Downtown districts are often considered the heartbeat of a city. It’s where diverse people and businesses converge, day and night.
Huntsville’s Downtown district is no different. It continues to evolve into a destination point for shoppers, diners and those of all ages and backgrounds. Lately, it’s become a place for those who want to stay temporarily in a hotel or permanently in a luxury apartment.
“It’s good to see cranes in the air,” said Jim McGuffey, Huntsville’s manager of Planning Services. “Cranes mean growth.”
Downtown has proven to be an area that people want to spend time. Compared to our peer cities, our Downtown was underutilized for many years.
The growth will continue because there’s a steady stream of current and planned projects. One ongoing public project includes streetscaping that – in the short term – resulted in the removal of sidewalk access in several locations, particularly along Jefferson Street. When completed, however, the new sidewalks, curbs and gutters will enhance safety and pedestrian access.
A future public project of note includes plans to renovate the Madison County Courthouse, which has anchored the Square since 1967. Last month, the county’s offices of the tax assessor, license commissioner, board of registrars and probate judge moved from the Courthouse to the new Madison County Service Center at the corner of Oakwood Avenue and Memorial Parkway.
The relocation of those offices frees up more parking around the Square for both visitors and residents who may have avoided eating or shopping downtown because spaces were hard to find.
“I think that’s really going to help the daytime restaurants,” said Chad Emerson, president and CEO of Downtown Huntsville, Inc. “I think (businesses) are trying to get the word out that it was hard to find a parking spot, but it should be easier now.”
Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong said interior and exterior improvements to the Courthouse are a necessity, and a move that has support from the rest of the Commission.
“We know it will be an expensive project, but it’s something that’s warranted,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re utilizing the space the most efficient way we can.”
He said the goal is to make it more functional for the 23rd Circuit Court, which handles more cases per judge than any other circuit in the state. But he also hopes the renovation mirrors the progress happening downtown and serves as a project the public can be proud of.
“There are still a lot of county employees (in the Courthouse) who patronize these Downtown businesses,” Strong said. “The Service Center was a major move, but it has gone off flawlessly. I think when people see how effectively that office works, they’ll be excited about what we’re fixing to do with the Madison County Courthouse.”
New Municipal Complex, Federal Courthouse
Other ambitious projects that will enhance the Downtown landscape are a new Municipal Complex at the corner of Fountain Circle and Jefferson Street as well as a Federal Courthouse at the intersection of Lowe Avenue and Gallatin Street.
The estimated $60 million Municipal Complex will put nearly all City departments on six floors under one roof and free up the current Municipal Complex site for future development. A groundbreaking is scheduled for this year, and the 18-month construction process will start shortly thereafter.
The project will be built on the site of a municipal parking garage at Fountain Circle and Gates Avenue, but the new complex will include a five-level parking garage.
Next year, work will begin on a new $86 million federal courthouse at the intersection of Gallatin Street and Lowe Avenue. It will take about 30 months to complete the project, according to officials with the U.S. General Services Administration.
“It’s exciting to talk about City Hall and to know we’re going to be improving two sites – one that’s an older deck that will be transformed into a new building to be proud of and another that provides an opportunity to be developed,” McGuffey said. “The Federal Courthouse is an awesome project that will be a marquee building for our City.”
The public projects only tell part of the Downtown story. On any given day, you might see people enjoying lunch or a glass of wine in front of a string of restaurants and bistros around the Square. Businesses can expect more patrons upon completion of several ambitious hotel, apartment and parking deck projects.
Constellation Huntsville, now under construction at the intersection of Memorial Parkway and Clinton Avenue, will bring 219 apartments along with more restaurants and retailers. Other projects include a Hampton Inn & Suites at the corner of Clinton Avenue and Monroe Street, a 117-room Hilton hotel on Jefferson Street, the Eclipse apartment development on Williams Avenue and a parking garage on Greene Street.
McGuffey said the City worked closely with the Huntsville-Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau to identify needs, and more hotels and parking garages topped the list.
“Hotel developers are interested in Downtown, and we’ve seen a push for more hotel rooms,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity Downtown, and there’s even more opportunities in the future.”
Business owners and managers are hopeful all the Downtown activity will result in increased patrons and revenues. Jeremy Galloway, who manages Piper & Leaf Tea at Constitution Village, believes more people are checking out downtown Huntsville.
Cheryl Sexton, a manager at Harrison Brothers Hardware on the Square, said the combination of more parking and hotels will be beneficial to Downtown businesses.
“We’ve already had so many factors (impacting business), including the weather and COVID,” Sexton said. “We’re definitely going to try to grab more of the hotel and restaurant business.”
The increased interest in Downtown Huntsville mirrors the overall interest in the City as a destination for large-scale manufacturing companies and high-tech businesses of all sizes. In addition to the FBI’s decision to move more than 1,500 employers and contractors to Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville will be the permanent home of U.S. Space Command.
“Huntsville is starting to receive a lot of national recognition due to its job growth, low cost of living and business incubator opportunities,” said Wesley Crunkleton, principal of Crunkleton Commercial Real Estate. “In the past, developers focused on other areas of our City such as Cummings Research Park, Jones Valley and University Drive. Those areas are still getting a lot of attention, but Downtown has proven to be an area that people want to spend time. Compared to our peer cities, our Downtown was underutilized for many years. The introduction of organizations like Downtown Huntsville, Inc. really helped shine a light on how wonderful our Downtown really is.”