By Amy Guckeen-TolsonMarch 11, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- At 3 a.m., the alarm clock would ring.
By 4, Yolanda McKenzie was out the door.
And so began her 100-mile commute each morning from her home in Martinsburg, W.Va., to her job as records administrator for the Army Materiel Command in Fort Belvoir, Va., a commute that on a good day was two hours. Somewhere between 4:30 and 8 each evening, after the work day was said and done, she'd get in her car and prepare for the 100-mile commute back home, and less than 12 hours later would hear the alarm clock's ring, beckoning her to do it all over again.
Today that commute from her brand new home in Owens Cross Roads to Redstone Arsenal is a mere 14 miles.
"I have more time," McKenzie said. "I'm finally able to sleep later, I can stay up later, I can read - I can do anything that I want to do."
No one ever thought that Barry Gangi, program analyst in the public and congressional affairs office at AMC, would want to make the move from Washington, D.C. to Huntsville, but it was Gangi that surprised everyone when he announced he would be continuing his 25-year employment with AMC at Redstone Arsenal.
"It's a good opportunity," said Gangi, who also purchased a new home in Owens Cross Roads. "After living in Washington, D.C. for 32 years it was time for a new adventure."
That adventure he has discovered, hasn't been all that different from life back on the East Coast - the affluence, social and entertainment possibilities still exist, with a taste of Southern hospitality and a slower pace of life thrown in for good measure. And of course the things that are lacking, like traffic and a high cost of living, didn't hurt his decision to make the move either.
"Buying a house here is like going to a candy shop," Gangi said. "And traffic in D.C. compared to here - there's no comparison. Even on the worst day, there's no comparison."
They are stories being echoed across the Tennessee Valley as newcomers relocating to the area for BRAC discover that Huntsville and the surrounding area isn't just good for an address on a business card, but rather, it is a community to live in and quickly come to love. Long gone are their days of lengthy commutes and traffic jams, and having to pinch pennies to meet the high cost of living - a home that would cost $668,633 in the D.C. metro area is a mere $226,779 in the Huntsville metro area, and something as simple as a dozen eggs carries a 46 cents difference between the two, according to the American Chamber of Commerce Researchers Association - is a thing of the past.
"When you have 97 retired general officers who decide to live in Huntsville, it tells you something," Huntsville mayor Tommy Battle said. "These people have been all over the world, they've looked at every section of the United States and everywhere else, but they've decided to come live in Huntsville and there's a reason for that. The reason gets down to the people, the quality of life, and your economic engine, which is Redstone Arsenal."
That economic engine is poised to pick up steam, as the balance of the 4,700 Army and federal agency jobs moved to Redstone Arsenal as a result of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure are filled by Sept. 15. With those positions, another 5,000 defense and aerospace jobs have opened up in the surrounding area as a direct result, and yet another 9,000 indirect jobs as a result of that, making the Tennessee Valley a hotspot for population growth, with an estimated 20,000 people coming into the area for one reason or another related to BRAC, according to Joe Ritch, chair of the Tennessee Valley BRAC Committee.
"Companies tend to want to be near power," Ritch said. "They want to be seen as part of the Redstone Arsenal family."
As that Redstone Arsenal family has grown and continues to grow, area leaders have been busy preparing, like any new parent, to welcome that new life and to ensure that individuals are given all the keys to grow successfully in the community.
"We are a community where 90 percent of us are from somewhere else anyway, so when you start talking about embracing newcomers, we were all embraced at one time ourselves," Battle said. "That's one of the magic things of Huntsville. Huntsville is a very easy town to come into and to be accepted into, just because we're all from somewhere else. So we're used to that. We're used to that process."
Census data released at the end of February makes evident just how effective the Huntsville and Madison communities have gotten when it comes to rolling out those welcome mats. Madison, now the fastest growing city in the state and 10th largest, saw a 46.4 percent growth from the 2000 census, with today's population hovering near 43,000. Huntsville saw the largest population increase over the past 10 years, increasing by 21,889. Now the second largest metro area in the state, the welcome however, has not been without its challenges for leaders paving the way for a population and economic growth that seems almost unheard of in today's economy.
"We recognize that we're very lucky here compared to the rest of the nation," Madison mayor Paul Finley said. "We're one of the few places that's trying to fill jobs. We're one of the few places that continues to expand. What I'm looking forward to is continuing to struggle with such a positive need of additional infrastructure to support this growth. When you're working to try to fill jobs, when you're having trouble trying to keep up with the number of schools that you need, when you're focused on bringing more infrastructure, it means that you're prosperous and in this day and age, that's something that not every city is struggling with."
While the commute and cost of living has been an easy sell, newcomers have raised a magnifying glass to other issues, such as education, and Huntsville natives themselves can attest to the need for improvements to infrastructure and area roads as traffic has increased with the population. While the newcomers' questions could have been an opportunity to dwell on what is wrong with the Tennessee Valley, it has instead allowed for a thorough evaluation and call to action.
"The conversation started with people coming in and us doing some self-examination of our own systems and saying, 'What do we need, what do we have and what can't we provide''" Battle said.
Community leaders' response and willingness to address what they need to do and provide as the area has grown with the Arsenal has not gone unnoticed by those that pass through the Arsenal gates every day. Battle and Finley both attribute a large part of the area's success in preparing for the BRAC growth to their close work with Col. John Hamilton, Garrison commander, and Maj. Gen. Jim Rogers, Redstone Arsenal commander, as well as their predecessors, Col. Bob Pastorelli and Maj. Gen. Jim Myles.
"The incredibly positive relationship we have with all the local communities is one of the keys to our success," Hamilton said. "There has never been any doubt in my mind that this community sees growth on Redstone Arsenal as something that is positive for northern Alabama and southern Tennessee and it's something that will not work if we don't all come together to develop solutions for the tasks required."
The future of the Tennessee Valley embodied in the generations to come has taken center stage in terms of those needs that need to be fulfilled. As new employees move in, so in turn, do their children, the offspring of a highly intelligent population with high academic standards.
"Across the nation, we're all facing the same things," Battle said. "We have done very well in the Madison County school system, we have done very well in the Madison City school system, and Huntsville City school system we're working on. The good thing is the community is focused on that and there's a commitment to get our ship in order. It's probably a two-year fix for financial, to get financially in line, and academics come next - we'll be working on academics in that time too. It's probably a four-year fix to get us back to the very top of the academic level. The good thing is the community has looked at it and said, 'This is a place we want to place our focus and we want to make sure it works.'"
On average, the Madison County school system grows between 300 and 500 students a year, according to Geraldine Tibbs, director of communications and public relations, which boils down to what would equal about a new school per year. At the conclusion of last school year the system housed around 19,000 students - today it is hovering around 21,000, an increase of approximately 4,000 students since the 2003-04 school year.
"The evidence is seen," Tibbs said of the effect BRAC and the job-related growth is having on enrollment. "Throughout Madison County all of our schools are just booming at the seam. Even in areas where we have had the least amount of growth over the years we are seeing them begin to grow. We do the very best we can with the resources that we have."
Test scores remain high in the system's schools, and engineering, medical and construction academies are in place at select schools, in addition to the offerings of Advanced Placement classes at both the middle and high school levels. The system received district-wide accreditation in January from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Council on Accreditation and School Improvement. In addition to academics, the system also offers a wide variety of extracurricular activities, allowing students to become well-disciplined and well-rounded.
"Madison County has always been known for its academics and the kind of student that it produces," Tibbs said. "Our product is our students, and we look at producing students that will be able to leave us and will be able to go anywhere and succeed globally. We look at this as a business as far as producing. We produce a good product, and that product is our students."
A similar good product is evident in the Madison City school system, currently in the process of building a second high school, where family after family seems to be finding its way into the city limits for the educational benefits their tax dollars provide.
"It doesn't really matter where you live in the city of Madison, your return on investment in living here, for your children and their education, will be strong," Finley said.
While the care and development of the mind remains paramount in the Tennessee Valley, the care of the body has also come to the forefront as a population both young and old have moved into the area, and with them, whatever health ailments they may be facing. Dr. Pam Hudson, CEO of Crestwood Medical Center, assures newcomers the Huntsville healthcare community is prepared to meet the needs of the increasing population. While some have claimed the area is facing a critical shortage of doctors, Hudson said it's not necessarily a shortage, but more or less a challenge to try to keep up with the constantly growing Huntsville community.
"When you look and see where we stand compared to the rest of the country, we are far better off," Hudson said. "We are ready to meet the needs of the community."
Rarely does an individual need to leave the area to get the healthcare they need, Hudson said, and to best connect newcomers with doctors, both Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood Medical Center have set up hotlines to help patients find available physicians, all the while continuing to recruit more doctors to the area. On average, Crestwood tries to add 10 doctors a year to the medical community in the Rocket City, with six already planning their moves for this year, including an ENT, general surgeon, fellowship trained endocrinologist, and three family practice doctors. Since 2005, Crestwood has added 45 physicians - 25 primary care physicians and 20 key specialists.
"Crestwood is dedicated to great care and service excellence," Hudson said. "We aren't the biggest hospital in town, but we know we need to try to be the best, and that's great for patients. For hospitals to be competing on quality outcomes and service benefits the community."
But the community benefits can't stop there - while a population can be well-educated, employed and healthy, Finley and company want to foster citizens that find happiness outside the hours of 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, as well.
"We're focused on making sure that we don't forget that aspect of things, because it can't all just be about roads and schools," Finley said. "That's what gets you here, but then you live here and you want those additional quality of life pieces that people expect."
With that has come new retail and recreation opportunities - greenways, a dog park and soccer fields in Madison, as well as the developing Shoppes of Madison off Highway 72 near the new Madison Hospital, which promises to bring in stores specializing in apparel, shoes and home dAfAcor, as well as sit-down restaurants and what is rumored to be a Target.
"The people really drive the growth of a community," said Tim Knox, executive director of the Madison Chamber of Commerce. "They let us know what they want and we try to give it to them."
Both Huntsville and Madison have made a concerted effort to hear exactly what it is their citizens want, inviting residents to speak up at growth plan meetings, respond to surveys and even comment on the "City of Huntsville Ideas Map" which allowed Internet users to pinpoint exactly what they want in their city, and where they want to see it. While some ask the question, "What will Huntsville look like in 2021'" Battle already has an idea of what it's going to look like in the years to come.
"We will be known as a place of innovation, a place of high technology," Battle said. "The Chamber probably puts it best - a smart place to live. Not only smart in that we have smart people here - we have more degree professionals and engineers per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. - you want it to be a smart thing to be here with the quality of life, where you have a world class art museum, botanical garden, the number one tourist attraction - the Space & Rocket Center, which dwells on science, technology, engineering - those items have to be the things that we're known for. That's what one of our achievements has been, and we want to be known for our achievements."
The free flow and exchange of ideas has been one of the reasons those achievements have been so numerous. As newcomers mix into the melting pot that is the Huntsville area, the lessons they've learned from where they've come from will be siphoned off and incorporated into the city they now call home, a process Battle and Finley encourage.
"Everybody comes in from someplace and they bring in the good ideas from those other areas," Battle said. "Those good ideas are melded into what's Huntsville. That has improved our community over the past 50 to 60 years."
"We're not set in our ways," Finley said. "Don't be afraid to get involved, because we welcome those who are doers in the community. This community's success has come because people haven't just sat back and watched somebody else do it, they got involved and helped make that next part of it that much better."
The next part of it is key as growth doesn't stop as BRAC 2005 comes to a close, but remains constant as Redstone Arsenal and the surrounding community adapts and evolves to meet the needs and missions that are required of it.
"This is a great place to live and work," Garrison commander Hamilton said. "I see daily the efforts being put forth by all local leaders to ensure the infrastructure continues to expand to meet the growing demands. Of course these things never occur as rapidly as we all want, but from my position I see priorities in the right place, available resources are being wisely allocated, and leaders are pursuing the right projects further down the road. It's important we continue the momentum in the areas of roads and schools that was started surrounding the BRAC 2005 decision process. None of that should slow down after September 2011.
"We see completing the tasks mandated by BRAC law as just a milestone in a much greater and longer growth story here. Simultaneous to executing the BRAC moves, we've been working hard to resource quite a few other stationing actions for federal activities coming to Redstone, both DoD and non-DoD organizations. We have to assume and be prepared for continued transformation of federal agencies that will need to operate on and around Redstone Arsenal. We will continue to improve the infrastructure in the region to ensure we are ready when our national security systems demand it."