With the power to borrow $85 million for city and countywide projects, of that, Huntsville will allot $25 million for the Mazda Toyota project infrastructure; and another $55 million for capital plans and schools.

Northern Exposure

Included is the revitalization of North Memorial Parkway. Since widening the well-worn highway into a viable parkway traffic corridor, it has encroached on many properties there, making them less viable.

“They don’t have enough depth to sustain retail, so we’ve taken them out and we’re turning that area into a park with greenways and walking trails,” said Battle. “Perception becomes reality.

“Instead of seeing boarded-up buildings when you enter from the north, you see it more as an entryway into North Huntsville – an economically viable area to move into and to be a part of.”

Among the projects is the upgrading of parks that will be instrumental in bringing in sports teams from all over the Southeast, including recreational rugby fields and soccer fields that can also be used for lacrosse.

“We are putting money into the tennis center and into the golf course, which now has cross-country running and mountain bike trails. All of these things tie back to what we call ‘quality of life’ for our residents and activities for our guests,” said Battle. “Travel sports bring people and their families to our area from all over, where they compete, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, and shop in our stores.”

Quality of Life

Town Madison’s $12 million Pro Player Park project with 12 synthetic baseball/softball fields, the $22 million Huntsville Aquatic Center, and the expanding Huntsville Tennis Center are already national attractions for travel sports competitions and events.

“To have a viable and growing economy, we have to offer a ‘quality-of-life’ that attracts people to the area, and quite frankly, we have a lot of jobs on the table too,” Battle said. “To recruit highly-skilled, higher income workers requires a quality of life that is equal to or higher than where they are moving from.”

Battle said “quality-of-life” is found in Lowe Mill, in craft beer, in a vast array of recreation facilities, disc golf, pickleball, art museums and public parks.

“But we still have work to do because people are coming from around the world to work for companies like Blue Origin, Facebook, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Mazda Toyotas,” said Battle.

Finley is ready for whatever challenges lay ahead for Madison.

“As Madison grows our focus is making sure we are responsible with our citizen’s tax dollars by improving infrastructure and providing a good quality of life in every district of our community,” said Finley. “While areas to the West are experiencing booming growth and increased traffic, we need to not only keep pace with growth but foresee areas that will need improvements down the line.”

Huntsville is also adding hotels, apartments, and homesites as more people move into the city. With a goal of adding 1,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of the Von Braun Center, Battle said it will help draw larger conventions and business meetings.

“Part of the strategy for building smaller hotels instead of one big convention center hotel is to prevent people from living inside the hotel the whole time they are here,” said the mayor. “We want people to experience our city, eat in our restaurants, visit our museums, and shop in our stores.”

Enfinger believes that as we become a more affluent society, people’s wants, and expectations become more demanding.

“It looks like we are evolving in unison with the rest of the country as far as the type shopping we do and the kind of developments we build,” said Enfinger. “Our growth rate is higher than most cities, but I think we follow a national trend in the type developments we can sustain.”

Private Investment is Leading the Way

Private investment must still lead the way and developers such as Breland, RCP, Sealy, and Enfinger are leading the charge.

“When the City can support infrastructure needs or improvements, private investment can take those dollars further,” said Mayor Finley. “This is a win/win for both the City and for the investors. Ultimately, our citizens also reap the benefits of this growth and development.”

“Buy-in is good so far, but much harder than it may seem,” said Grelier. “Huntsville has a great story to tell, but many larger institutional investors are not aware of it or view the market as too small.

“Our team spends most of our time discussing and selling the regional market rather than the immediate project. A big part of Huntsville’s growth moving forward will be how the region is branded to compete for private investment and workforce internationally. It’s a regional story that should include our sister communities.”

He would also like to see the Gen Y & Z workforce move to the area because it’s a cool, fun place to live, and then find a job once they get here rather than moving here for the great job.

“Once this trend reverses, larger private investment and more economic development will follow quickly,” Grelier said.

From the city’s perspective though, Huntsville’s first mixed-use/multi-purpose development at Twickenham Square in 2014 has been a driver in enlarging the pie.

Join us for Part 2 of our series on Huntsville’s growing regional economy in the September issue of the Huntsville Business Journal as we investigate how multi-purpose/mixed-use developments are helping build Huntsville’s regional economy.

 

Region Mayors Come Together for History-Making Agreement

It looked like a gathering of Knights of the Round Table.

 

But it was mayors from Madison, Limestone and Morgan counties gathered
around a circular high-tech table for a history-making pact.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle; Madison Mayor Paul Finley; Triana Mayor Mary
Caudle; Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks; Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling; and Mooresville
City Councilwoman Leeann Barr, sitting in for Mayor Margaret-Anne Crumlish,
were in a boardroom at Huntsville International Airport to sign a regional
agreement of collaboration and cooperation.

“The signing of this document signals to our community, to the state, and to
area businesses that North Alabama is committed to ensuring that our region
functions at the highest levels of collaboration for years to come,” said Bill
Marks, chair of Launch 2035, a regional partnership that rethinks and imagines
the North Alabama economy over the next 20 years. The agreement is the work of
the Regional Collaboration Initiative-North Alabama, a group formed from Launch
2035 to encourage collaboration and communication across the region.

They were surrounded by business advocacy leaders John Allen of Huntsville
Committee of 100, Ability Plus President/CEO Karockas Watkins and BizTech CEO
Larry Lewis, as well as Limestone, Madison and Morgan County municipal
councils, state legislative delegations, chamber presidents and chamber board
chairs.

The agreement was also signed by Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong and Limestone County Commission Chairman Collin Daly; Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long signed it after the event. 

According to a statement from Launch 2035, the region’s prosperity depends
on the three counties working and planning together. Launch 2035 is made up of
key stakeholders committed to fostering regional economic growth and quality of
life.

“Back in 2014, someone suggested bringing everyone together over hush
puppies and catfish and that would be the best way to draw a crowd at night to
discuss how we can collaborate better,” said Marks who orchestrated the signing.
“It was from this group of stakeholders that we launched Launch 2035 – to unite
Limestone, Madison and Morgan counties into a spirit of working together with
the belief we bring more to our region united, than in competition with each
other.

“Launch 2035 has three areas of focus including workforce development,
entrepreneurship, and land use planning. Each represents opportunities for
regional action where working together can benefit the entire region.”

 

 

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