2019 preview: Leaders hope museum opening, industrial projects spur Decatur

Jan 2, 2019

From The Decatur Daily
By: Bayne Hughes

Mayor Tab Bowling believes Decatur is heading into the “the best economic times of my lifetime” as 2019 begins.

Bowling said Decatur will benefit from north Alabama economic growth that might be strong enough to withstand the possibility of a national recession.

“There are so many projects coming to the area that I’m not concerned about our region,” Bowling said. “We’ve got Mazda-Toyota, the FBI and Blue Origin. Hexcel continues to expand, and GE is now the largest employer in Morgan County.”

The Cook Museum of Natural Science also is scheduled to open downtown in 2019.

Councilwoman Kristi Hill shares Bowling’s optimistic view. She said she sees Decatur’s annexed area in Limestone County finally beginning to grow, downtown continuing its rebirth and more much-need residential growth coming to the city.

Councilman Charles Kirby sees good things happening for the city’s neighbors, but he’s skeptical Decatur will benefit economically.

“A lot of things we hype will have a microscopic impact on Decatur,” Kirby said.

Councilman Billy Jackson said he’s concerned the national outlook with the recent increase in interest rates and a volatile stock market will hurt the area.

“I hope the mayor is accurate, but I don’t necessarily see things through the same lens,” Jackson said. “I’m very concerned about our economy.

Most believe Decatur will benefit from construction of the new Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA plant in Huntsville-annexed Limestone County even though it won’t open until 2021. Plans for the plant were announced a year ago this month. State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said the company’s suppliers will begin selecting locations in 2019.

Where they locate will depend on their needs, Orr said.

“Obviously, they want to be near the Mazda Toyota site. They may also need rail. It could depend on whether they need a big or smaller site or building,” Orr said.

Rick Paler, executive director of Decatur Downtown Redevelopment Authority, said Decatur’s pitch will be that it’s only 10 to 15 minutes from Mazda Toyota.

“You can get to the plant faster than you can get to the other end of the Beltline (Road),” Paler said.

Bowling said the city could, in the interim, also benefit from providing the hotel lodging necessary for the construction employees who descend on this area for these projects.

The Cook Museum of Natural Science may be the city’s most anticipated non-industrial project since Point Mallard Park opened in the early 1970s. Bowling and Paler said the museum is expected to open this spring. Cook officials have not announced an opening date but are advertising that the museum will begin operation this year.

Local officials and business owners have been waiting anxiously for the museum to open and bring much-needed business, especially to restaurants and retail stores.

“A research firm projected the museum will attract 200,000 visitors (yearly), not counting local students,” Bowling said. “At 300 open days a year, that’s an average of 600 daily. That’s a big number that will have a big impact on our city.”

Hill and Councilman Chuck Ard believe the city’s area in Limestone County will begin growing. Its location near the Mazda Toyota plant creates this optimism.

The city is also a recent recipient of a $14.2 million federal grant to build an Alabama 20 overpass, although a major project in the area is needed for overpass construction to begin.

“That area will develop quickly because of the overpass,” Ard said.

Decatur City Schools has been criticized for its test scores in the past, but it recently received a B grade on the state accountability testing. The school system also opened two new high schools in August.

“Our new school scores will help the city,” Ard said. “And we’ve got great new schools.”

Decatur’s prospects for 2019 may depend on a person’s outlook, but even Kirby admits that there are positive signs for the new year.

“There’s a renewed drive (on the council) to get a handle on some of our issues,” Kirby said.

The two things all of the city officials could agree on is they want to increase the amount of paving and maintenance of city properties in 2019. They’ve asked Bowling to find more money in the budget for paving.

The City Council is looking at investing its reserves, which Ard said could create more than $300,000 a year for paving.

Creating residential growth is a big issue for the city. An engineering consultant is working on plans for a sewer extension to Upper River Road for a potential subdivision development.

An intersection study on this southern end of Decatur and in Priceville could create more road projects, including an Interstate 65 interchange with Upper River Road. The $11.3 million Spring Avenue Southwest widening is expected to be complete by December 2019.

The city also continues to make improvements to the roads around the new Austin High School, and Bowling said he wants a master plan created for the Modaus Road Southwest area.

An engineering consultant is working on plans to relieve the flooding in the Country Club Road Southeast area. Hill said the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers isn’t requiring permits for the improvements but more rights of way than anticipated may be needed.

The FBI announced in November that it will move nearly 1,400 personnel and contractors from the Washington, D.C., region to Redstone Arsenal as part of an expansion that’ll include the agency’s first large-scale operations support building.

Meanwhile, Blue Origin said in September it plans to build its BE-4 engines at a 350-employee plant in Huntsville. The engines will be used in United Launch Alliance’s next-generation rocket to be built in Decatur.

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