Expansion craft: How Huntsville landed in Limestone County

single-meta-cal January 26, 2018

It began with conversations on the tailgates of pickup trucks and around cozy kitchen tables and on creaky wooden porches, the sort of old-fashioned communication that seem almost ancient and simplistic.

The seeds planted in those days will soon become a state-of-the-art, first-of-its-kind $1.6 billion automobile facility shared by Mazda and Toyota, sprawling across Huntsville-annexed property in Limestone County.

“Did we dream there would be two automotive plants on the same land? No. But we knew it was going to be a jobs corridor,” said Shane Davis, Urban and Economic Development Director for the City of Huntsville, who has worked for the City for 17 years.

The City of Huntsville has been acquiring land in Limestone County for decades, most notably in the area northeast of I-65 and stretching toward the Madison city limits north of I-565. Because it’s not contiguous to the city limits contained within Madison County – Madison is essentially a buffer zone – there was confusion when the Toyota-Mazda announcement was made.

It was hard to see that many years ago. Now I can say (Fanning) was certainly right.”

The City has some 38.9 square miles, which amounts to nearly 25,000 acres, of annexed land in Limestone County. Huntsville is nearly the largest city in Limestone County, as Athens includes some 40.1 square miles in its city limit.

As Mark Yarbrough, Chair of the Limestone County Commission, reminds, “Huntsville hasn’t taken one square foot by adverse possession. It’s all been people who choose to annex into the City. It’s a property rights issue and people in Limestone County feel strongly about property rights.”

Dallas Fanning led the march

Dallas Fanning had become a brigadier general in the Alabama National Guard while serving as Huntsville’s chief planner and urban development director, a post he resigned in 2010.

“He had that general’s mentality of a big map and strategic thinking,” City Council President Mark Russell says.

Fanning, who was hired to an entry-level job at the City in 1972 shortly after returning from Vietnam, had a strategy for Huntsville’s growth that included Hampton Cove, the Zierdt Road area and along the Highway 72 corridor.

He also saw potential in Limestone County.

“Dallas Fanning gets a lot of credit,” Russell says. “He had the vision. He explained it to me many, many times. I’m not saying I saw it every time. It was hard to see that many years ago. Now I can say he was certainly right.”

A few days removed from the Toyota-Mazda announcement, Mayor Tommy Battle goes a bit wistful. He had been on the City Council in the 1980s during some of the early stages of Fanning’s strategy.

“Dallas would have enjoyed that (announcement) because it was the culmination of decades of work,” Battle says.

However, Fanning died in September 2016 after suffering a head injury during a fall at his home. He was 69.

“I’d give anything,” Davis says, “for Dallas Fanning to be here to see the fruits of his labor.”

Knocking on doors

Davis and Fanning spent countless hours together in Limestone County. They met every farmer in the area. The ex-soldier from Plevna, Tenn., and the civil engineer from Albertville could speak their language.

“You have to go out to a landowner and knock on a couple of doors and say we’ve got an idea. And we want to share it and see what you think about it,” Davis says. “Without the cooperation from the landowners, nothing happens. You have that cup of coffee with them and talk about what if we did this years down the road. You need to have 10 out of 10 say, ‘Yeah, this makes a lot of sense. Tell us how to help.’”

Those conversations continued up until the Toyota-Mazda deadline when Davis had to knock on some more doors as the manufacturers requested even more property. He takes a “legacy” approach in his dealings, “to strike a deal that would “pay homage to the other generations who owned the farm, to honor them, to say we’re giving back to the community.”

Now, truth be told, Fanning’s foresight wasn’t 20-20. He saw the area as a something to mimic Cummings Research Park. The Sasaki Associates study of 2011 recommended a “more diverse economic base” of residential, commercial and light industry.

The prime piece of land was the Sewell property alongside Powell Road and Old Highway 20. It was the proposed site when Huntsville anted-up in the bid for the Volkswagen plant in 2008 that ultimately was awarded to Chattanooga. Back then, the site was lacking the necessary infrastructure to make it “shovel ready,” a shortcoming that Battle and others vowed would not happen the next time.

The City took an option on the property in 2009 and progress was made to turn it into a “megasite” that was impressive enough to lure Mazda and Toyota to Huntsville, albeit a piece of Huntsville far removed from downtown.

“It took a lot of guts,” Russell says of Fanning’s move into Limestone County. “But it’s paying off now.”