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Dale Strong talks regional growth and development at State of the County address

HUNTSVILLE — As Madison County looks ahead to a year packed with celebration and improvement, Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong discussed what residents can expect in terms of education, development, job growth and more at the annual State of the County address Jan. 17 at the Von Braun Center North Hall.

“I’m pleased to report that 2018 was a monumental and historic year for the greater Madison County region,” Strong began. “As we look back at all that was accomplished last year, we’ve already got the momentum going for 2019 with a lot of new and exciting endeavors well underway.”

The event, hosted by the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce, was packed with business men and women from across the county, as well as several elected officials in the region. Strong emphasized the impact of local collaboration on the success that Madison County enjoys today. Strong called the county’s approach to these partnerships “unique.”

“How we do business is admired and often replicated in other communities seeking ways to cultivate their own economic development and improve the quality of life for their residents,” he continued. “I’m incredibly proud that what we do here in Madison County and throughout our region is unique.”

It is these partnerships, Strong argued, that have made Madison County “something truly special.”

MADISON COUNTY PARTNERSHIPS

According to Strong, the Madison County Commission passed a balanced budget of $174 million in September and provided a 2.5-percent cost of living raise for all full-time employees, “all while maintaining a high level of service to the Madison County residents.”

Strong thanked each of the commissioners and the multitude of other employees who work to better the county. He said that in 2012, the year he was first elected chairman of the Madison County Commission, the commission made a commitment to become more efficient and work to maximize departmental operations. This is a commitment Strong said they have followed through on, thanks to many “constructive and significant changes.”

“We’ve built and developed strategic relationships with our state and federal partners, leading to a more vibrant economy and a stronger understanding of our capabilities here in Rocket City and our region,” he noted.

One partner, Redstone Arsenal, is responsible for nearly 10 percent of the entire state’s GDP, according to Strong. These kinds of relationships can lead to other economic development opportunities, which in turn generate more tax dollars to put toward improvements to county services and the three local school systems.

In addition, Strong also touched on his work with legislators as they discuss a potential gas tax. Strong said the “vast majority” of the $6.1 million in gas tax currently collected for more than 250 gas stations in the county “should return to where it’s collected—here in Madison County.”

“As chairman, I continue to advocate for fairness in this process, and I thank our local delegation for listening,” he added.

Madison County’s reputation for bringing in tourists also brings in significant revenue. Huntsville International Airport has also garnered attention lately with the addition of low-cost airlines like Silver Airways and Frontier Airlines.

Not only is the county home to Alabama’s number-one tourist attraction, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, but Madison County was also named one of the top five most visited counties in Alabama, “realizing an increase of almost 10 percent in tourism dollars, which gives a healthy boost to our local economy.”

This year is sure to attract even more visitors, as the USSRC will be hosting several special events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing in 1969. Also, a few celebrities recently paid a visit to the Rocket City to experience Space Camp. Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks and Chris Pratt—stars of “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part”—joined CBS’ “Late Late Show” host James Corden to film a piece for the show. Corden also mentioned Madison, Alabama, on an episode of his show after the city chose to name their new minor league baseball team the “Rocket City Trash Pandas.”

In addition to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Madison County residents will have the chance to participate in a plethora of events celebrating Alabama’s bicentennial. Strong thanked the Huntsville/Madison County Bicentennial Committee for working to bring such events to the area.

“As the birthplace of Alabama, Huntsville and Madison County enjoy a unique perspective of what if means to honor our history, and we will have the chance to celebrate some once-in-a-lifetime events planned by the more than 75 bicentennial partners,” Strong added.

BUSINESS GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT

Madison County has plenty in store with large-scale developments such as Town Madison, MidCity Huntsville and City Centre at Big Spring.

“The unparalleled growth of our population demonstrates we’re doing things right in Madison County,” Strong asserted. With a steady stream of groundbreakings, ribbon cuttings and expansions, business is thriving in Madison County. When businesses make the choice to call Huntsville and Madison County home, they offer “valuable jobs to a diverse workforce.”

Strong said crucial partnerships and collaboration have worked to bring more than 25,000 new jobs to the area in the last few years. Several companies have either chosen to move to Madison County or add to its local presence, including Boeing, Raytheon, Remington, GE Aviation, DC BLOX, Facebook, Yulista, Sierra Nevada, Aerojet Rocketdyne, BAE Systems, LG Electronics, Blue Origin, FBI, ATF, TEDAC and Huntsville Hospital.

BAE Systems’ expansion, which will include an 83,000-square-foot facility, will house manufacturing and engineering spaces, as well as a Department of Defense lab. LG is set to bring in about 160 new jobs to produce high-performance solar panels. In 2020, Facebook’s $750 million data center will bring about 100 more high-paying jobs to North Huntsville Industrial Park.

In 2018, Madison County became part of state history when Toyota and Mazda chose the region for its $1.6 billion investment in a new production facility, garnering the attention of U.S. President Donald Trump. The new plant will bring about 4,000 more jobs to the area. Strong said the investment is “the largest economic development deal in the history of the state of Alabama.”

The FBI also made local headlines recently when they announced an expansion that will bring 1,350 more jobs to the area, which could present even more opportunities in the region.

Another high-profile development is the new Blue Origin plant, which is scheduled to break ground Jan. 25. United Launch Alliance chose Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine to power their next-generation rocket. The BE-4 engine will be manufactured and assembled at Cummings Research Park in Huntsville, creating about 400 new high-paying jobs.

“This is economic development at its best,” Strong said.

EDUCATION

For businesses looking to expand, Strong said an area’s strength in education plays an important role in where they choose to plant roots.

“More than ever, Madison County needs a highly skilled workforce, and our colleges are stepping up,” Strong said. Madison County is home to such postsecondary institutions such as the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama A&M University, Oakwood University, Calhoun Community College and J. F. Drake State Technical College.

Similar to the county, UAH is experiencing growth and expansion of its own. UAH President Robert Altenkirch, who last year announced his plans to retire after serving seven years in the position, saw enrollment increase by more than 20 percent in his tenure at the university. On top of that, UAH has experienced record enrollment for the fourth year in a row.

Strong thanked Altenkirch for his role in UAH’s growth, as well as helping to bring new curriculum opportunities to the school.

UAH also received recognition for its Small Business Development Center when the Small Business Administration presented the center with the Excellence in Innovation Center Award for its support of local small businesses.

The College of Nursing at UAH was also named a Center of Excellence by the National League of Nursing.

“These achievements, when combined with their high-tech research center and hands-on laboratories, makes UAH a strong regional partner for Madison County in preparing the next generation,” Strong added.

HEALTH CARE

The Huntsville Hospital team is another organization Strong mentioned for their partnerships, particularly with Marshall Medical Center and Lincoln Health Center. “It’s partnerships like these that make our region stronger,” he said.

Strong also noted that Huntsville Hospital is the only level one trauma center in this part of the state. It is also the largest emergency department in Alabama.

Like Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle mentioned in his State of the City address in December, Strong spoke of a few new additions in store for Huntsville Hospital, including 72 new private beds and a new patient tower building on the main campus.

“Adding the patient tower will let them move more quickly from the emergency department to private rooms,” Strong explained.

With the demand for skilled nurses growing fast, Calhoun Community College has also built a nursing simulation lab to help prepare their students.

MADISON COUNTY SERVICES CENTER

While Huntsville is estimated to be the second-largest city in Alabama with about 200,000 residents—and Madison the 10th with about 48,000—Strong said the population of unincorporated Madison County would equate it to the fifth-largest city in the state. This would put it ahead of other large cities like Hoover, Auburn and Tuscaloosa.

With Madison County’s population increasing by about 30 percent since 2000, the county has been looking at ways to better serve its approximately 370,000 residents.

In April 2018, the Madison County Commission began the process to secure 7.7 acres for the new Madison County Services Center. This center, to be located at the corner of Oakwood Avenue and North Memorial Parkway, will become the new home of several county departments.

Strong said the project is currently being designed and is in “full steam ahead mode,” scheduled to open by the first quarter of 2021.

“Best of all, and what may be most exciting for visitors to the services center will be more than 300 free parking spaces,” Strong said, garnering laughs from the crowd. Strong recognized that the courthouse in downtown Huntsville lacks just that, as many have had trouble finding a place to park when running an errand at the courthouse.

While the parking is likely one of the center’s best assets compared to the courthouse, Strong said the extra space—about 60,000 square feet—will hopefully make things easier on both the departments and residents.

“This vision for this services center is really quite simple,” he said. “We want to make it easier on Madison County residents to get in, take care of business and be on their way as quick as possible.”

The probate office, license department, tax assessor, tax collector and sales tax department will be making the move to the new services center. “That will free up space we need at the courthouse for courtrooms, judges and the district attorney,” Strong explained.

Madison County also has plans to clean up a piece of history—the bell from the second county courthouse, cast in Philadelphia in 1849—and display it on the courthouse grounds.

Strong also spoke of his confidence in the county’s new sheriff, Kevin Turner, who was sworn in Jan. 14 and has a strong resumé in law enforcement in the area. In a video, Strong also mentioned that they will soon welcome 10 more deputies to accommodate growth in the county.

“Looking forward, we will continue to seek ways to bring constructive and significant changes to how we’ll provide services to the residents and how we operate county government with your tax dollars,” Strong said.

In closing, Strong offered several words of faith and hope in the future of Madison County.

“The state of Madison County, Alabama, is strong,” he said. “It is vibrant. It is diverse. It is profitable. It is on solid foundation. Unemployment is low, and we have a highly skilled workforce. We’re writing a new chapter in the history that will reap rewards for generations to come, and we can’t do it without your continued support of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce. It is because of these reasons I truly believe Madison County’s best days are still ahead. It is my greatest honor to serve you as your chairman of the Madison County Commission during these most historic times.”

Born in Huntsville, Strong is a lifetime resident of Madison County. After becoming the youngest elected commissioner in Alabama in 1996, Strong served four consecutive terms as Madison County’s District 4 Commissioner. In 2012, Strong was elected chairman of the Madison County Commission, a position he continues to fill since being reelected in 2016. Prior to working on the county commission, Strong earned a degree in business administration from Athens State College and has worked for First Alabama Bank in public relations, for Solvay Pharmaceutical in sales, and for both HEMSI and Huntsville Med-Flight. He has also served as a 911 dispatcher and continues to serve as county liaison to the 911 Dispatch Center and Emergency Planning. He is also still actively involved in the Monrovia Volunteer Fire Department.

Strong was awarded the Medal of Valor after a major tornado struck the county in 1989. He considers public safety, accountability and equality three of his top priorities as chairman of the county commission.

For more information on the Madison County Commission or to keep up to date on county matters, visit madisoncountyal.gov.

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