While interviewing for the Chief Executive Officer position at Downtown Huntsville Inc., Chad Emerson recalls seeing the incredible potential of downtown at that time.
“Beautiful buildings, beautiful street trees, beautiful historic neighborhoods and Monte Sano Mountain overlooking downtown,” he said of his interview in 2013. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘There’s a lot of cities that would just die to have these assets in place.”
Comparing Huntsville’s city center to a piece of silver that hadn’t been polished in a while, Emerson said the downtown core had good bones, which they built on immediately.
During his nearly decade-long tenure as DHI’s CEO, Emerson has been a driving force behind transforming Huntsville’s downtown into the thriving cultural and commercial center it is today. However, all good things must come to an end.
Emerson is moving on to another exciting role as Managing Director of Business Operations for Huntsville MLS NEXT PRO Team.
“This was probably one of the hardest professional decisions I’ve ever made because I love downtown so much,” he said. “Nine years in, it felt like we had at least solidified some early gains downtown and hopefully a new leader will come and bring in fresh ideas. That’s important in the life cycle of an organization and in a downtown.”
Reflecting on his time with DHI, Emerson said seeing the huge growth of locally owned and operated businesses has been extremely rewarding.
“The entrepreneurs who make downtown so unique are such fascinating people to get to know and they’re here every day,” he said. “That’s a level of attention that’s hard to do when you’re just dealing with national chains.”
He’s especially proud that downtown Huntsville didn’t lose any food or beverage establishments as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit the hospitality industry particularly hard.
Emerson, who has a law degree from the University of Tennessee, was able to dust off his legal experience and wade through COVID-related emergency orders to help downtown businesses survive the challenging business climate.
“The fact that we didn’t lose any establishments (due to COVID) really speaks to the resilience of our businesses and having that local connection like they did,” he said.
When Emerson first came on board, he said many citizens lacked confidence in the downtown area. One of his first big tasks as CEO was to reintroduce the local audience to downtown through events like food truck rallies, the Downtown Open mini golf course, pop-up parks, Secret Art Trail and more.
The Secret Art Trail, designed to inspire others to explore downtown’s public art, has been a big hit because it combines local art with a unique destination, such as an alleyway.
“One of my favorite human emotions is the pleasant surprise – there’s nothing like it,” he said. “When you’re walking down what was otherwise an alley and you see a beautiful piece of public art, you’re pleasantly surprised. You may crack a smile and think, ‘A City that cares about its alleys or parking garages enough to put art on them probably has a creative soul.’”
Most events DHI hosts or sponsors are completely free to attend, which was important to Emerson. Tinsel Trail, which DHI helped to elevate, is a great example of what free, quality entertainment can be.
“No matter where you are or what you can afford, you can always find something to enjoy,” he said.
On the horizon
Upon Emerson’s departure, DHI will continue to foster a downtown befitting a community with the #1 City in America ranking by U.S. News and World Report. DHI is working to attract the very best CEO to Huntsville.
Emerson, who will continue to work with DHI to ensure a seamless transition, looks forward to continued growth downtown, especially in the office and residential markets.
When asked what advice he would give the next CEO, Emerson stressed the importance of developing authentic relationships with the community and local entrepreneurs.
Don’t be afraid to try things that aren’t guaranteed to succeed, he added.
“Huntsvillians appreciate risktakers with a reasonable expectation of success,” Emerson said. “Go in, take risks and embrace novel, creative opportunities.”
Looking back, Emerson credits Mayor Battle, his Administration and the City’s workforce of 2,400+ employees for their dedication to making downtown the best it can be.
“It’s about having City leadership and partners who share the idea of developing relationships, trying creative things and not just trying to avoid failure,” he said. “They are the real heroes of downtown’s success.”