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Spotlight on Madison County

Big Spring Park is the centerpiece of downtown Huntsville

Big Spring Park is the centerpiece of downtown Huntsville

Photo courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau/Dennis Keim

Madison County, Alabama’s third most populated county and one of the fastest growing in the Southeast, is located in north Alabama and is home to major defense, aerospace and technology industry clusters, a designation it has held since the early 1950s.

Madison County’s major cities, Huntsville and Madison, consistently rank high nationally among the best places to live and work, and school systems earn accolades.

Higher education is heavily involved in workforce training and industry recruitment, and entrepreneurship thrives here. Its metro area has one of the highest per capita incomes in the Southeast.

Natural resources abound, and its U.S. Space and Rocket Center, which documents the history and future of space flight, ranks second among the state’s top attractions, with more than 500,000 visitors each year, according to the Alabama Tourism Department.

Cities are well managed, with the city of Huntsville earning an AAA credit rating, one of only six U.S. cities to have this designation. While the county’s growing population spreads to well planned suburban developments, downtown areas also receive major improvements and attract new residents.

Huntsville is always on the state’s radar as one of the most successful economic development areas. The latest Department of Commerce’s New and Expanding Industry report shows the city has landed new industries and expanded dozens more.

Monte Sano rises more than 1,600 feet above sea level and has attracted visitors since the mid-1820s. This couple plays chess, while enjoying the view from the state park’s lodge.

Photo courtesy of Alabama Tourism Department/Jeff Greenberg

The county also has benefited from the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) of 2005 that has brought several thousand people to the area and created about 5,000 jobs, as well as a four-star command for Redstone Arsenal.

Space has been the major economic driver for many years. Marshall Space Flight Center is now involved in building a rocket for deep space, creating work at least until 2021, says Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle — but officials also say that the Army’s growth has been phenomenal here.

“As missions have grown and the movement of people and military jobs here increases, while it is still a NASA town, Army and research and development are the biggest sectors here,” says John Southerland, director of Cummings Research Park, home to more than 300 companies and 25,000 people involved in technology research and development.

Marshall has about 6,000 employees who work directly with NASA projects, but 30,000 employees work in military or civilian jobs in the latter sectors. “We also have more diversity in our companies and industries — we have a lot of cool success stories here. For example, Adtran has more patents than any other Alabama-based business,” Southerland says.

With such a huge dependency on federal-related jobs and projects, there is always concern about diversity when the prospect of budget cuts loom, says Battle. “With sequestration, we have some challenges, and it is serious, but not a death knell,” he says. “It could also create opportunity.”

Huntsville makes the economic development news almost constantly, and there always is a push for more development. Huntsville is vying to be one of six sites selected by the Federal Aviation Administration for the testing of unmanned aerial vehicles, dubbed drones, a move that could have a major economic impact on the area. Battle says existing capabilities at Redstone Arsenal make the city a natural fit for testing of future commercial drone use. The University of Alabama in Huntsville is leading the charge for the bid.

The city also is working to grow the gaming development sector, as well as advanced manufacturing to create more diversity.

For more information on Madison County, visit hsvchamber.org.

Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She is based in Birmingham. 

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