There has been no shortage of media interviews for Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle during 2017. But there’s one that sticks out, partly because of the reaction on the other end of the telephone.
It was with technical writers from Slate Magazine, who were ranking the top tech cities in the United States.
The one thing we always hear is, ‘We never knew that Huntsville had all of this.'”
“We talked about cyber and geospatial initiatives, about space and missile defense at Redstone Arsenal, about biotech at HudsonAlpha and about advanced manufacturing. We bragged so much, they pretty much said ‘no mas’ – they’d accept that we were, in fact, No. 1,” Battle laughed.
As Battle noted, the realization of Huntsville’s assets happens frequently.
“When visitors come in, or when we host potential business partners, the one thing we always hear right before they head to the airport is, ‘We never knew that Huntsville had all of this,’” Battle said.
Here’s what Huntsville residents could appreciate – and visitors could notice – about 2017.
People, jobs, and growth
Huntsville is growing by 15+ residents per day, and has been ever since 2015. Last year, the City added another 2,500 new jobs and saw a 66 percent increase in capital investment. As a result, new multi-family housing went up 150 percent and new single-family homes rose 30 percent. Commercial construction is on the rise, too, up 25 percent in new projects alone.
Huntsville is seeing a veritable dandelion field of new developments popping up everywhere.
TopGolf, which will anchor the Mid-City development, opened its doors, and others are waiting in the wings to announce plans to locate on the site on which a struggling mall had rested.
The long-awaited Gate 9 modifications for Redstone Arsenal were completed, making entrance and exit much easier and enhancing the growth potential for the Redstone Gateway area.
A dandelion field of new developments popping up everywhere
There is investment demonstrated all along the Parkway corridor, from the Academy Sports on the west side of the parkway at Bob Wallace to the multiuse developments along the opposite side.
At opposite ends of the city, a master plan is in the works at Ditto Landing, and the former Johnson High property is considered fertile ground for new development. As Councilman Devyn Keith called it, “an opportunity to make an investment in a property that will reverberate for generations.”
Among major industry announcements were:
— BOCAR, a German-based auto parts company, will build its first manufacturing facility in the U.S. in Huntsville, in the area of Limestone County is inside Huntsville city limits. It will be a $115 million facility and provide 300 jobs
— Blue Origin, a privately owned (by Jeff Bezos) aerospace manufacturer, said it will build a $200 million rocket engine factory in Cummings Research Park, employing some 400 people
— Aerojet Rocketdyne broke ground for a “rocket shop” in the North Huntsville Industrial Park, not far away from its new defense headquarters in Cummings Research Park
— Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama, which anchors the North Huntsville Industrial Park, expanded its facility for the fifth time since its 2001 groundbreaking, with a $106 million investment that will bring 50 new jobs
— IBM will build a $62 million cloud data center on Redstone Arsenal
Parks and Recreation
The $22 million Huntsville Aquatic Center opened in Brahan Spring Park — “unparalleled in the Southeast,” Battle said. It provides recreational and competitive swimming opportunities for residents and can host major regional and national events as the only facility with two indoor 50-meter pools under the same roof.
The Becky Peirce Municipal Golf Course is being transformed into a mixed-use park that includes a cross-country running course, walking trails, a mountain-bike facility, dog park, disc golf course, lighted driving range and beach volleyball courts.
Nine new multi-purpose fields are planned for the property between Drake Avenue and Milton Frank Stadium and an archery park has opened at Southside Park.
The City adopted a new Downtown Master Plan as part of the comprehensive BIG Picture Master Plan, which is guiding the fabric of future development. This includes guidance on the location of a new City Hall, downtown parking, multi-modal transportation, retail and residential.
Last spring, work was completed on the renovation of Big Spring Park West, which has “become a centerpiece in the city useful for all citizens,” Battle said.
The City gave the green light for a $42 million expansion and renovation of Von Braun Center, to be funded through an increase in lodging tax and a room surcharge, thus avoiding a tax burden for residents.
Work is progressing at City Centre, and there is continued growth in retail, restaurants and residential in downtown; most recently, plans for several restaurants opposite The Avenue apartments were announced.
A cycle trail was built on Spragins Street that enables (1) more rider safety and (2) connectivity for cyclists from Big Spring Park West all the way to Five Points.
The old Councill High School, closed in the mid-1960s after desegregation, will be razed. Alumni unveiled plans in the fall to add more downtown greenspace by creating a memorial park that pays tribute to the legacy of Dr. Councill and the school’s alumni.
The City added a new Arts & Entertainment District to encompass Campus No. 805.
Service to residents
The Huntsville Police Department opened its new Criminal Investigations Department building on Holmes Avenue, helping to streamline services and to bring in state-of-the-art computer-driven crime-prevention programs. Police also debuted the new Blue Star Crime Free Multi-housing program.
The initiative to become a “Gig City” made tremendous strides as Google Fiber began its services in North Huntsville. Residents in Hampton Cove are in the process of subscribing and preparations are being made for South Huntsville service. AT&T, Comcast, and Southern Light have all stepped up to provide greater access to high-speed broadband across the City.
Huntsville Utilities opened a $90 million water plant in Marshall County that serves Huntsville residents. Said Battle, “It sets us up nicely for the future for the people of Huntsville and for development, and it assures we won’t be fighting those ‘water wars’ we hear other cities dealing with or shortages in places like California.”
Huntsville Fire and Rescue added seven new high tech fire trucks to its fleet.
The Department of Public Works is paving more lane miles than ever and will nearly double its budget to assist in road resurfacing and pothole repair in the coming year.
Animal Services continued as essentially a “no-kill” shelter, finding homes for all pets that were not considered too ill or too dangerous for adoption. The annual live release rate for the year is expected to exceed 92 percent. It’s no easy feat and requires monthly adoption special events to remind and entice the public into giving a pet a loving home.
Huntsville Connect, the City’s service request app, managed more than 5,000 inquiries in 2017. The majority were handled within 24-48 hours.
The City welcomed LYFT and Zagster for new mobility options for residents.
Be our guest
Tourism continues to boom and more visitors are traveling to Huntsville than ever before, pushing the City to exceed a record 3.1 million guests. Economic impact exceeds $1.9 billion.
The TBEX conference brought more in 600 national and international travel media professionals to explore the Rocket City and generate buzz about all we have to offer. The TBEX visit generated 109 pieces of digital content that reached more than 20 million people.
Though December brought a contentious election, “There’s one result we can all celebrate,” Battle said. “Voters chose to renew the property taxes that go to support public education. That shows the value people put on education, and they know it’s a key to our future success in workforce development.”
Huntsville City Schools punctuated its $250-million-plus capital campaign with the opening of the new Grissom High School and the completion of the massive renovation of Morris P-8.
They know education is a key to our future success.”
The system welcomed new superintendent Matt Akin last winter, replacing Casey Wardynski.
New leaders, fresh ideas
Matt Akin was hardly the only new face in a leadership role in Huntsville. Among others, Wes Kelley, the new CEO at Huntsville Utilities; Lyndsay Ferguson, new president at CEO at Leadership Huntsville; John Allen, CEO at Huntsville Committee of 100; Chris Lewis, new president at Drake State Community and Technical College.
“These new faces show that we have a great bench ready to pick up the ball and run with it and bring new vision and ideas to build on what we have in the community,” Battle said.
Judge Lonzo Robinson was appointed as presiding judge for the City of Huntsville Municipal Court after the Council approved Robinson and Jeff Grimes to the bench, joining incumbent Judge Sybil Cleveland.
District 1 Council Member Devyn Keith served his first year in that role and “made us think a little differently,” Battle said.
“That’s one of the keys for Huntsville is that year after year we have young thinkers come along and we have the people who have been here for a while and worked through the problems and know the way we do things and our history,” Battle continued. “That’s a good mix and that’s one reason we’re successful.”