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Mayor Finley notes present strength, promising future in State of the City address

HUNTSVILLE — Friday night, in front of hundreds under the Saturn V rocket, Madison Mayor Paul Finley painted a vivid picture of strength and unity as he discussed where Madison is headed in his 2019 State of the City address.

Organized by the Madison Chamber of Commerce, the city’s big Connect 2019 event was the largest yet, drawing not only countless movers and shakers in Madison, but numerous regional and state officials as well.

“On behalf of our city council, our department heads and every employee in Madison, I am thrilled to tell you that the state of our city in Madison is strong, and it continues to get stronger,” Finley began in his address. “But it’s not just something I feel—it’s factual.”

It’s no secret that Madison is experiencing its own excitement surrounding growth and development with big projects like Town Madison and the multi-use venue stadium underway. That stadium will become the new home of the Rocket City Trash Pandas, the minor league baseball team whose name put Madison in international headlines in 2018.

Finley had a few updates to share about Town Madison and the Trash Pandas in his address, but not without first paying homage to many local employees he said have worked to make Madison strong in other ways.

ECONOMIC STRENGTH

“Madison grows when this Tennessee Valley grows,” Finley said. “We’re one piece of this big puzzle, and there is absolutely no question that this entire community of Huntsville, Madison, Madison County, Decatur, Athens, Limestone County, we can go on—is growing.”

Over the past three years or so, Finley said Madison and Limestone counties have brought in nearly 30,000 jobs. This economic expansion equates to about $2.6 billion in Madison County and about $6.6 billion in Limestone County. With the city of Madison sitting in both, it has reaped a $1.2 billion slice of that, translating to about 2,500 jobs.

Finley also noted another year of a 9-percent increase on sales tax. “That’s the money that mayor and council have to spend on our citizens,” he added.

From 2000 until 2010, Finley said only four businesses rolled up into the top 20 sales tax producers. With the economic expansion as of late, more businesses are becoming top producers in sales tax.

“Last year alone, we added five,” he said. “We haven’t even brought in a lot of what’s going to happen with Town Madison.”

The City of Madison has also reworked a 100-year-old franchise agreement with Huntsville Utilities, bringing it into “the real world.” Finley said it will generate about $1 million per year, money which the City will then be able to use toward Madison citizens.

“The City of Madison is strong financially, and we continue to get stronger,” Finley said.

TOWN MADISON

Town Madison will have a key effect on the future of Madison’s growing economy. According to Joey Ceci of Breland Companies, the ones who are spearheading Town Madison’s development, the project sits on 563 acres of land, making it a unique spot for development.

Ceci noted how the project is an attractive development for the “live, work, play” lifestyle. Madison’s many other assets—including its community feel and the established and respected Intergraph office right down the road—add to that charm.

“The vibe and the feeling that people are going to get when they come to Town Madison as we bring all of those elements together is truly going to be unique,” Ceci said in a video shown at the event.

Finley announced two new hotels joining Town Madison: a Hilton Garden Inn and an Avid Hotel. A Home2 Suites by Hilton was announced as Town Madison’s first hotel in 2017.

Of course, the Margaritaville Hotel will also be a big draw. Ralph Nelson, owner of Ballcorps LLC, noted that the baseball stadium and the hotel will contribute to each other’s success. Nelson also said no team has ever been accepted and supported in a community like the Rocket City Trash Pandas have been in Madison.

Pam Honeycutt, executive director of the Madison Chamber of Commerce, expressed her own excitement for the Trash Pandas to make the move to Madison in a video shown at the event. She added that the addition will turn Madison into more of a destination location, and the multi-use venue will contribute even more to that image.

“I think it’s going to be amazing—the lazy river, whole thing,” she said. “I think it’s going to give something to this area that we’ve not had before. … I think it’s going to be really exciting that not only will we be able to use the venue for our State of the City address in years ahead, but we’ll also be able to refer people to a great venue that’s right here in Madison for their needs.”

The multi-use venue and other developments planned for Town Madison were a huge draw for the baseball team as well.

“We knew when we decided to move the team to Town Madison we liked the mixed-use venue idea, the fact that there would be hotels and restaurants and shops and all those kind of creating this electricity,” Nelson said in the video. “The way that it’s developing, it is much bigger than my vision.”

In addition to the hotel announcement, Finley described what will be called “Pro Player Park.” This 12-field baseball complex  on the west side of Town Madison will be open in spring 2020 and is projected to generate about 35,000 room nights per year in the area.

“When you’re funding a multi-use venue—and lodging tax is how you fund a lot of it—it’s the type of thing that continues to bring the Town Madison piece together,” he added.

OTHER PROJECTS

Town Madison is not the only project the City of Madison has been working on. Planning Director Mary Beth Broeren touched on their work in the “Midtown” area, which has included the new Madison Public Library and the Publix Center, which used to be the site of the old Kroger and now adds 25,000 square feet of commercial space that is “nearing completion.” In addition, the City has also been working on the new Phase 3 Fitness, a 45,000-square-foot fitness center.

“We think that all of those pieces together are going to help launch the rest of the land there to be developed with private investment, and this provides another center for people to come and enjoy restaurants and shopping opportunities, as well as the community facilities and the library,” Broeren said.

Members of the Madison City Council also touched on some of their favorite projects in another video Finley shared at his address.

Several members said they are excited for Town Madison and the new baseball stadium, and District 3 Councilman Teddy Powell added that he takes pride in the Sealy and downtown-area projects. With Home Place Park, Powell said downtown will be able to do more with concerts in the park, Madison Street Festival and other activities and events.

For District 1 Councilwoman Maura Wroblewski, the smaller things that make life easier in Madison—like the new right turn lane off of Gillespie Road and the multi-use path planned for Wall Triana Highway—are her favorites.

Likewise, the Hughes Road widening project and the Sealy project are two of District 6 Councilman Gerald Clark’s favorites.

Council President Steve Smith said it is important that Madison knows who they want to be when they finish growing. District 5 Councilman Tommy Overcash said he thinks the City has done a “really good job” of trying to identify and fix trouble spots with roads and infrastructure, and he added that the council always has Madison’s best interests at heart.

EDUCATIONAL STRENGTH

“I never, ever thought that I would be able to stand up here and tell you that we’re even stronger in education, but we are,” Finley said.

In 2018, Madison City Schools’ superintendent and board of education reported that MCS was the ranked third-best in the state for test scores, but they have since moved up to second.

Other big news that was announced in late December 2018 was that Madison received all A’s on their state report card. To make things even sweeter, every single school in the district also received an A.

“There’s only six districts out of 137 in our state that can say that,” Finley said. “Ours is the largest that did it.”

The success of both the city and its schools have meant that as the city continues to grow, the school system continues to grow as well. From the last week of school in spring 2018 until the week of Jan. 14, MCS had grown by 538 students. Finley said that amount compares to the size of a 5A high school.

Finley also reported that the schools are stronger because they are safer. MCS gained two school resource officers, and the city council budgeted a little more than $500,000 from their general fund to support the schools.

“We not only want to have strong education, but we want to have safe students,” Finley added.

DEPARTMENTAL STRENGTH

Finley paid homage to many city employees for taking Madison to new heights.

“We’re also strong because the team of department heads that we have and the efficiency of our employees is second to none,” he said.

The City borrowed $46 million to build the new multi-use venue and $20 million for capital investment money to put toward roads and infrastructure, according to Finley. Because of this, they were required to present their case to two bond rating agencies who gave Madison a AA+ and Aa2, “the highest rating a city our size can get.”

Finley said the City focused heavily on their mission statement last year, which is “to provide excellent services through responsible use of public resources, enhancing the quality of life for our community.”

“We’re providing excellent services through a responsible use of that money and trying to make a difference, not only for our citizens, but for this entire community,” Finley added. The number of City personnel has decreased slightly to 314 since 2009, and Finley gave credit to the department heads for doing “more with less,” as well as the city council for focusing on their mission statement.

In the revenue department, Finley said three people brought in $32 million. About 90 percent of the city’s sales tax is brought in through online funding, and the revenue department also followed up with businesses not paying “everything that they need to,” bringing in about $200,000 this year alone.

Finley commended the police department, led by Police Chief Dave Jernigan, for earning their CALEA certification, which helps them to hold themselves accountable to their own standards that they set. They have helped the city become even more attractive to site selectors for businesses by working against the opioid epidemic, even holding drug take-back events. City council also funded body cameras for the police department. “Yes, it helps us in case something happens, but this police department is now focused on taking examples and understanding that we’re not trying to ding you on the head,” Finley explained. “We’re trying to make sure that every interaction we have with the public is the best that it can be.”

The fire department, led by Fire Chief David Bailey, helped implemented a virtual reality system to teach children fire safety in a whole new way. “It was so strong that the state fire marshal came in and said, ‘This needs to be in every city in every county in Alabama,’ and we agree,” Finley said.

Finley also explained how the City of Madison has been working to become more accessible. This includes videos—about one every two weeks—to educate residents on what is happening. Finley also said he is committed to scheduling time for an open-door policy. Two hours every two weeks are set aside for this, and anyone can make a 30-minute appointment. “We’ll talk about whatever you want to,” he said. “Accessibility is critical. This council believes in it, and I believe in it.”

Finley also commended Samantha Magnuson, his communications specialist, for creating many of the City’s videos.

“We’re not only making a difference on our mission, we’re focused on efficiency, and we’re stronger because of that,” Finley said.

STRENGTH IN HEALTH CARE

The opening of Madison Hospital in 2012 has allowed the city to better tend to its community’s health needs. According to Finley, Madison Hospital’s ER department was visited 55,000 times last year, which averages to about 150 times per day.

The hospital has now grown from 60 to 90 beds, which Finley said is “making a difference in our community.”

In addition, Finley said the hospital is on pace to deliver 200 babies per month in 2019.

“Madison is healthier, and Madison Hospital helps make us stronger,” Finley said.

COMPETITIVENESS AND COLLABORATION

Finley noted his own strength of competitiveness, which he learned to use in a positive and effective way thanks to a basketball coach in his youth. Through this coach, he said he realized the importance of being a team player and how that contributes to success.

“What I love about our community is we know how to put a puzzle together, and as mayor of the city of Madison working with our council and our department heads, I am so proud of how we fit into this Tennessee Valley puzzle,” he said.

Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong focused on the power of collaboration in his recent State of the County address, and Finley recognized the role of collaboration in Madison’s success as well.

In one of the videos shown, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle noted the importance of Madison and Huntsville working together as they continue to grow.

“In reality, we have to work hand in hand,” he said. “If we don’t work hand in hand, nobody prospers. Nobody has jobs. Nobody has an economy. The great thing about it is the partnership. We move forward further a lot farther than we could ever.”

Finley said the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce has played an important role in supporting the area’s economic development and helping the region’s leaders to advocate for the area with one voice. Finley also mentioned the Launch 2035 initiative as an effective way to “collaboratively and collectively” work out how to continue the area’s successes.

In the end, though, he said it is less about who accomplishes what and more about achieving results as a team.

“I know our city council does not care who gets credit,” Finley asserted. “We just want to win, and winning for us means doing great things for our city and being an incredible team player to this community. You have my word that we will continue to do that.”

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