Huntsville Planning Commission OKs 690-space parking deck for medical district site

Twickenham Square parking deck site.JPGHuntsville Public Works crews recently began demolishing some former public housing units along Gallatin Street to test the soil for a proposed 690-space city parking deck. The garage will serve a hotel, office tower, Publix grocery store, shops and restaurants planned for the medical district property. (The Huntsville Times/Dave Dieter)

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — A $10 million city parking garage serving the proposed Twickenham Square development in Huntsville’s medical district has won city Planning Commission approval.

Planning board members OK’d architectural drawings Tuesday depicting a three-story, 690-space garage accessible from Gallatin Street and Pelham Avenue.

City officials will ask potential builders to also quote a price for an enhanced facade as well as a fourth level that would increase the capacity to about 950 vehicles.

“We’d like to be able to fund those alternates,” said Marie Bostick, the city’s manager of planning and zoning administration.

Construction bids will be opened June 12.

The parking deck is part of the city’s promise to a team of private developers working to transform the former Councill Courts public housing site.

The $85 million-plus redevelopment project will include more than 230 loft-style apartments called The Flats at Twickenham Square, a Publix supermarket, hotel, office tower and about 22,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space — all catty-corner from Huntsville Hospital.

Publix and National Bank of Commerce are the only named tenants so far.

Bostick said the ground floor of the garage, accessible only from Pelham Avenue, will likely be free parking for shoppers, diners and Publix customers.

Twickenham Square parking deck.jpgThis architect’s rendering shows the view of the proposed parking deck from Pelham Avenue. (Courtesy Chapman Sisson Architects)

Employees and guests of the hotel and office tower would enter from Gallatin Street and drive up a ramp to the garage’s second level, she said. Vehicles could exit onto either Pelham Avenue or St. Clair Avenue.

Bostick said about 40 Flats at Twickenham Square residents would have reserved parking in the city garage. But most tenants would park in a separate deck financed by the developers.

Architect Martin Sisson said there will be a covered walkway leading from the city garage, across Pelham Avenue, to the front of Publix.

Two Nashville-area firms, Bristol Development Group and PGM Properties, are working together on the apartments, grocery store and additional retail and restaurant space.

Huntsville-based Triad Properties plans to build the office tower and is also in negotiations to bring a hotel to the site.

The developers will pay the Huntsville Housing Authority about $5.6 million for the property just south of downtown.

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As Huntsville’s investment grows, Redstone Gateway office park marches forward

Redstone Gateway's first building.JPGThis five-story office building visible from Interstate 565 is the first of 52 planned office buildings at the billion-dollar Redstone Gateway office park. The City of Huntsville has spent $28 million to date grading the site, building roads and adding water, sewer and electric services under an agreement with the developers. (The Huntsville Times/Michael Mercier)

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — The City of Huntsville has now spent about $28 million laying the groundwork for a massive, Department of Defense-oriented office park near Gate 9 of Redstone Arsenal.

At its meeting Thursday night, the City Council approved two more infrastructure contacts for Phase I of the Redstone Gateway project, which includes about 200 acres immediately south of the junction of Interstate 565 and Rideout Road.

Christopher Professional Enterprises of Athens won a $535,815 contract to run electric, phone, fiberoptic and other communication lines along Market Street, the park’s planned retail area.

Christopher was also awarded a $254,288 contract to install the water lines serving Market Street.

The four-lane, divided boulevard will eventually be home to 150,000 square feet of hotels, retail and service businesses, said Shane Davis, the city’s director of urban planning.

Reed Contracting Services is being paid $5.3 million to build Market Street, as well as a four-lane loop road serving 22 large office buildings in the park’s first phase. Reed is also relocating a portion of Overlook Road.

Davis said the city has only two major contracts left to award in the first phase: demolition of a former Huntsville Utilities substation, and final grading for a five-acre lake.

Redstone Gateway map.jpg

The $1 billion office park will eventually include 52 buildings for Army employees and defense contractors, two hotels, restaurants, stores and an academic campus surrounding Gate 9.

Maryland-based Corporate Office Properties Trust is developing the office space; Jim Wilson Associates of Montgomery is handling the retail area.

Huntsville Finance Director Randy Taylor estimates Redstone Gateway will generate $275 million in new property and sales taxes for the city over the 35-year life of the development agreement.

Davis said Jim Wilson Associates has had “tremendous response” from retailers and hotel chains.

“They’re getting very close to getting some deals going and selecting the first hotel tenant,” he said Thursday.

According to the park’s website,, the first office building — a five-story glass structure visible from the interstate — is now ready for occupancy. Corporate Office Properties Trust recently hired Graham Co. as the leasing agent and property manager for Redstone Gateway.

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STEM education focus of congressional hearing at Madison’s Bob Jones High

STEM hearingU.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, who chairs the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education for the House’s Science, Space and Technology Committee, speaks Monday during a congressional hearing at Bob Jones High School. The hearing, which featured testimony from local school and university officials, highlighted local science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and looked at its impact in Huntsville and beyond. (The Huntsville Times/Eric Schultz)

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — Huntsville may be ahead of the curve when it comes to science education, but plenty of work remains to ensure that the education system adequately fills an increasingly technology-based workforce.

That was the gist of a congressional hearing held Monday morning at Bob Jones High School to discuss the future of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in the Rocket City and beyond.

The hearing was hosted by U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, who chairs the subcommittee on Research and Science Education for the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Brooks was joined by Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Chicago, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee. Lipinski told those present that fewer than 40 percent of college students who start out in a STEM-related field follow through and get a degree in that field.

That leads to a shortage of qualified employees to fill positions in science and technology fields, which are experiencing an increasing demand for workers, Lipinski said.

“We need to do a better job at training our students,” Lipinski said.

For ideas on how that should be done, the congressmen turned to a panel of local education and industry leaders, who testified about the status of STEM education in Huntsville. Panelists spoke repeatedly of improved communication and collaboration between education and industry.

Andrew Partynski, chief technology officer for SAIC, told the congressmen that there is a lack of communication about what type of students the industry is seeking.

“We still have a lot to do with the universities to communicate the kind of needs we have,” Partynski said.

Dr. Neil Lamb, director of educational outreach for HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, agreed. Lamb said the industry needs students whose book-based learning is supplemented by hands-on experience.

STEM hearingU.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Chicago, speaks to a panel of witnesses at a congressional hearing on STEM education held Monday at Bob Jones High. Lipinski is the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. (The Huntsville Times/Eric Schultz)

For that, there need to be partnerships between schools and the industry to provide students with internships and other opportunities for experience, Partynski said.

Dr. Camille Wright, director of secondary instruction for Madison City Schools, said her district partners with local universities through initiatives such as dual enrollment and articulated credit. The business community also provides internships and job shadowing for students.

And an advisory committee of business and industry leaders helps guide the district on its curriculum. “They work with us to ensure that our curriculum matches the skill set needed in the industry,” Wright said.

Dr. Robert Altenkirch, president of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, testified that internships with NASA and other industry leaders help higher education students better understand what they learn on campus.

When Brooks and Lipinski asked how the federal government could better promote scientific entities like HudsonAlpha and SAIC, Lamb of HudsonAlpha talked about preventing other industries from “poaching” STEM graduates.

Wright spoke out against the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which she said has forced school districts to narrow their focus on reading and math — to the detriment of science education.

“As an unintended consequence, that’s where your money will go,” Wright said.

Lamb said that the Bush-era legislation inflicted “enormous harm” on the way science is viewed in the country. His comment was met by applause from the small audience.

According to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the move away from science is reflected in student performance. That assessment showed that just 34 percent of fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders in the nation scored at or above proficiency in physical science, life science, Earth science and space.

President Obama has said he is trying to change the focus of students’ education, placing on his agenda an $80 million proposal for a new competition designed to support effective STEM teacher preparation. His administration also hopes to create a $60 million fund to help improve math education.

Obama’s office announced the initiatives in February. They have been met with skepticism from some GOP leaders who question the price tag on the plans.

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New bait as we angle for the ‘Big Kahuna’ (Turner)

Need another reason to be excited about our part of the Gulf Coast?

Southern Business and Development magazine recently released a new Top 10 list, this one artfully labeled “Ten megasites in the South for the next ‘Big Kahuna.’”

KA Turner
turner sig.jpgK.A. Turner is editor of Gulf Coast Business.

On the list is a new purchase by the Baldwin County Commission — the site in north Baldwin recently certified by McCallum Sweeney Consulting.

Just listen to the way the magazine describes its unique attributes:

“Certified megasites, with all due diligence complete, are rare. Sites with access to both north-south and east-west interstates, a major international port, two commercial airports and world-class beaches are even rarer.

“There may be only one with over 3,000 acres, potential dual electric service, large water and wastewater capacity, served by the CSX railroad, AIDT, a nationally recognized job training system, and with close proximity to the Port of Mobile.”

Yes, Baldwin County went out on a limb to buy the property without a tenant. But the group’s action shows faith in the potential that we have along the central Gulf Coast.

Our region boasts an impressive array of inventory for attracting new companies — the megasite, the Brookley Aeroplex, the Helena Industrial Complex, certified as Project Ready by Mississippi Power Co., even the area around Gulf LNG Energy’s liquefied natural gas facility on Bayou Casotte, which Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has said he can market to “corporations and companies not only in the United States, but internationally who use liquefied natural gas to fuel their manufacturing.”

So to steal another term from the surfer world, let’s ride the wave of possibilities for growth along our part of the Gulf Coast and work together to land that next Big Kahuna. Wherever it lands, we’ve got lots of other slots ready for its relatives and suppliers.

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Stewart Welch: ‘Superstar employees’ embrace 6 habits to achieve success

Stewart Welch.JPGStewart Welch

In last week’s column, I discussed seven tips for having a winning job interview. Once you’ve got that new job, here are the six habits for becoming a super star employee:

1. “Lights on, lights off.” Do you remember the movie “The Karate Kid?” One of the most memorable scenes was when master martial artist, Mr. Miyagi, agrees to train Daniel in the art of self-defense. For what seemed like months, Daniel’s training consisted of waxing cars and Miyagi would incessantly repeat, “Wax on, wax off!” — much to Daniel’s frustration. As it turns out, this “work” was basic training for effective blocking techniques that Daniel would later use to defeat his archenemy.

Before I started my first job, my father gave me this advice, “How you conduct yourself in the first six months of work will set the tone for how your employer sees you forever. Make an effort to be the first one at the office and the last one to leave. Your employer will notice and in his or her mind, will see you as a hard worker.”

I took that advice and found that what started out as a six-month goal became a habit that helped me start my own business. One side benefit is that more time on the job equated to more job experience and a shortening of the learning curve. I also found that folks were more willing to mentor the “new kid with hustle.” So start your new job with a secret weapon, “Lights on, lights off!”

2. Adopt a “Whatever it takes” attitude. Don’t be a “That’s not my job!” type of employee. Most businesses in America are small businesses and everyone in the company needs to be prepared to help where needed. In fact, ideally you want to become the go-to person when a special project comes up. When we hire someone at our two firms, our written job description is: “Whatever it takes,” then we proceed to list what we call “Primary Areas of Responsibility.”

3. Be a team player. Americans are innately competitive by nature but in business, the greatest success comes from cohesive teams. You know you have a good team when members are willing to help each other without concern for personal recognition.

4. Do the unexpected. What can you do outside your normal job responsibilities to help or add value to the company?

Roxie, my personal assistant, takes it upon herself to take lunch orders every day, sort through everyone paying their share and pick up the food. This has been instrumental in building inner-office relationships since on most days we eat together. Ramona is part of our administrative group. She attends the Brock Business School’s monthly networking breakfast and uses it as an opportunity to promote our company. Jeff, our systems administrator, often works on our systems at night or weekends.

I have similar stories for virtually every associate. No one has asked them to take on these extra efforts but management certainly notices and appreciates them for doing so.

5. Think like an owner. Too often there’s a sense of”‘us vs. them” between employees and management. Think of how you’d act and what decisions you’d make if you owned the company and let that help guide your activities and office-related conversations. If you have a suggestion for improving the company, let management know. Conversely, if you have a problem that needs management’s attention, be sure to have at least one possible solution to that problem. Understand that owners will notice when you are thinking like an owner.

6. Embrace the concept of continuous improvement. Every day think of what you can do to improve your skills at least a little bit. In particular, look at where you are and where you want to go within your company then ask yourself, “What do I need to do to prepare me to move to the next level?” It may be more education or experience in another area. Once you decide, lay out a plan of action and either implement it on your own or with the assistance from your company. In our companies, we require all advisers to have advanced degrees such as the Certified Financial Planner designation and we have a program that financially supports that goal.

In the end, you are in charge of your own destiny. By proactively taking these six steps, you’ll become a superstar employee and be on your way to maximizing your career potential.

If you have a financial question you’d like me to answer in The Birmingham News, email me at and place Bhm News in the subject line.

Stewart H. Welch III is founder of The Welch Group LLC, a fee-only wealth management firm. He is co-author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Rich” and “J.K. Lasser’s New Rules for Estate and Tax Planning.”

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Today’s business headlines: Anderson family proposes taking Books-A-Million private, Adams Produce files for bankruptcy

BAM post.jpgThe Anderson family is proposing to take Birmingham-based Books-A-Million private.BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Here are some of today’s business headlines from The Birmingham News.

The family of Books-A-Million Executive Chairman Clyde Anderson said it’s made a non-binding proposal for the Anderson family to take the company private. Read the story.

Adams Produce Co. LLC, a Birmingham-based company more than a century old, has filed for bankruptcy. Read more.

Last spring’s tornado outbreak brought heavy losses to Alabama’s
agriculture industry, particularly in poultry and forestry. Storms
killed 3.2 million chickens and heavily damaged or destroyed more than
700 poultry houses, while nearly $260 million worth of timber across
200,000 acres was damaged. Read about the recovery.

For more local business news, like The Birmingham News Business Center on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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McGraw-Hill: Construction contracts decline in Birmingham area


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Construction activity in the Birmingham area is poised to dip, as the value of building contracts slumped in March.

McGraw-Hill Construction said the total value of construction contracts in the Birmingham metro area dropped 80 percent to $56.8 million in March, as nonresidential projects plunged.

The value of nonresidential projects totaled just $5.2 million in March, down from $241.8 million in the prior year, the firm said. These projects including offices, factories, churches, schools, hotels and other buildings.

Residential projects, however, rose in value. McGraw-Hill said the value of residential projects reached $51.5 million in March, up from $41.1 million in the previous year.

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Huntsville Utilities, TVA overcame long odds to restore power in wake of April 27 storms

transmission tower air.JPGAn aerial view of a TVA transmission tower destroyed in the April 27, 2011 storms. (Michael Mercier/The Huntsville Times)

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — Steve Wright remembers being in the Huntsville Utilities operations center a year ago, and the lights flickering with loud bangs from the storms.

“That meant the TVA system was being hit and it was automatically calculating another route,” said Wright, the local utility’s electric department manager. “I made the comment that if the lights went out completely, we’re in trouble — it meant they had no more routes.”

Then the lights went out.

“We’ve never had our whole system down before,” said Huntsville Utilities spokesman Bill Yell.

Last year’s devastating storms claimed lives and homes and also created the largest problem the Tennessee Valley Authority’s electrical transmission system had ever faced, said Tracy Flippo, TVA’s vice president for transmission, operations and maintenance. The storms damaged or destroyed 350 TVA transmission structures – including numerous massive towers – left 109 major transmission lines out of service and 641,000 people in North Alabama and Mississippi without power.

While it seemed a long five days without power at the time, getting power restored within five or so days given the depth of destruction now seems miraculous.

Flippo said it took until July for TVA to restore its network.

“The grid today doesn’t look really any different than April 26, 2011, it’s totally restored,” Flippo said. “It functions just like it did before, we maintain just like it did before.”

The recovery effort, repairing or replacing tons of equipment in its transmission system, cost TVA $39 million, Flippo said. Buying power from other sources to provide sufficient electricity while the system was largely down cost TVA $100 million, Flippo said.

Entire TVA system hit

Huntsville Utilities lost 390 poles and about 250 transformers in the storm. The utility estimates the storms costs were in excess of $5 million. FEMA’s calculations — aimed at repayment — estimate the damage at $4.5 million, and the local utility will ultimately be repaid for 75 percent of that damage figure, about $3.3 million, Yell said.

transmission tower ground.JPGA TVA transmission tower in the wake of the April 27, 2011 storms. (Michael Mercier/The Huntsville Times)

TVA’s entire system was hit that day, including the network of lines carrying electricity from the east, south and west to Huntsville. Power generation at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant stopped abruptly because there was no electricity coming into the plant to maintain its cooling system and other operations. Even after power to the plant was restored, there was no way to get the power down the line, because the lines were gone. Power generation from Guntersville Dam also stopped.

The blowing away of TVA’s network left Huntsville Utilities customers in the dark. Wright estimates that if TVA had the ability to transmit its electricity, about 80 percent of Huntsville Utilities customers wouldn’t have experienced the blackout.

How long the lights were out locally varied with the customer’s location. The storms struck on a Wednesday and by the following Monday, many Huntsville customers had power restored, by the following weekend, only 50 customers, whose homes weren’t intact enough to receive electricity, were still out.

That restoration followed a Herculean response from utility crews across North Alabama.

Flippo and Wright both said that utilities drill on emergency response and crews hone their skills traveling to help other communities in the wake of a major outage. The first order of business is performing damage assessments, but storms had turned whole neighborhoods into debris.

“The most critical thing to being successful in getting the lights back on is the damage assessment,” Flippo said. “How bad are the lines broken? Around Huntsville several lines were damaged.

“Our critical task was to identify one line we could rebuild as fast as we could “

Wright said Huntsville Utilities reconnaissance teams were out as soon as the weather began to clear, but it meant driving street to street across Madison County, often in badly damaged areas, to get an accurate assessment. The effort took days to complete, Wright said.

TVA faced a similar task over a much larger area. Flippo said the utility has skilled people in Huntsville who know the areas lines well. TVA also used its fleet of helicopters to fly across the valley and identify problem areas.

Wright said one lesson Huntsville Utilities has adopted from last year’s storm was used in the March 2 storms. The utility used an airplane to fly over the areas and through photos and GPS were able to make a damage assessment that will become regular practice in future major events.

The utilities had to figure out what had been lost or damaged, make a path through the trees and other obstacles to get to downed lines and transformers, remove debris, move in new equipment and put it up — all as quickly as possible.

Flippo estimated that 3,000 to 4,000 people were deployed on the recovery effort. He said that within “about a week of the storm we had 98 percent of our customers restored to power.”

For the Huntsville area, it meant the restoration of a line from the Widows Creek fossil plant in Jackson County, back into the Huntsville Utilities system. As more power was available to feed through the transmission line, Wright said, Huntsville Utilities would match that load to various areas. The process began with the water treatment plants and sewer lift stations, the downtown hospitals and care facilities, shortly after that power to some grocery stores and gas stations and then out into neighborhoods.

In most outages, customers demand to know when power will be restored, but in this case, Wright said, people understood. The phone didn’t ring, residents went out their way stop and thank the utility crews for the hard work.

“Each storm, they’re really doing their best,” Wright said. “We didn’t have a single accident in the April 27 outage or March 2. They’re slinging tons of material around and they did it safely and intensely for 10 days straight.”

Value of social media

Both TVA and Huntsville Utilities officials they learned the value of social media as a means of communicating with customers when most other avenues were cut off. Yell said Huntsville Utilities Facebook page, which had a few hundred followers – -mostly utility employees — grew overnight to more than 12,000. He said the utility’s Twitter feed adds 100 or more followers a month.

“Communication was such a problem, our social media component really took off,” Yell said. “If people can find enough power to charge a laptop or smart phone we can communicate with them. Very few people today have a portable radio.”

The span of the April 27 storms ravaged the electricity network, but it bounced back. TVA has eight connection points into Huntsville and operates a system that when there are problems in parts of the network it finds another route to deliver power.

So would adding a line, say from the north, keep the lights on?

A similar, though happily rare storm, would likely have a similar effect, the utility officials said. Options are always desirable , Flippo said. There can only be so many redundant systems.

Flippo the cost of adding a transmission a line, 100 miles long, would be massive and obtaining the necessary rights-of-way would also be daunting.

“This one in April was so big and so wide I don’t know if it would have mattered,” Flippo said. “You’re dealing with something really, really unusual.”

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