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The phones weren’t ringing. The email inbox sat empty when Jim McGuffey, the Manager of Planning Services for the City of Huntsville, first joined his department. Huntsville, like the rest of the country, was dealing with a recession.

“Now,” he says, “it’s the opposite.” Calls and emails from developers and businesses are flooding in “as much right now as I’ve ever had.”

Times are better economically. And they’re better in Huntsville than most places, as evidenced by new and expanding businesses, the growth of neighborhoods and a downtown that has gone from after-hours ghost town to a vibrant community core.

The growth has been spawned from ideas within the City, from citizen demands and from outside entities. It’s a “balance there to try to meet the demands and still position yourself to meet the rules that are in place and the projected growth you want to see,” McGuffey says.

So, how does it all happen?

Downtown/historic

“The downtown corridor is very awesome to watch now,” McGuffey says. “The focus is on people migrating back to the core. To see that as it’s happening, it’s neat to watch.”

The Twickenham development, Belk Hudson Lofts, The Avenue, the proliferation of shops and restaurants on Clinton Avenue are all examples of new growth.


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However, most of the residential units are rental apartments and McGuffey says, “We need to follow up with more permanent residents, in condos and more homes.”

As downtown grows, the City regulates that with a respect for history. There is a buffer zone that protects the historic districts, with a maximum height and story count for new construction.

Incentives

Yes, the City may provide assistance to developers, if the project meets specific criteria, enhances quality of life and provides a solid return on investment to taxpayers. So does every other smart municipality competing to bring in new jobs and businesses.

If you don’t have the jobs, you don’t have the homes and you don’t have the restaurants and you don’t have the retail.”

“They may ask for incentives to maximize use for their property in a public-private partnership,” McGuffey says.

However, the incentives are investments, not handouts. They’re typically in the form of infrastructure assistance – utilities, parking and roads.

“The City Council always asks what’s our return on investment, how long before we get it back in tax revenue,” McGuffey says. The City is “very transparent” with many public meetings and discussions in Council meeting regarding such decisions, McGuffey says.

There is another delicate balance on incentives. The initial developer, the one who rolls the dice on a potential site, “the ones who get people believing,” as McGuffey puts it, will typically have the greater incentive support. A secondary developer with less skin in the game would not have a generous incentive.

Home building

There is continuing interest in new subdivisions, according to McGuffey. With lower interest rates, first-time buyers are able to purchase new homes, which leads to the demand for new neighborhoods.

Also encouraging homebuilding is the City’s emphasis on road infrastructure, assuring some of the shortest commute times of any comparably sized city.

This year’s opening of the new Grissom High in South Huntsville coupled with the completion of South Parkway construction is expected to have a domino effect. It will lead to more neighborhoods and single-family homes wanting to move into that school district. The new residents will lead to more businesses to repurpose some of the vacant stores and buildings along the Parkway.

Jemison High School in North Huntsville is another great example. Pair that new school facility with the proposed nearby mixed-use neighborhood development and planned industrial build out from Toyota and Aerojet in North Huntsville. Another domino effect.

Incoming businesses

There are also the “super-exciting” projects that come to Huntsville. “Without those,” McGuffey says, “you don’t have the jobs. And if you don’t have the jobs, you don’t have the homes and you don’t have the restaurants and you don’t have the retail.”

Bringing in new business involves partnerships with entities like the Chamber of Commerce and it’s driven from within, starting with the Mayor’s office and weaving together the work of Shane Davis, Director of Urban Development, Dennis Madsen, Director of Urban and Long-Range Planning, McGuffey and all their staffs.


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The City has been proactive in annexation, which has insured both residential and industrial growth. With roads and utilities in place, “we have positioned ourselves so when those opportunities come along, we’re ready to jump on them,” McGuffey says. “We’re well-prepared and that has a lot to do with the success we’ve had with new projects and that we’ll continue to have.”

It’s why the phone rings now, and the email beeps in.