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It’s the Beginning of the End for Zierdt Road Construction

A recent social media post from a resident of the Edgewater community off Zierdt Road at Lady Anne Lake said, “Things That Have No End: The Universe, numbers, Pi, and Zierdt Road construction.”

Without a doubt, for those living in the midst of the “mess,” it must seem like a black hole.

But the good news is that with the lane shift from the southbound lanes to the northbound lanes on Zierdt in early September, motorists are now traversing the new Zierdt Road – marking Phase IV and the beginning of the end of the $25 million road project.

There has been a lot of frustration about the project because in 2010, it began as a $7 million widening project at the intersection of Madison Boulevard and Zierdt Road.

Construction continues at the Zierdt Road-Edgewater Drive intersection. (Marty Sellers Photo)

Because there wasn’t a lot of funding at the time and Town Madison and Toyota Field were not on anyone’s radar, the original plan consisted of a four-phased approach to widening the 3.5-mile stretch from Madison Boulevard to Martin Road outside Redstone Arsenal Gate 7 from two lanes to four.

Each of the four phases were estimated to take two to four years to complete.

Then, in April 2017, public input sessions resulted in the addition of a pedestrian and bike path. The 12-foot-wide multiuse path was added on the west side, changing the scope of work significantly and increasing the budget to $25 million.

As messy as it may seem, this current phase of Zierdt Road includes new drainage, curb, subgrade, paving and the multiuse path for the remainder of the project duration.

The final phase (IV) of improvements will also consist of two southbound lanes, seven lanes at the intersection of Martin and Zierdt roads, and six lanes at the intersection of Madison Boulevard and Zierdt Road.

While the project has had its share of hiccups due to fluctuations in funding, according to the City of Huntsville, they have been able to make up some time during the pandemic due to the significantly decreased traffic flow.

For residents. the hindrance has been complete but, for the construction crews, residential traffic has been a hindrance.

Although it is only 3 1/2 miles long, Zierdt could not be shut down entirely because of the significant residential population along that stretch of road.

As Kelly Schrimsher, Communications Director at the City of Huntsville, points out, it is significantly more difficult to reconstruct a road when it is in use.

“When you build a new road, you keep it closed until it is finished and passable,” she said. “Or if you look at the road construction off Research Park Boulevard, that work seems to move along without much traffic disruption because they are widening it from the center median and traffic is unaffected.

“Zierdt was always a heavily traveled two-lane road with access to Redstone Arsenal Gate 7, access to the airport, a lot of residential communities, and now Town Madison with the new Toyota Field  – which was not a consideration when the project was initiated.”

All residents of the neighborhoods on Mountainbrook, Edgewater and Nature’s Way can see, however, is the demolition and reconstruction of the original southbound lanes that were the main access into those apartment complexes and communities.

But regardless of how it looks, city engineers promise the end is coming soon and it will be great.

Area Commercial Construction Continues to Rise in Wake of COVID Uncertainty

There has been very little, if any, slowdown in commercial building in Huntsville and Madison throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the weight of uncertainty related to the pandemic has not disappeared, commercial builders and developers continue to work through it like Marshall Space Flight Center engineers work through the challenges of the space program – always moving positively forward; always working the problem from a pragmatic standpoint; and never accepting failure as a final outcome.

According to Shane Davis, Director of Urban & Economic Development for the City of Huntsville, new construction permits, and permit inspection requests have not declined throughout the pandemic and the City continues to see strong growth in all building sectors.

“In terms of the overall environment, we continue to see multiple new projects looking at the Huntsville market as a new or expanding location,” said Davis. “While COVID has slowed the number of potential new companies and their projects, active projects are very strong and diverse in varying business sectors.

“Ongoing construction activities have been hindered by reduced workers, intermediate quarantining, and delays due to the availability in building materials. But while these conditions have slowed the overall construction pace, all ongoing commercial and industrial projects continue to move ahead with a shift in completion deadlines and openings.”

He points to the very visible and very active downtown construction happening on what seems like every block.

“City Centre is under construction with Phase II – lofts, retail, and a parking garage,” he said. “Two new public parking garages are going up at Greene and Monroe streets. Both the Curio Hotel and Hampton Inn and Suites are in the midst of construction, and the new Huntsville Hospital Tower is taking shape.

Last year, Russ Russell Commercial Real Estate set a land sales record for downtown Huntsville at $56 per square foot for the Hampton Inn and Suites project. Located on the corner of Clinton Avenue and Monroe Street, the land is prime downtown real estate across from the expanded Von Braun Center.

“It is one of the few corners that has been vacant with no building on it,” Russell said. “Out-of-town developers look at these parcels of land with fresh eyes are willing to pay a premium because they can see it developed, where sometimes local people can’t because they drive past it every day.

“I set up an ugly tent with cold beer and rare velvet Elvis artwork, and you will be surprised how it brings that vision into full view,” he said.

Mitch Coley, division Manager at Robins & Morton, said they are working on a variety of projects in the greater Huntsville area. Some of the most visible include Huntsville Hospital’s Orthopedic and Spine Tower, Redstone Federal Credit Union, 106 Jefferson, Pelham Street Park and Redstone Gateway 7100 and 8100’s new office building.

“Mid-year there was a decline in new projects and delays in projects in the planning stages as owners and developers hesitated, wanting a clearer picture of what was ahead,” said Coley. “But the industry is seeing some of these projects resuming. The good news is that those projects haven’t gone away and that’s providing strong start for next year.”

He said they are seeing a decrease in the number of new projects reported as upcoming opportunities from architect and design firms, but they believe this will manifest itself in a market-by-market and city-by-city basis. Huntsville is not likely to be as affected by what would ordinarily predict a nationwide downturn because Huntsville’s market sector is so diverse.

“Looking back at the recession of 2008, the construction industry contracted,” Coley said. “It was different from what we’re facing today because of the lack of capital during the Great Recession, but it resulted in a pent-up demand for construction.

“There was still a backlog when COVID-19 surfaced. Although some clients expressed hesitancy to proceed with projects in the very early stages of planning mid-year, we’ve seen many of them resume.”

Russell sees positive signs everywhere. From the construction of the $40 million Autograph Collection by Marriott hotel being built to replace the southern portion of the Von Braun Center parking deck; to the long-awaited downtown Constellation development, which begins Phase I construction this fall.

In addition to these large-scale projects, downtown continues to see new businesses opening up and the redevelopment of existing spaces in the core, Davis said.

“The biggest impact on new commercial projects and hospitality projects has been the pause in project financing,” Davis said. “We have dozens of projects that still have approval from both the private equity and brand/retailer sides. However, COVID-19 has caused a pause in the start of construction due to the ability to close on the financial package.

“The ability for these projects to keep the private equity and national brand approvals shows the current strength of the Huntsville market.”

Don Beck, partner in The Shopping Center Group of Alabama concurs.

“The banks are lending money and it is cheap,” said Beck, whose company specializes in retail developments. “Bankers know the Huntsville market is good because its employment base is there with federal dollars coming from Redstone Arsenal and subcontracting coming from Cummings Research Park. With the jobs there, the banks are a yes for lending.”

On the other hand, many banks are showing hesitancy toward some restaurants and hotels.

According to Joey Ceci, president of the Breland Companies, “We have several cases where regional hotel and restaurant owners are ready to move forward but in those two industries, it is almost impossible to get financing, despite their financial statements looking fine. Accessing capital is very important to companies that are expanding so this has been a deterrent.”

SouthPoint Business Park (Photo/Hollingsworth Companies)

Outside of downtown, Davis points to growth and the success of other commercial projects throughout the region.

SouthPoint Business Park, off Interstates 65 and 565 and five miles from the Mazda Toyota Manufacturing plant, broke ground on its 11th facility at the 1.9 million square-foot industrial park that is already home to six companies. The new building is the region’s largest spec industrial facility and, according to Davis, it is almost full.

SouthPoint is a component of the larger regional economic strategy, and Davis calls out regional leaders and partners for that expansion, as they continue to focus on the bigger picture and work to be successful in those areas.

“Cummings Research Park remains the location of choice for big business,” Davis said. “Several entities have plans for expansion and the city continues to invest in new and updated infrastructure as part of implementing the updated Master Plan. Even with the COVID events, projects are in the works for 2021 and we believe will be a big year for CRP.”

At MidCity, construction slowed due to COVID, but retail, hospitality, and the initial multi-family components are still on schedule to start construction this fall.

“Most of the infrastructure construction, site grading, and utility relocations are wrapping up such that the redevelopment plan can go vertical,” said Davis. “We believe 2021 will be an exciting year for MidCity as the building architecture that has been shared through the Master Plan will come to life.”

One of the worst kept secrets in Madison County is all that red clay moving around at the corner of Town Madison Boulevard and Zierdt Road.

The newest Huntsville Starbucks location and Outback Steakhouse are moving forward, while Town Madison continues to build a retail center across the street from Toyota Field. The buildings are 50 percent complete and will welcome a chef-driven Italian restaurant to its tenant line-up.

“Economic development continues to be a primary focus for our Madison team,” said Madison Mayor Paul Finley. “Our YTD sales tax is up over 10 percent from last year despite the COVID-19 situation, and we continue to see success in growing our retail sales tax base.

“Town Madison, Madison Boulevard, The Avenue Madison downtown, Midtown, the (U.S.) 72 corridor, and County Line Road have all seen growth in restaurants, retail, and groceries,” Finley aidd. “Redevelopment of Hughes Plaza, Madison Boulevard and Hughes Road all continue to give Madison an upgraded, new and positive look.”

“Retail follows rooftops,” said Beck of TSCG. “The good news is that Huntsville is still growing; we still have a housing shortage; we still have over 10,000 jobs coming into the area; and there is still a lot of demand, even pent-up retail demand.”

Beck, who has developed retail projects throughout the region, said he is positive about the future as he sees developers moving towards mixed-use projects with a housing component and perhaps an office of medical office component fitted together with traditional retail.

“We are still seeing expansion downtown and on the south part of town with the Hays Farm development,” he said. “Scottsboro, Athens and northern Madison County, Hazel Green and Meridianville are showing continuous growth.

“Athens, for instance, is getting a second Publix where the old Kmart used to be. With its proximity to the interstate and Toyota Mazda, Athens is a great commuting city for Huntsville and Madison, and it should soon see a boom as it grows together with Madison.”

He also said smaller towns such as Hartselle and Priceville are seeing growth as well because the commute time to Huntsville or Madison is workable.

“If you moved here from Atlanta or (Washington) D.C., you have an entirely different perspective on commutes,” he said. “And it is less expensive to live in those smaller towns.”

The disconnect he said is with forced reduced sales volumes. Can retailers justify the construction costs and afford the rent?

“We don’t know the answer to that yet, but at some point, business must open back up and people have to get back work,” Beck said. “There’s no way these restaurants with construction costs being where they are, can at 50 percent capacity and a limit on the hours you can sell alcohol, justify new construction costs.”

He said while rent must go down, at the same time, landlords have mortgages and they have to make mortgage payments. The good part is that developers and landlords are being creative in finding ways to make it work.

“On pre-COVID leases, landlords are working on rent deferrals or rent reductions where the tenant pays partial rent for the time being, and when things get back to normal, going back to full rent and perhaps adding a longer lease time, like an extra year on the lease.

“As long as there’s housing demand, retail will be all right, but we also don’t yet know how the Amazon effect will affect big box retail,” he said. “There are still a lot of people who want to shop in stores. Shopping is a social event just like going out to play golf or tennis. But throughout this pandemic, Amazon has filled that space and we don’t know yet how much that convenience will carry over into everyday life once things get back to normal.”

Coley too said there is still a lot of uncertainty, but his company Robins & Morton believes most people are hopeful that we will gain control over the pandemic in the not-too-distant future.

“When you think that it can be two years or more from planning to completion for a project, you can understand why a lot of active construction hasn’t slowed down,” said Coley. “You’re always building for the future, and I think that’s what we’re seeing here in Huntsville.”

Madison County Housing Market Booms Despite Pre-COVID Shortages

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the only things obstructing regional residential growth was the construction industry labor shortage and a desperate shortage of housing inventory. 

Still, during the pandemic, there is nothing – at least nothing new – slowing the residential housing market in North Alabama. Not a virus, not consumers, not builders, not banks, not regulation, and not the economy.

Home-buying and homebuilding are booming.

“We have sold more homes in 2020 than were sold at the same time in 2019,” said Josh McFall, CEO of the Huntsville Area Association of Realtors. “Even amidst the stress of a pandemic and busy housing market there was no slow down, and in fact, the only thing the association has seen take a downturn is housing inventory.

“I don’t even think we can classify the inventory problem as directly related to the pandemic. Beginning in January, we reported the lowest number of homes available for sale in the MLS since the MLS has been keeping track of those records in the mid-1990s.

“Madison County has been the big driver of that because we have the most MLS listings due to the denser population. Inventory is low, but we consistently slide down the entire MLS because our average days on market has also slid down.”

He said the days on market number for North Alabama combined is 42 days but, in Madison County, that number is 26 days and consistently falling.

“I remember five years ago we were reporting 80 or 90 days on the market and here in 2020 and during a pandemic, as of June that number is 26 days,” he said. “So, we had this housing shortage before COVID.”

Last month, around 840 homes were sold in Madison County. Of those, 600 were resales and 230 were new construction. Those 230 are either new construction, a prospect build that was sold, or a custom build that entered the MLS.

“So, what we are saying is, more builders are feeling more confidence in the local economy, so they’re ramping up their building, while at the same time, they have a lot of pressure on them due to the labor shortage and rising supply costs,” McFall said. “But if you look at all the MLS to date, there were 2,307 available homes on the entire market; 926 are in Madison County.”

One-third of houses under construction sell every month so the industry must build a lot of houses to keep up with demand, 

“Sales prices are continuing to tick up from month to month so you can see it is a supply and demand issue,” said McFall.

How are people feeling about buying or building a home during a global pandemic? 

Apparently, completely unfettered.

“Buying a home during COVID-19 was almost no different than our previous purchases,” said David Fields. He and his wife Meredith bought a home right around the highpoint of the pandemic this spring. “Our Realtor was very supportive and took all the necessary precautions including the use of PPE and social distancing. Overall, it was a great experience.”

“We’re getting lots of activity on the housing side of our business,” said Joey Ceci, president of the Breland Companies. Breland’s commercial division is developing the 525-acre Town Madison off I-565.

“At Pike Place at Clift Farm off Balch Road in Madison we already have several townhouses built and sold,” Ceci said. “At Town Madison, they are getting calls from people who are downsizing and who want to get away from a large yard and out from underneath the maintenance of a large house.” 

While Breland builds a variety of housing products, they also contract with homebuilders such as Regent Homes of Nashville. Regent built homes at the Village of Providence and is building The Heights District at Town Madison.

Ceci said all Breland developments, whether they are cottages, single-family homes, or townhouses, are continuing to go up all over North Alabama. The Ledges of Oakdale in Athens, Meadowbrook in Cullman, and The Retreat in Meridianville are selling quickly, while Pebble Creek at River Landing in Madison is sold out.

“The impact on the economy with all these houses being built and sold are keeping home values up for existing homeowners,” Ceci said. “It’s good for our local economy too to be able to say we are not just swapping houses. We were pretty sure all these people would be moving here to take jobs with the FBI and Toyota, and now they are here. There are a lot of new people coming into the area.”

Stone Martin Builders who has developed Celia’s Garden, Allen Acres and Copper Creek in Huntsville, has continued to build throughout the pandemic, according to sales manager Ashley Durham, despite hurdles caused by supply shortages and subcontractor delays. 

“The labor shortage is the building industry’s greatest challenge currently and it has a direct impact on low inventory,” said Durham.  

One of the ways they are addressing the problem is to build strong relationships with subcontractors to help them grow their companies alongside their own.  

“As a growing company, Stone Martin Builders finds value in helping our business partners grow and become great so we can in turn, overcome all types of industry challenges together,” Durham said. “That in addition to seeking opportunities with local technical programs to enhance the workforce, we are all helping each other.” 

One of those technical programs is the North Alabama Homebuilding Academy started by the Huntsville-Madison County Builders Association to address the problem and they have already graduated their second class, even during the pandemic.

The North Alabama Homebuilding Academy trains people to be a homebuilder. Upon graduation, they can work as a contractor in training or in one of the ancillary trades. It was an 18-month endeavor but since January, the Academy has graduated 47 students.

According to Barry Oxley, Executive Officer of the HMCBA, the gap in skilled construction and construction-related labor goes back 30 years to the No Child Left Behind Act when school systems retooled education.

“There was for a long time, the idea that you have to go to college to be successful and as schools began to do away with trade school classes, a stigma developed around trades that said you were not meant for college,” said Oxley. “But the construction industry is made up of a lot of small businesses. If you are a skilled plumber, electrician, window or flooring installer or masonry expert, you do quite well.”

The Academy’s focus is on the 30 percent of school kids who are not able or do not want to go to college. 

The program is an eight-week session with a cap of 18 to 20 students. The fourth session started in early July with 19 students and every class through September is booked to capacity.

“We have been talking about the labor shortage for a long time, so we decided to do something about it,” said Oxley. “They apply through our website and we invite them to an open house. We have been doing those virtually since the shutdowns started.

“We send them an invitation to sign up for a class. It does not cost them anything to attend and we back up the classes with ongoing job fairs where we bring in employers who hire our students. These students are going from minimum wage jobs to making $14 to $16 an hour.”

“We will always strive to build homes efficiently and with great quality … and we will continually seek to find growth opportunities for our organization in the North Alabama market to help offset the housing shortage,” said Stone Martin’s Durham. “We are still accomplishing this goal and our customers remain positive.

“We keep them informed of any affects the pandemic will have on the construction process, and there has been very little disruptions in our builds, so customers continue to be eager and excited about their new home.”

Durham believes it is the commitment their company made to colleagues, customers, and the building team to support one another throughout the crisis. The minute COVID-19 began to challenge the building industry, Stone Martin Builders acted. 

“We identified fellow business owners that may be negatively impacted by the pandemic, and we found ways to become their patrons,” she said. “Many of these business owners were Stone Martin buyers, and we believe it is our duty to give back when we have the ability to do so.”

Some of the steps they took included renting tents from an event resource company whose events had been cancelled. 

“To offset their losses, we used these tents for outdoor closings and information gathering stations to offset the cancellation of open houses in North Alabama,” she said. “Our goal was to find ways to use the product of a struggling customer to help offset the struggles we were having.” 

Durham said some of their processes with customers also changed.

“Upon our first meeting with a customer, we seek to understand the ‘Why?’ they are building a new home,” she said. “COVID changed that process slightly in that we now need to understand how a homeowner is going to function in their new home. 

“COVID is requiring the home be multi-functional and that looks different for every homeowner.”

For instance, they see an increase in the need for home offices, quiet rooms for schooling or reading, functional kitchens with people cooking at home more, and good natural light for being home in day time hours.

“We are creating home plans that meet those needs,” said Durham. 

“We continue to see high demand for housing in Madison County, and especially in Madison,” said Madison Mayor Paul Finley. “The City instituted a Growth Impact Committee in 2017 that documented inventory and anticipated growth. Using this data, the Madison School Board, supported by the City Council, defined 12 mills as the proper number for managing this growth via the property tax referendum.”

The mill rate is the amount of tax payable per dollar of the assessed value of a property.

“This passed in September 2019 and we are now building the needed schools to manage the growth,” he said. 

To support this managed growth, the Madison City Council formulated and instituted a Growth Policy in mid-2019. Town Madison’s residential growth was factored into the Growth Impact Committee’s study and they continue to build out both the residential and retail portions. 

A new townhouse development on Kyser Boulevard is a perfect example of how managed growth can work for all parties. 

“The developer focused on providing 366 townhouse units on industrial property,” Finley said. “Our growth policy dictated that the only way we would change this zoning was if significant city objectives were achieved. 

“Working with the developer and schools, we defined two significant objectives: connecting Westchester Road to Kyser Boulevard allowing school buses a more direct and safer route to Sullivan Street; and extending the Bradford Creek Greenway from Palmer to historic downtown. These two objectives are estimated to cost $4,000,000 and will now be built and paid for by the developer. 

“The developer also agreed to spread the building out to eight years with a 50 unit maximum per year and will not include second stories or a swimming pool, keeping their focus on non-school age purchasers.”

“If you think back 10 years to the recession, Huntsville was not hit as hard as some places, but some of the bigger builders either scaled down or consolidated,” said McFall. “You may notice tracts of land still sitting empty in the back of neighborhoods that were built out for new homes in 2009 and 2010.

“Now they are exploding because builders have bought them. You can drive all over town and see construction in neighborhoods where one builder built the homes in one section of the development, but another builder is completing it. 

“The bottom line is people need a place to live, whether they are moving up or moving down. Marry that with the best interest rates seen in the mortgage industry in a long time, it explains the good housing numbers.”

Sitdown with Success: Louis Breland: An Old-School Developer Leading New-school Developments

This month’s installment of the Huntsville Business Journal’s series “Sitdown with Success” features developer Louis Breland. “Sitdown with Success” spotlights local entrepreneurs who describe their successes and failures.

Tell us about your very first touch with Town Madison and how you got involved.

We had developed a lot of property on Madison Boulevard that we still own, and we used to have offices out there.

Louis Breland (Photo/Steve Babin)

I was looking out the back window one day at a gorgeous tract of land I had my eyes on for a while. I knew Intergraph founder Jim Meadlock owned it and he didn’t need to sell it. But this day there was a tractor clearing trees! I’m thinking, “Holy smokes! I should have been calling on this property!’’

I knew Mr. Meadlock was a really nice man and I had his phone number, so I called him up and said, “Mr. Meadlock, did you sell that property because I see a tractor over there?”

He said, “No Louis, it’s just some farmers clearing trees for me. Do you want to buy it?”

I said absolutely, and negotiations started there.

It looks like such a huge and complex development. Did you know that going in?

Town Madison is actually a relatively simple development. Except for having to put in interstate ramps and things like that are complicated and takes a long time, but Breland has always done fairly large residential communities. My first Huntsville development, Autumn Ridge, is probably 800 homes.

I’ve watched cattle farms turn into major cities, so I recognized that Town Madison is in an incredible location – 2½ miles of interstate frontage and a gateway to the city. It had everything you could want in terms of a location. Town Madison started out as just a great piece of real estate at a great price.

Jim Meadlock and Intergraph owned most of the property and the rest was smaller parcels owned by four or five individuals, so we had to arsemble all of it.

You mentioned Autumn Ridge as your first Huntsville development. You came to Huntsville from Mobile?

I started a homebuilding company in Mobile in 1976 and we were building throughout Mobile, Gulf Shores and Baldwin County on the eastern shore.

A friend invited me to come to Huntsville around 1982 or 1983, to see all the activity. President Reagan had poured money into the Huntsville and Madison County market to support the military buildup for Star Wars.

The market was just exploding! The market is really good now; it was better then. There was very limited competition and there was room to put in subdivisions and build houses. And buyers were lined up.

Within the week, I decided to move here, and we closed our Gulf Coast operation. By comparison, the coast was a very tough market: in Baldwin County, you could barely sell a house.

From the day we started in Huntsville it was on fire – successful from day one. You had a tough market nationally but here there was a shortage of housing and lots of land available for development.

To get started in the development and home building business, do you just start buying land?

Correct. Within just a few months we bought a 400-acre tract of land on South Parkway (Autumn Ridge) and a big tract of land at Zierdt Road where the Edgewater community is now.

You have been involved in this part of town for a long time.

Wayne Bonner of Bonner Development developed Edgewater, but I was one of the first to buy land from him to build houses. Lady Anne Lake was just a bunch of trees back then.

Mountainbrook was one of the first developments at Edgewater. I bought 100 lots that became Mountainbrook and Heritage Woods.

What has it been like being in the homebuilding and commercial development business and still come out on top, with all the volatility over the years?

Louis Breland with Toyota Field in the background. (Photo/Steve Babin)

You have to remember, back then, interest rates and energy were not predictable. Oil goes from $50 a barrel to $150 a barrel; inflation starts in, the Feds raise interest rates and you go from 8 percent to 10 percent to 12 percent, 14 percent and then back to 10 percent. There’s nothing in the real estate business – nothing – predictable. It is always changing. But the difference between then and now, I believe, is that 100 percent of energy came from the Middle East and we had no real energy policy in place.

It was just crazy what fluctuations in energy and interest rates would do. It was always a roller coaster.

And interest rates are like oxygen for a homebuilder and interest rate volatility is very hard on us. It cuts off your oxygen and the higher the rates go – it starts choking you and you have no control over it – period.

But despite this, we thrived here in the Huntsville market. We probably had 30 to 35 percent of the homebuilding market here – 30 to 35 percent of all homes sold were Breland Homes. We were by far the largest builder here.

Has the business changed much?

Extremely different.

Back then there was no one to buy lots from. We bought 100 acres, built the lots, developed all of the infrastructure like roads and utilities; built the homes, sold homes, and we financed them. So we were very integrated – from raw dirt to turning on your stove for the first time at move in.

Now, if you just want to be a homebuilder and not get into development, you can just go buy lots from someone.

How did you survive the financial and real estate collapse back in 2006 through 2008?

I’m old school.

That housing boom was not real world. In the world I grew up in, you had to have real credibility. You had to have real equity and real money which meant you had to put 30 sometimes as much as 50 percent in cash down to get a deal to make a development happen.

I did not participate in that because I could never understand how somebody who couldn’t qualify to borrow $100,000 could borrow $100 million.

We saw some of it coming.

We owned one of the largest privately held self-storage companies in Alabama, Mississippi and South Florida.

In 2006, we sold it for almost $100 million, so we were very liquid. When it collapsed, we had a lot of inventory, but we were liquid, so we bought over 100 communities in great land locations out of bankruptcy at giveaway prices. And we did not go back into the market.

I told everybody here, “This is either the most incredible buying opportunity in real estate, or the largest sucker hole we’ll ever go through – but we’re going to go for it!”

Finley: State of Madison is Strong; Outback, Panera, Marriott, Hub Coming to Town Madison

MADISON — It wasn’t a stretch for Madison Mayor Paul Finley to make a Super Bowl reference Friday night in his annual State of the City Address.

“This is the second opportunity I have had to give the State of the City Address and on behalf of the City of Madison and the Madison City Council, I am able to say again that the state of the city is strong and continuing to get stronger,” said Madison Mayor Paul Finley from beneath the Saturn V rocket at the Davidson Center. “I am so proud to be the mayor of Madison … and if you want some examples, let me give you a couple…,” upon which images of former Bob Jones High School star Reggie Ragland, and Madison Academy’s Jordan Matthews popped up on the big screen to thunderous cheers from the audience.

Madison Mayor Paul Finley delivers his State of the City Address. (Photo/Steve Babin)

Ragland started at linebacker for the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs against Matthews’ San Francisco 49ers.

“That’s just cool,” Finley said to even more applause.

Finley also made two “super” announcements at the address that had not yet been revealed.

The first is the city’s upcoming acquisition of the 28,000 square-foot Three Springs juvenile facility on Browns Ferry Road.

The second special announcement concerned Town Madison, the home of the Rocket City Trash Pandas and Toyota Field.

“I’m excited about Three Springs but I am equally excited about Town Madison,” Finley said.

In addition to the recent announcement about J. Alexander’s restaurant coming to Town Madison, Finley said they are also expecting a 200-room Marriott near Toyota Field; Outback Steakhouse and Panera Bread Company will open on the Zierdt Road side of the development and The Hub, a newcomer to the state.

Residents who spend vacation time on the Florida Panhandle will be familiar with The Hub, a relaxing outdoor venue surrounded by live music, ice cream, burgers, and family-friendly movies shown under the stars.

“Town Madison is going to continue to build out,” Finley said. “Outback, Marriott and Panera Bread already have a footprint in the Tennessee Valley, but Town Madison will welcome the first Hub in Alabama.

“The Marriott is the fifth hotel announced – and just so you guys know, the matrix we put in place to fund the stadium had three hotels in that matrix. We are now at five.”

Concerning Three Springs, Finley said the city will be purchasing the empty 33-acre facility, using funds from the sale of the Madison Library. Over the next four to five years, it will be converted it into a community center.

Finley said there are several local entities such as the Madison City Senior Center; the Enrichment Center, which helps schools with counseling; and American Legion Post 229, which is involved in Memorial Day and Veterans Day events around the city that are all bursting at the seams when it comes to parking and office space.

“This purchase will take our city to the next level,” Finley said. “The library is not the right fit for our city right now, so it is up for sale. Over the next five years, you will see other organizations who also need more space, move into the old Three Springs facility.”

Other significant highlights from the speech were updates on sidewalk improvements at Dublin Park to make it safer; the revitalization of an aging Hughes Plaza, a retail center on Hughes Road across from City Hall; and numerous improvements to older office complexes and buildings.

Furthermore, the City Council invested more than $4 million in a new public works facility. They had outgrown the aging building and there wasn’t enough parking for the employees or for the service trucks. The new facility is on 16 acres and they will move into it in a couple of weeks.

Finley shared Census Bureau data showing the growth in Madison’s population over the past 40 years. In 1980, Madison’s population was 4,500. By the 1990s, it was nearly 15,000. There was a big jump in population in 2008 to over 42,000; and in 2019, it has grown to 50,926.

“That is astronomic growth,” Finley said. “In fact, we are in such good shape in our city that our Rocket City Trash Panda mascot, Sprocket, was just named one of the top 20 people locally of 2020.

“Because of what we are doing, we are collectively blowing this growth thing out of the water and the state of Alabama is stronger because this community is stronger.”

There was also a special recognition for Madison City School Superintendent, Robby Parker who is retiring this year; and the mayor announced that the Trash Pandas have broken records, selling over $2 million, in Trash Panda merchandise.

There will be no traffic relief for residents and businesses traveling Madison Boulevard from Zierdt Road to Wall Triana while construction continues on the I-565 interchange at Town Madison; but a greenway extension will run under the railway tracks just south of Palmer Road, into historic downtown Madison where Sealy Realty is building the Avenue Madison, a multi-use residential, retail and commercial development right in the heart of downtown.

“It’s an exciting time right now to be in our city,” said Finley upon conclusion. “We are managing growth, we are open for business, but we are being really smart about it.”

J. Alexander’s Restaurant Coming to Town Madison

 

J. Alexander’s has been announced as the first restaurant for Town Madison.

Mark A. Parkey, President and Chief Executive Officer of J. Alexander’s Holdings, said the new J. Alexander’s restaurant will be on a 2.8-acre site at the entrance to Town Madison on Town Madison Boulevard.

Town Madison is a 560-acres mixed-use development focused on residential, office, retail and entertainment.  The Breland Co., one of the largest commercial and residential developers in the Mid-South, is the developer and Minneapolis-based Shea Design is the architect of the restaurant.

Parkey said plans for the new restaurant will include approximately 7,350 square feet with seating for more than 200 guests.  Approximately 100 full- and part-time professionals are expected to be employed.

“We are extremely pleased to announce plans for our newest J. Alexander’s restaurant,” Parkey said.  “The signing of this lease follows extensive research to identify the most desirable site in this premier community.  Town Madison boasts a superb business climate and quality of life.

“Over the years, we have earned a loyal following of guests from the greater Madison County region at our J. Alexander’s restaurant in Franklin, Tenn., and our Redland’s Grill in Hoover.  As such, we are excited with the opportunity to be in Madison and bring discerning guests the finest in classic American cuisine created by culinary professionals and a concept that spans nearly 30 years.”

Parkey said construction is expected to begin this spring with an opening scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2020.

Known for its wood-fired cuisine, the J. Alexander’s menu will feature a wide selection of American classics – hand-cut steaks, fresh seafood, prime rib of beef roasted on the bone, and premium sandwiches, along with a large assortment of interesting salads and homemade desserts.  J. Alexander’s restaurants also offer an outstanding selection of award-winning wines by the glass and bottle.

The Nashville-based company operates 47 restaurants in 16 states.
 

Hilton Garden Inn Brings 100-plus More Rooms to Town Madison

MADISON — A four-story, 102-room Hilton Garden Inn joins a cavalcade of new boutique hotels springing up on the west end of the sprawling Town Madison development.

Madison Mayor Paul Finley, Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong, Town Madison developer Louis Breland, and representatives from the Madison Chamber of Commerce shoveled the area’s famous red soil in a groundbreaking ceremony for the $16 million project by PHD Hotels, Inc.

The Hilton Garden Inn will join the avid and Home2Suites hotels at the I-565 and Wall Triana Highway interchange. It is scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2021.

The new hotel will feature a full-service restaurant offering cooked to-order breakfast and dinner and a full bar, and 24-hour, self-service retail space known as The Shop, which will offer snacks, locally sourced food and beverages, as well as essential personal items.

Designed for business travelers and regional guests, the hotel lobby will feature contemporary décor and lots of natural light. Guests can take advantage of Wi-Fi and remote printing; an onsite fitness facility and Hilton’s digital check-in with room selection tool. Through the Hilton Honors guest-loyalty program, Hilton Garden Inn guests can choose their room from a digital floor plan prior to arrival.

Hilton Garden Inn has more than 850 properties in 48 countries with more than 300 properties yet to come.

 

Trash Pandas Stadium to be Named Toyota Field

MADISON — They have a name, they have a logo, they have a home.

And, now, the Rocket City Trash Pandas have a name for their home.

Toyota Field.

In a press conference today, Ballcorps, the owner of the baseball team; the City of Madison; and Toyota Motor Manufacturing of Alabama announced an agreement for the naming rights to the club’s new $46 million stadium and multi-use venue, now officially called Toyota Field.

“The Rocket City Trash Pandas are thrilled to be a member of this partnership and the myriad of benefits it will bring to the ball club, Toyota, the City of Madison and the entire North Alabama community,” said Trash Pandas President and CEO Ralph Nelson. “Discussions began more than two years ago, well before stadium plans were finalized, and today’s announcement reflects Toyota’s commitment to our region and the unwavering support they have shown the Trash Pandas since day one.

“I believe this community deserves a major league operation with our minor league team, and this significant partnership with Toyota, a company representing excellence and superior quality on a global scale, demonstrates exactly that.”

The Toyota brand will be prominent throughout the stadium, including the Toyota Outfield Experience, to be located beyond the centerfield fence. Fans will see advanced engines from the Huntsville plant, interact with digital displays, learn what it’s like to work at Toyota, and how to apply for jobs at the Huntsville plant, which currently builds engines for the popular Toyota Camry, RAV4, Corolla, Highlander, Tacoma, Tundra and Sequoia.

“North Alabama is a great place to live, work and play,” said David Finch, president of TMMAL. “Toyota Field is the new centerpiece for the region, promoting economic development, job creation and quality of life. The Toyota Outfield Experience will showcase our world-class engine manufacturing plant and   create a touchpoint to connect job seekers to the 400 upcoming available job opportunities at TMMAL. We see this contact with the community as an important step in securing our workforce of the future.”

Revenue from the naming rights will be divided evenly between the City of Madison and the Trash Pandas.

“Toyota continues to be an amazing community partner and we are beyond excited to call the ball park Toyota Field,” said Madison Mayor Paul Finley. “We are extremely appreciative of BallCorps’ diligence in securing such a quality organization.”

Toyota began its Alabama operation in 2003, and its impact continues to be felt throughout the region. The plant’s most recent expansion announcement will increase employment to 1,800 with an investment of $1.2 billion and annual production capacity of 900,000 engines. This solidifies the facility as one of Toyota’s largest engine producers globally.

“To see the project come to life has been amazing and the energy from the community is contagious,” said Finch. “We can’t wait to say, ‘play ball’ at Toyota Field.”

Hexagon/Intergraph Celebrates 50 Years of Innovative Software, Mapping and Computer Graphics

There were a lot of headlines in 1969.

The Beatles played their last public concert on the roof of Apple Records and 350,000 young people gathered at Woodstock to protest the Vietnam War.

Bob Thurber: “Our work in hardware and software wasn’t an industry then – it was just the beginning of stuff.” (Photo/Steve Babin)

But while Boeing was debuting its 747 “Jumbo Jet” to the American public, NASA engineers had landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the Moon using the Apollo Guidance Computer. It’s laboriously handmade, read-only rope memory was equivalent to 72 KB of storage today.

Also in 1969, while millions of children watched the Utopian lifestyle of a space age cartoon called “The Jetsons” with its clunky robots and home automated conveyor belt, engineers were making it a reality, linking for the first time, several large-scale, general purpose computers into a network known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET).

It was against this backdrop that IBM engineer James Meadlock, his wife Nancy, and three young engineers Bob Thurber, Terry Schansman and Keith Schonrock left their jobs at IBM on Feb. 10, 1969 to start M&S Computing on South Memorial Parkway in Huntsville.

With the company that became known worldwide as Intergraph and now known as Hexagon, the now-retired Meadlock and his remaining team returned to the sprawling campus and world headquarters in what is now the new Town Madison, for a 50th anniversary celebration.

Hundreds of current and former employees and their families filled the three-level hexagon-shaped building with its towering glass windows and tiered mezzanine overlooking a private lake to hear Meadlock speak.

Intergraph co-founder James Meadlock left IBM in 1969 to help found M&S Computing, the forerunner to Intergraph. (Photo/Steve Babin)

According to Bob Thurber, co-founder and the original executive vice president of the company, IBM got the contract for the instrument unit on the Saturn launch vehicle because they had built the first digital computer on a missile.

“I came out of college with IBM in Huntsville, so when we finished with the Saturn program, we were the renowned experts on putting digital computers onboard missiles,” said Thurber. “We were able to leave IBM with our heads held high.”

Initially, Thurber said all the Army’s weapons systems needed computers on them, so M&S Computing became a consultant for them.

“One of the things we did in the IBM days was build an interactive graphics interface for the simulation of the Saturn launch vehicle,” he said. “You had to run simulations over and over and over again, but if something went wrong within the first 30 seconds of launch, you didn’t know it until you came in the next day. They needed a quicker interactive system to do it.

“That’s how we got started. By running simulations interactively, you could watch the trajectory on the screen and if it blew up or went off-course, you could just stop it, key in some different parameters, and run it again. You could do in a day what had been taking a month.”

That ability to visualize data led to their graphics mapping capabilities, and M&S Computing was the first company to do that as well.

“Our work in hardware and software wasn’t an industry then – it was just the beginning of stuff,” Thurber said. “There were only four companies in the business when we got into it, but we essentially created the core graphics for AutoCAD.”

Thurber said they sold their first three systems around Christmas 1973: an engineering drafting system for 2D drafting to a company in Houston; a system for municipal mapping to the city of Nashville; and a system to the Army Missile Command (AMC). All three were totally separate industries, but they all needed the same basic graphic capabilities.

“We lost a lot of money when we sold Nashville the mapping system,” Thurber said. “The city said to us, ‘Look, we would love to use this stuff, but we don’t want to build all these maps!’ We said, ‘Okay. We’ll do it for you’.

“We charged them $80 per map. The cost was $500 per map, but it really it forced us to make it a good mapping system and it gave us the experience we wouldn’t have gotten had we held their hand while they did it.”

In the end, Nashville was the first city to map its roadways to understand traffic flow, congestion points, etc. all thanks to M&S Computing’s mapping capabilities.

The company then known as M&S Computing rented office space in Huntsville until the 1974 tornado destroyed the Bendix Building on Alabama 20 in Madison. Using insurance money, they were able to reconfigure it to M&S Computing’s requirements.

“The only eating place near our office back then was a Waffle House,” Thurber said with a laugh.

That would be the first of a sprawling campus with more than 4,000 employees, that is today located amidst the bustling new Town Madison development.

In 1981, M&S Computing went public and changed its name to Intergraph. After Meadlock and Thurber retired from the company, Stockholm-based Hexagon purchased Intergraph in 2010 for $2.125 billion.

Meadlock, who lost his beloved wife and business partner Nancy, is quietly retired.

Thurber is active with Huntsville’s tech incubator BizTech, but he says for a company that was the first to develop intelligent applications on top of graphics, the software and computing industry has now moved way past him.

“I still come over and visit and when I see the demos of the work Hexagon is doing now, fifty years later, the capabilities are so much more than graphics,” he said. “But they tell me that our software, M&S Computing’s software, is so integrated into their design and construction process, it cannot be unseated.”

Madison Cuts Ribbon on Alabama’s First White Bison Coffee-Twice Daily Store

MADISONIt’s another first for Madison as Nashville-based Tri Star Energy  opened its newest White Bison Coffee and Twice Daily convenience store in Town Madison.

White Bison Coffee and Twice Daily is now open at 115 Graphics Drive in Madison. (Courtesy Photo)

The store at 115 Graphics Drive, off Wall Triana Highway, is the first brand-in-brand retail location for Tri Star Energy outside of Tennessee. The new concept combines convenience and quality with Twice Daily’s convenience store and White Bison Coffee’s artisan coffee beverages and fresh, handcrafted café menu.

“Whether it’s enjoying coffee with friends, grabbing food on-the-go or fueling up, White Bison Coffee and Twice Daily have you covered,” said Steve Hostetter, CEO of Tri Star Energy. “We are thrilled to bring convenience paired with quality to the people of Alabama.”

The White Bison Coffee concept offers roasted, handcrafted specialty coffee drinks – featuring single origin pour-over coffees, cold brew, nitro coffee, espresso beverages and more. The store also features freshly baked pastries and handmade breakfast and lunch items including sandwiches, salads and Bistro snack boxes.

In addition to traditional convenience items, Twice Daily’s premium offerings range from grab-and-go snacks, including organic brands, to a selection of staple groceries.

There is also a fresh deli case with handmade and healthy options featuring fruits, sandwiches, salads and snacks. Additional offerings include donuts and pastries, freshly prepared breakfast & lunch sandwiches and an extensive beer cave featuring local and craft beers.

The employee roster includes Brad Powers, Twice Daily general manager; Kayla Hurst, White Bison Coffee manager; and Corrine Claghorn, White Bison Coffee manager in training.