By Amy Guckeen Tolson, Staff Writer Redstone RocketSeptember 14, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala--Each morning, Decatur residents flock to Highway 20 with one destination in mind.
"Gate 9 is in Huntsville. It all builds from there," said C. Wallace Terry, director of Economic and Community Development for the city of Decatur.
Highway 20 is not alone in its increase in passengers during the morning and evening commutes, but rather, all highways that lead in and out of the Arsenal are finding themselves more heavily populated these days. Nearly 4,700 jobs have come to the Arsenal over the past five years as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure, with around 2,000 of them filled by individuals from outside the Tennessee Valley, according to Joe Ritch, chair of the Tennessee Valley BRAC committee.
It is a growth that has had a rippling effect felt from the state of Tennessee to Cullman County, DeKalb County to Lauderdale County, and beyond. For many newcomers, choosing a city to live in hasn't always been about the hustle and bustle of big cities like Huntsville and Madison, but rather, about smaller communities, where everybody knows your name, and if they don't, it will only be a matter of time before they learn it.
"When you look at population growth overall, it's in a positive direction. In an economy like this, that's a good thing," Terry said.
The impact of BRAC hasn't just been about more bodies in the Tennessee Valley, but the assets and needs they bring with them -- an average salary of more than $80,000 to add to the local economy, the children they have to enroll in area schools, homes they need to live in, roads they will drive on, and restaurants and retail businesses they will patronize.
And while a lot of focus has been on those new to the state, the growth isn't just about newcomers. For every direct job filled on the Arsenal another three grow in the community, according to a 2008 study by the Office of Economic Adjustment, whether they represent schools that are expanding, roads that need to be constructed, or grocery stores that need to meet the needs of more customers. As local residents take positions available on the Arsenal thanks to BRAC, another local resident has the opportunity to take their job, and another person the job after that, making it an employment opportunity that touches nearly everyone in the area, regardless of their education background or expertise.
"It's just a domino effect," Decatur mayor Don Stanford said.
"For the whole region, it has been a stabilizer in a down economy," Terry said. "We owe a lot of that to BRAC."
Since the 2000 census, Athens and Limestone County have experienced a growth of a growth of approximately 26 percent according to Jennifer Williamson, president of the Greater Limestone County Chamber of Commerce, making it the fifth fastest growing county in the state of Alabama. While there is no definitive way to determine how much of that can be attributed to BRAC, part of it has undeniably come from the Arsenal's growth.
"Athens and Limestone County have a comfortable mix of agricultural production, industry, retail business, banking, healthcare, food service and education along with talented entrepreneurial diversity thrown in for good measure -- all working together for the benefit of the community," Williamson said. "The quality of life that Athens and Limestone County offers is truly unique. Our community takes great pride in our culture and history. We have so many family friendly events in our area, you can always find something to do."
Decatur officials are working to increase the great quality of life that already exists in their city, bringing in new businesses such as the Olive Garden and revitalizing downtown, as well as talks of adding a dog park, all plans that complement the opportunities already available, including the Tennessee River, the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, Point Mallard Park and the year-round ice rink. It is a mission -- expanding the ways families can choose to spend their free time -- that is being embraced in communities surrounding the Arsenal near and far, as they look to entertain their residents, and attract even more.
"We're trying to focus our attention on things that would be beneficial to those families that want to live here and work in Huntsville," Arab mayor Gary Beam said. "We're trying to make our park and recreation facilities the best that they can be. We have one of the best school systems in the state. We're constantly recruiting new shopping opportunities for our citizens."
An estimated 10 to 15 families have moved into the community 20 minutes south of the Arsenal, according to Beam, who has encountered some of his newest residents in church on Sunday. While the impact hasn't been tremendous, it has been positive for the community and the new residents that choose the small town life, Beam said.
"People here cherish the down home atmosphere that they can feel when they go to church or the grocery store," Beam said. "We open our arms and welcome those that choose not to live in a larger city and we'll make every effort to make their experience in Arab a good one."
About 25 miles to the west, the city of Cullman is also feeling the effect of North Alabama's newest residents, many of whom have chosen to purchase homes or vacation property on Smith Lake, according to mayor Max Townson. Despite a down economy, businesses in the city of Cullman have actually seen growth in recent years. Cash Acme expanded their business by 200,000 square feet, along with Topre America, which announced a $109 million expansion that is expected to create 250 jobs. The school system, already the third best in the state according to Townson, has also seen improvements, including a $2 million renovation of the Cullman High School stadium. Improvements are also being made to the local airport, with a request in to the FAA to extend the runway and more hangars in the process of being built.
"We've been very fortunate in this recessionary period," Townson said.
While the smaller communities are growing, by no means are they doing it with grandiose ideas of becoming the next Huntsville or Madison, but rather as partners of the metro area. Area leaders from across North Alabama have been in on discussions and planning sessions associated with BRAC for years, all investing their communities in the transformation that is occurring in the Tennessee Valley.
"We believe we have a lot to offer in the city of Cullman," Townson said. "We know we're not Huntsville. We're not trying to be. We're not an adversary, we're with you. What's good for Huntsville is good for Cullman."
That good fortune hasn't just come in the form of more sales tax revenues and higher census data, but in the actual, living, breathing individuals that have brought their families, brainpower and talents to the area.
"They've come in and made us a better town by bringing in new ideas and challenging us to be a better town," Terry said.
"I've always said, if you're born in Decatur you're very fortunate. If you move to Decatur you're very smart," Stanford said.