Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle talks city growth, development at packed State of the City address
HUNTSVILLE — In the largest-ever Huntsville/Madison County Chamber event, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle reaffirmed the city’s success to date and touched on several points concerning the direction in which Huntsville is headed in his annual State of the City address.
Battle called the event a “day of celebration” and took the time to thank as many as he could for contributing to Huntsville’s success as a city, which continues to climb. In addition to recognizing the attending local, regional and state officials, Battle thanked Huntsville City Council, his administrative team, the team at Redstone Arsenal, the chamber of commerce and all who choose to work in Huntsville.
“Our employees don’t always get the recognition they deserve,” he said. “I want them to know what a privilege it is to work with them every day as we serve our residents. Those employees are what make us the special city we are today. … Together we’ve worked very hard to get here, and now it’s time to savor the moment.
Despite losing out to Kay Ivey on the Republican nomination for governor earlier this year, Battle expressed his love for Huntsville and his joy in remaining part of Huntsville’s leadership.
HUNTSVILLE BY THE NUMBERS
“Consider where we are today, and then consider where we were 10 years ago,” Battle said.
Huntsville’s metro population is continuing to grow rapidly, which Battle said makes it the fastest-growing population in Alabama. Beyond that, metro Huntsville’s growth rate exceeds the national average. Recently, Huntsville jumped one spot to become the third-largest city in Alabama, and many are projecting the city to become the largest in the state over time.
“Many are talking about us being the biggest city in the state, and let me tell you, I would rather be the best city in the state than the biggest city anytime,” Battle added.
In addition to population growth, Huntsville’s economic growth is also outpacing the state. Battle said more and more dollars are being spent in Huntsville, contributing to residents’ ability to thrive and succeed. The city is also experiencing much success in job creation and hiring, leading the state in that area as well. Battle said Huntsville has created 25,000 jobs since 2010, and 41 percent of the population holds a bachelor’s degree or higher. With the city’s domestic growth generating “a fusion of capital investment,” Battle also said the local GDP has grown three times faster than the state’s.
Huntsville has also been on Forbes’ radar in several areas over the years, including being considered one of the most educated cities in America, as well as the top city for engineers. Last year, the American City Business Journal named Huntsville International Airport among the top 20 best-run airports in the country.
“If you look across the city, you can see cranes,” Battle noted. “You can see new buildings. That means investment in our area. Our growth is fueled by the major economic projects. … We have these leading global and homegrown corporations, and every one of them has chosen to invest in Huntsville.” Battle recognized Mazda-Toyota’s contribution to this with their $1.6 billion investment in a new automotive plant in the area.
Huntsville Hospital is also continuing to grow, now employing more than 15,000. Its capacity for patients will increase soon with the addition of a new bed tower consisting of 72 private rooms and 24 operating suites, something much needed as the hospital sees times in which it becomes full. In addition, Huntsville Hospital is home to a UAB residency program that trains more than 25 percent of the state’s family doctors, according to Battle.
“That’s the only teaching hospital in North Alabama,” he said. “We train 25 percent of the GP’s who are going out in our community. That is something that’s important for the entire state.”
Adding to the list of achievements, Huntsville is also enjoying its 10th-straight year with a triple-A credit rating. “That’s the highest and best credit rating for any city in the United States,” Battle added.
When considering Huntsville’s reputation as a hub of economic activity, Battle noted several of the city’s assets that play a part in drawing companies to the city from all over. One of the top draws, according to Battle, is Huntsville’s affordability.
“When a company reaches out to us, we have a lot to tout,” he said. “Our cost to do business is significantly less. When you look at affordability, when you look at your cost of labor, when you look at your cost of actually having an office building here, your dollar goes a lot further here in Huntsville, Alabama, and the city keeps its financial house in order.”
Huntsville’s 10-year capital plans also contribute to the decision, and the triple-A credit ratings “help seal the deal.” The city also boasts lower commute times averaging at about 18-20 minutes, which allows residents more time to do the things they love.
Battle also touched on the city’s attention to infrastructure, recognizing a continuous need in the area. Huntsville’s “Restore Our Roads” initiative, which began in 2014, helped jumpstart a “massive” roadbuilding campaign. Battle said this campaign seeks to make sure infrastructure does more than just keep up with growth. He also noted that Huntsville invests four to five times that of its counterparts across the state on roads.
During such an exciting time for growth, Battle said Huntsville needs to be careful not to get too greedy, as bringing in too much could throw off the measured, incremental growth that allows the city to keep its infrastructure in check. “We have to make sure that we have quality growth, that we pick and choose who we need to be part of our city,” he added. The city’s next 10-year capital plans communicate that Huntsville will spend more than $844 million on new and improved roads. This will also help with residents’ commuting time and overall experience.
The new Mazda-Toyota plant highlights another large economic influencer in the city: the automotive industry.
“We’re not just growing an economy, we’re growing opportunity, and there’s no bigger opportunity in Alabama than with the automotive industry,” Battle said.
He went on to explain how the automotive industry is no longer just about building cars, but so much more. Today, the automotive industry covers a wide range of mobility innovation, which Battle described as “a marriage of artificial intelligence, connectivity, sustainable energy and autonomous technology.” A delegation from North Alabama recently was able to experience some of these innovations firsthand on a trip to Japan that included meeting with Mazda and Toyota executives.
“All these technologies exist right here in Huntsville, and all these technologies will be where we expand in the future,” Battle said. “I’m proud to say that our city is playing a role in the evolution of this industry, and I’m even prouder to say we’re doing so with Mazda and Toyota, two forward-looking companies.”
This innovative spirit bleeds into other major areas of the city, including the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, where NASA recently held a watch party to view the historic landing of their Mars probe, “InSight.”
“NASA’s also working with UAH to develop Mars bees—little bitty robots that are being used to help better understand the atmosphere of the Red Planet,” Battle added.
The retail industry is also experiencing notable innovation. For example, local “digital boutique” Discount Divas has amassed 170,000 members and risen to become a multi-million-dollar company selling couture clothing through social media.
“Pushing the edge of technology is what Huntsville does,” Battle said. “It’s what we’ve done for the past five decades. It’s what has made us great.”
Battle also called Redstone Arsenal one of Huntsville’s “major economic drivers,” having recently grown to consist of 78 tenant organizations managing more than $50 million in government spending, placing Huntsville at number six in government spending in the U.S.
“Growth has placed us among the top military installations in the country,” he said.
One major recent development at Redstone Arsenal is the FBI’s expansion dealing with a Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC). Within the next few years, the FBI expects to employ 4,500 people onsite. “Not to mention that every FBI agent and their allies in law enforcement will come to Huntsville to be trained on how to spot and handle terrorist bombs,” Battle added.
Just north of Redstone sits Cummings Research Park, a powerhouse in the city’s economy. Battle said CRP is now at 91 percent occupancy with the last year seeing more land sold in the area than “in many years combined in the past.” While new companies are locating to and building in CRP, owners are also redeveloping some older properties. The area has also seen a number of ribbon cuttings and groundbreakings in recent months, including the building of new, “state-of-the-art” facilities for Radius Technology and BAE Systems, a remodel for Aerojet Rocketdyne and the redevelopment of UAH’s Executive Plaza. In addition, Raytheon has developed a warfighter visualization lab, and HudsonAlpha is applying their genomics expertise to agriculture, “revolutionizing farming to feed our planet for generations to come.”
“These are only a few of the highlights of the strong growth that CRP is yielding,” Battle said. “Cummings Research Park is a great example of a successful public-private partnership. Fifty-five years ago, we started this public-private partnership, and today, it is a driving force in Huntsville.”
Battle also touched on Huntsville’s initiative to become a “gig city,” which he said is part of the reason Facebook chose to come to Huntsville. He also called the city’s model for this initiative “one of the most innovative fiber-to-the-home models in the country.”
Data center DC BLOX, another company who has recently begun to call Huntsville a home in CRP, has also contributed to a shadow economy in the area, allowing more people to successfully work from home. This, in turn, brings more revenue into the city. “In a globalized world, connection is currency,” Battle noted. “If we don’t have the infrastructure to move data, industry will not move here.”
With all Huntsville has to offer, Battle said education is likely another factor in various companies’ attraction to the city.
Education enrollment is growing at Huntsville’s postsecondary institutions, Battle said, and programs are also expanding “to serve the explosive demand in engineering and advanced manufacturing.”
With that, Battle recognized and thanked Dr. Bob Altenkirch, who is retiring as president of UAH.
“We’re going to have some big shoes to fill,” Battle remarked. “… Bob has spearheaded some unsurpassed growth at the university—almost 10,000 students—and he has improved academics, arts and research. He’s built buildings.”
About 90 percent of Huntsville students attend public school, and the system sees about 90 percent of all its students graduate. “That’s an endorsement of the quality programs and the dedicated teachers we have,” Battle said. He also recognized Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Christie Finley for her leadership. Huntsville City Schools are also “career-focused,” and Battle commended corporations in Huntsville for their partnerships with he schools.
“They’re providing the much-needed resources—internships and instruction,” he said. In addition, these partnerships have led to a greater focus in cyber skills in the school system, as well as the development of Alabama’s first academy for cyber and engineering, which is projected to open in 2020.
To find out more about Huntsville City Schools, visit huntsvillecityschools.org.
“LIVE, WORK, PLAY”
Another huge part of Huntsville’s growth and development focuses on urban planning. More projects like CityCentre at Big Spring and MidCity Huntsville seek to increase Huntsville’s reputation as an attractive place to live, work and play. These qualities entice a wide variety of individuals and companies, though millennials are a particularly strong demographic that is likely to choose Huntsville as their permanent home because of these qualities.
With so many possibilities, Battle and city leaders recently unveiled a new, easy-to-use digital format for Huntsville’s BIG Picture comprehensive master plan to give residents a stronger voice in communicating their wants and needs in the city.
“The comprehensive plan keeps our eyes focused on key assets like downtown, CRP and our industrial parks, and it renews energies and neighborhoods,” Battle explained. “It also keeps us looking to the future.”
Through the BIG Picture, residents communicated a desire for more parks and greenways, so Battle said the city will invest $30 million this year in park improvements. In addition, there is a new festival site at John Hunt Park, along with decorative lighting and landscaping. By next summer, residents will also be able to take advantage of a few more improvements, including a sand volleyball complex, biking, cross country trails and new-use soccer fields.
Increased vitality downtown also proved to be a priority, so Battle said more apartments and condominiums are also in the works, along with parking, retail, new hotels and mixed-use developments.
Huntsville is also looking to expand its music industry by “investing in local musicians and attracting A-list talents to develop a dynamic cultural scene.” Plans for MidCity Huntsville include an outdoor amphitheater to help achieve this, due in part to an investigation last year by the city to determine whether they could grow the local music industry. An increased demand for music, retail, restaurants, housing and offices hold a hopeful note for the continued attraction of new businesses and families. Huntsville is also home to 15 entrepreneurial development clusters to fuel new ideas and new markets, according to Battle.
“You know, as we watch ourselves, and we provide new things and new things to attract a workforce, that workforce is going to drive us for years and years to come,” he said. “Today, Huntsville is at the forefront of market changes.”
Both citizens and government will also be able to enjoy a new city hall and $110 million federal courthouse before too long.
Battle also hinted at an exciting new announcement concerning downtown Huntsville coming soon.
“There’s no better time to live in Huntsville, Alabama,” Battle proclaimed.
THE CHALLENGE NOW
Battle left attendees with a challenge to consider. First, Battle recognized Huntsville as a “remarkable city.”
“In the ‘40s, we manufactured things,” he explained. “In the ‘60s, we were a driving force in space exploration. In the ‘80s, engineers took to the garage and started new technology companies. In the ‘90s, these companies expanded into telecoms and biotech. We’ve always been the innovators and creators. It is precisely these characteristics that are driving Huntsville today. We have a plan, we have a strategy, and this plan and strategy takes us well into the century.” This strategy, he said, will provide technology, jobs and education to position future generations for a high quality of life.
The question to consider is this: what must Huntsville do to stay relevant for the longterm future? Up until now, the city has mainly focused on such markets as cyber, biotech, energy, geospatial and advanced manufacturing. Battle then asked, “where do we focus in the future, and what do we need from the community to help us to do that?”
The influx of new businesses and corporations will propel Huntsville for the next decade or so, but Huntsville and its citizens must collaborate on plans beyond that. “Our job is to find new markets of the future,” Battle said. “If we do that, we take care of ourselves for 25, 30, 40, for next generations to come.”
The city will continue to act on a belief that “connection is currency” with investment in next-generation infrastructure from Huntsville Utilities’ high-speed fiber network, as well as 5G cellular technology. The city will also employ “smart street strategies” and new forms of transportation.
In addition, Huntsville will continue to invest in its existing and expanding qualities that help attract a diverse workforce. The city will also work to develop a workforce with the necessary skillsets needed to be successful in the future. Bringing new families to the area and investing in human capital will also remain two big areas of focus.
“If we meet the challenges of identifying future industries, and if we prepare for those future industries, we will keep prosperity moving forward for generations to come,” Battle added. Part of the work will also be identifying these future industries, which could include things like quantum computing, cryptocurrency mining, blockchain technology, autonomous vehicles and more. The possibilities are almost endless.
“Fads come and go, but one thing is certain: the knowledge economy is here,” Battle declared. “We are making sure that we are not the community left behind or looked over because a lack of roads or a lack of broadband connectivity, or a lack of 21st-century retail developments.”
With the city pouring its attention into a wide variety of areas—as well as identifying what will continue to make Huntsville an attractive place to live, work and play—will be key to sustaining Huntsville as one of America’s best cities moving forward.
“Huntsville’s future as the ‘Star of Alabama’ is brighter than ever,” Battle declared.
To view the full address, visit www.huntsvilleal.gov/videos/huntsville-state-city.