Emerson: 5 Years for Huntsville to Compete With Peer Cities

Leadership Perspectives
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Chad Emerson was hired to breathe new life in downtown Huntsville.  He is the CEO of Downtown Huntsville, Inc. and is our guest this week on WHNT News 19's in-depth local segment, Leadership Perspectives.

We asked Emerson to define his group's mission.

"Our focus is to promote downtown, advance downtown, whether it be through new development projects, through interesting events, through marketing campaigns. What we've found is that, it's hard to find a growing dynamic city, anywhere in the country, that also doesn't have a growing and dynamic downtown, so that's what I wake up every day figuring out how to do," he said.

Emerson stresses Huntsville is competing with other cities for new talent.  He discusses the idea of competing with our 'peer cities' - some of those being Raleigh, Chattanooga, Greenville, Charleston and Savannah.

"When people think of [those cities] they think of the downtowns.  If we're going to compete with those cities, we have to think of them in the same way."

Groups have tried to revitalize downtown Huntsville in recent years with limited success, WHNT News 19's Steve Johnson asked.  What's the drag? What's holding us back?

"To use a baseball analogy - a good baseball team hits home runs - you need home runs, big home runs - but you also need lots of singles and doubles," Emerson replied. "You need these smaller things to happen, that fill up the bases so when you hit a home run, it's an even bigger home run. So, that analogy really plays out for downtowns - because you need big, exciting projects like Twickenham Square. It's a huge project, having a downtown Publix, 200+ new lofts, a new Homewood Suites downtown - that's a home run. But you also need a series of singles and doubles. So, that's one of the things we're working on with something as small as a pop-up park, or a street food gathering - or a cupcake truck locating downtown. Is that the end all, be all? No. But a lot of people thought about silver bullets - and 'if we do this, our downtown will change.' What we say is, if we hit enough singles, hit enough doubles, we'll get some home runs, and that will be a complete game for us."

When you think of downtown Huntsville, you may think of the courthouse square and surrounding streets. We asked Emerson to define the downtown area.

"We broadly define it as the downtown area. It's not just the courthouse square - that's the core of it," he said. "We normally consider downtown to be Bob Wallace on the south to I-65 area on the north, to Memorial Parkway on the west, and Blossomwood on the east."

"But we also talk about places that are influenced by downtown," Emerson added.  "Maybe you live on Monte Sano.  Well, you'll come down and shop at the Star Market, or the new Publix. Or, maybe you don't live downtown, but downtown is where you interact. But you come eat downtown.  Lowe Mill is a great asset. It's just a couple minutes from downtown. People can go over there pretty easily."

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The area along Memorial Parkway, just south of Clinton Avenue, still sits mostly vacant.  Developer Scott McLain wanted to build Constellation there, a mixed-use development.  It hasn't come to fruition, though. McLain has also suggested it's a good spot for a new Huntsville City Hall.

How important is it to get this area developed, we asked Emerson?

"That's one of those top - we call them opportunity sites - there's a lot of opportunity there," he said. "Traffic counts are something retailers really find important. Scott [McLain] is working hard to make that opportunity into a reality. That site right there, along with other sites, the Holiday Inn site - there's a handful we talk about - those sites are opportunity sites. We need to stop talking about them [as] prospects, but what they actually are becoming."

Huntsville has areas still to be developed. Does that make this easier or harder to recruit business/companies here?

"That's one of the reasons I was really intrigued about coming to Huntsville. Huntsville has these opportunity sites that you don't have to try to force a square peg into a round hole. They're naturally something that people would be drawn to. You talked about Constellation - naturally, good traffic counts there."

When it comes to living, Emerson said more people are showing interest in downtown lofts. In fact, there's a waiting list for available space and plans to build more attached living spaces.

What's the ideal mix of living space, retail, and entertainment?

"We talk about three buckets - or three audiences for downtown. There's people that work in a downtown, live in a downtown, and play in a downtown," Emerson said. "The more buckets we can get you in, the more likely you are to expand our downtown."

"The mix is not a percentage as much as we need to have enough supply to meet the demand for playing, for working and for living. Right now, we have a lot of office space and there is demand for more, but we don't have a lot of attached residential. The biggest unmet demand is new residential downtown."

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What happens when a space comes open downtown?  We asked Emerson about his first step.

"Reach out to the commercial broker who's listing it, or the owner of the building and find out who's listing it, and ask first of all, 'why did it come open?' Did a business decide to leave? Was there an issue with the configuration of the building for that type of business? Really study what I call the metrics, the measurements, the details, because let's say there was a coffee shop in there, but it turns out it's not the right size for a coffee shop. You don't want to try to put a coffee shop back in there. You may want to find a new place for a coffee shop, and so we approach it really empirically," he explained. "We try to look at the size of the building, the footprint, does it have an elevator in it, does it have kitchen equipment in it? So that's one of the first things we do. We don't say 'we want this to be in here. What we say is, 'what would be successful in this type of ground floor unit?'

Downtown Huntsville has several events, from Panoply to the entertainment districts to others.  Do we need more, we asked?

"For a long time we've had key, signature draws. We need smaller events - the singles and doubles," Emerson replied, referring back to his baseball analogy.

What's coming, exactly? Downtown Huntsville, Inc. is planning an 18-hole pop-up putt putt course through downtown in late spring or early summer.  It will be called 'The Downtown Open.'

As far as the bigger vision, we asked Emerson how far we are, time-wise, from creating the type of downtown Huntsville he'd like to see.

"Within five years - if the investment is there from the private and the public side," he replied.  "Five years to compete with the peer cities."

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