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Space age with a Southern twist

If Huntsville were a lady, she would be a slow-talking Southern belle dressed in a space suit, sipping sweet iced tea while she trained for the next space shuttle mission.

The Old South and rocket ships have been a happy if incongruous mix in Huntsville since a German scientist named Wernher von Braun arrived in the 1950s and developed rockets that sent man into space and to the moon and in the process, turned the city into an Alabama anomaly.
Although the state constitution was written there, Huntsville was deemed too far north to be the state capital. That’s worked out just fine. Now a city of 160,000 with a county population of around 350,000, Huntsville instead became a capital of aerospace and military operations. It is a base for NASA, the U.S. Army and myriad firms that supply and support them.

A quick look at Huntsville

Huntsville/Madison County CVB
500 Church St. Suite 1
Huntsville, AL 35801
(800) 843-0468

What’s new: Kiplinger’s Personal Finance ranked Huntsville the No. 1 city in the United States for 2009. Just over a half million people visited the U.S. Space and Rocket Center last year, making it No. 1 among Alabama’s free attractions. A special exhibit, Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, opens there next June. The Westin Huntsville has earned a AAA Four Diamond rating. Web traffic is up 40 percent on the Huntsville/Madison County CVB’s newly redesigned Web site. The Von Braun Center hopes to be under way with renovations to its concert hall this fall.

Rooms: 6,500 hotel rooms with the recent additions of a 210-room Westin Hotel, the first in Alabama, and several limited-service properties.
Location: Huntsville is in northcentral Alabama, 96 miles north of Birmingham, Ala.; 110 miles south of Nashville, Tenn.; and 195 miles west of Atlanta.

Location: Huntsville is in northcentral Alabama, 96 miles north of Birmingham, Ala.; 110 miles south of Nashville, Tenn.; and 195 miles west of Atlanta.

Transportation: The city is 19 miles off Interstate 65, connected to it by I-565. The Huntsville International Airport, with nonstop flights to 11 destinations, is 12 miles west of downtown off I-565. A recent survey by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics showed that fares from Huntsville were the highest in the nation, which airport officials attributed to a high rate of business travelers (68 percent). Huntsville is also within a 90-minute drive of the Birmingham airport and about two hours from Nasvhille’s.

Locals dug deep to create the Huntsville Botanical Garden, one of the city’s favorite attractions and an off-site meeting venue.

As other cities in the state struggle, Huntsville soldiers on, fueled by Redstone Arsenal, an Army installation that employs 14,000 and will add another 5,000 workers over the next few years, and Cummings Research Park, one of the largest research parks in the country. More than 40 Fortune 500 companies have a presence in the city, according to the Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In terms of an economic base, “we used to have government and military and that was it,” said the CVB’s marketing director, Charles Winters. “Now our economy is more multilayered.”

“Bubbling brew of brainpower”

Such diversification and a populace that Kiplinger’s Personal Finance described as “a bubbling brew of brainpower” are among the reasons that
magazine recently named Huntsville the No. 1 city in the United States in a recent economic survey.
Kiplinger’s looked for cities with solid job opportunities and a professional high-quality workforce that would help fuel job and business growth post-recession.

Kiplinger’s is not the only national magazine to take note of Huntsville.
Earlier this year, Forbes named it one of the Top 5 Best Cities for Recession Recovery, a Leading City for Business and a Top 5 City for Defense Jobs. In May, Huntsville was one of Money magazine’s Top 6 Places to Find a Job. In July, it was named one of’s Top 10 Places to Live.

Huntsville’s relatively good health and strong corporate presence makes it a city well suited for meetings, and several additions in the past several years, including an ongoing $65 million capital improvement project at the Huntsville International  Airport, the opening of the state’s first Westin Hotel and first lifestyle center and a large special-events venue at the the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

Meetings in Huntsville typically land in one of two areas: the compact downtown, where the Von Braun Center has held court since Elvis helped celebrate its opening year in 1975, and the edge of town near the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, where a towering 36-story replica of a Saturn V rocket makes a great guidepost — and also, since May, a  perch for the WHNT News 19 Saturn V Rocket Cam.

The Davidson Center for Space Exploration opened in early 2008, and the first event held beneath the Saturn V rocket displayed there was a dinner for 1,400.

Downtown, the Von Braun Center and its 170,000 square feet of meeting and exhibit space sit across from Huntsville’s Big Spring International Park, where a blue lake is fueled by a spring that produces 24 million gallons of water each day for area needs. The park is the site of downtown festivals, like the Big Spring Jam with its 40 musical acts and a respite for meeting goers staying at the two downtown hotels next to the Von Braun.

The newest is the 295-suite Embassy Suites Huntsville, linked to the center by a climate-contolled walkway. The hotel’s arrival three years ago doubled the number of hotel rooms within a short walk of the Von Braun. The existing hotel, the 273-room Holiday Inn Huntsville downtown, was a Sheraton when Elvis played five consecutive concerts at the center’s arena almost 35 years ago and commandeered the hotel’s entire third floor for his entourage.

His framed breakfast order for two pots of coffee, eggs, orange juice and fruit (sorry, no peanut butter and bananas), along with many other photos of Huntsville, make the Holiday Inn’s hallways a walk through the city’s history.

Two limited-service hotels are planned near the center in a new development called Constellation, named for NASA’s new manned space program. Construction has not begun, but developers say the first hotel should open by late 2010 or early 2011.

Meeting space the Embassy Suites and Holiday Inn can supplement that at the Von Braun or accommodate small meetings.

The Holiday Inn has 14,000 square feet of meeting space; the Embassy Suites has around half that, including three boardrooms, a 4,784-square-foot ballroom and several executive suites.

Ruth’s Chris handles catering

The Embassy Suites’ Ruth’s Chris Steak House also handles catering, which gives the hotel added appeal. Also enticing for welcome receptions or after-hours parties is a roomy terrace by a canal next to the hotel. It can handle receptions for up to 350.

The Von Braun Center has been a work in progress, with large chunks of meeting space added as demand warranted. The West Hall was built in 1980; the North Hall in 1987 and the South Hall, with its 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, in 1997.

A major renovation, the first ever for the center, is planned for the Von Braun’s arena and its 6,000 permanent seats, and for its 2,153-seat concert hall. The arena project was put out for bids again; work should begin soon on the concert hall, where $5 million will be spent to construct a center aisle, replace seats, add six VIP suites and upgrade lighting and other technology.

The closest off-site venue to the convention center is the Huntsville Museum of Art, built just over a decade ago on a rise next to Big Spring Lake. Plans are being finalized for a major expansion there; by next fall, a two-story addition to the rear of the museum should significantly increase its gallery space and meeting areas.

Big Spring International Park, above, gives downtown Huntsville a refreshing liquid center.  Its major convention venue, the Von Braun Center, left, is across the street from the park; the Huntsville Museum of Art, which is beginning a major expasion, is on a rise next to the park’s lake.

The work should cause little disruption or disuse of the almost 6,000 square feet of space now available. It will also add parking, a big improvement as patrons must now park on the street.

Parking is a problem that will soon be alleviated throughout downtown. Mayor Tommy Battle announced recently that the city will double the amount of free parking in the downtown square.

The art museum is also home to a new restaurant, Pane e Vino (“bread and wine” in Italian), the second Huntsville eatery opened in the last eight months by chef James Boyce, who earned two Mobil Five-Star awards at restaurants in California before moving to Huntsville and opening his Cotton Row restaurant in a three-story 1821 brick building downtown.

Cotton Row’s wine cellar, stocked with 5,000 bottles, is available for wine dinners.

A summertime concert series makes good use of spectacular sunset views at Burritt on the Mountain, a city park with several meeting and event options.

Blasts into the Past

Huntsville’s space programs propel minds into the future. But the 200-year-old city can just as easily blast people into the past.

Downtown Huntsville is a mix of modern, moderate-size office towers and brick storefronts, among them Harrison Brothers Hardware Store, founded in 1879 and the oldest operating hardware store in the state. Run by the local historical foundation, it’s a good place to grab a gift or, with reservations, take a private tour.

Not far from the store, the Historic Huntsville Depot and nearby Roundhouse is an off-site venue duo. The depot looks much as it did in 1860, its walls still covered with scribbles of Confederate soldiers held prisoner there during the Civil War. Groups of up to 125 can have events there.

Barbecues and hoedowns suit the Roundhouse, an airy brick building with few accouterments that has become one of the city’s most demanded venues for laid-back events.

A testament to the city’s preservation efforts are its three historic neighborhoods, on the edge of downtown. All but one of the homes is privately owned, but with the right connections, some homes can be booked for teas or receptions.

Up Round Top Mountain a few miles out of town is Burritt on the Mountain, a 167-acre estate left to the city by Dr. William Henry Burritt.

Burritt on the Mountain is an amalgam: a house museum, a village of saved log structures, a barnyard and woodlands with trails. Meeting groups that adjourn there can make good use of the 1,300-square-foot Trillium Room or an old country church.

A pharmaceutical firm has booked the entire park for a family picnic; Leadership Huntsville has met in the Trillium Room and other groups have gathered beneath tents on the large sloping lawn.

The Burritt Mansion, designed by Burritt with many green features, can be booked for intimate dinners.

Any meeting or event there should include the sunset. Burritt’s position affords one of the best views of the city to the west, and the daily dazzle is one reason the City Lights and Stars concert series held six nights each summer draws big crowds.

His Pane e Vino is more casual, specializing in pizzas and other Italian favorites. Unlike most museum eateries, it will be open for business after the museum closes, enticing diners with an outdoor dining area overlooking the park.

The museum’s Jenny Lane believes the restaurant will help boost museum visitation. “People come here to eat and say, ‘I haven’t been to the museum in awhile; I should go look around.”

More downtown restaurants

Boyce’s additions aren’t the only new dining and enterainment options downtown, according to Judy Ryals, the CVB’s president and CEO.

There are just over 500 restaurants in the area and an increasing number are downtown. “Now you can find live music downtown,” said Ryals. “The number of restaurants downtown used to be around five — now it is around 30.”

The restaurant scene is equally intriguing at Bridge Street Town Centre, the city’s new shopping development on a portion of the Cummings Research Park property off I-565 near the space center and the Huntsville Botanical Gardens.

For groups that meet in this area, Bridge Street is a destination for shopping and entertainment.

It is the home of 15 restaurants, including some surprises like Dolce, an Italian restaurant whose other locations are Atlanta and West Hollywood, Calif.

 “It is kind of like one of those games on Sesame Street, where you try to choose one of the things that doesn’t belong,” said Winters, with a chuckle.

Gondola rides boost wedding business

The open-air shopping area has about 55 stores including national chains like Anthroplogie and J.Jill, and is next to a 10-acre lake, where a gondola offers rides for a fee. The gondola has become a favorite place for marriage proposals.
Also near the lake is the 210-room Westin Huntsville Hotel, which opened a year ago and early this  year earned the AAA Four Diamond rating. At almost 8,000 square feet, its ballroom is one of the largest in the area, and it takes full advantage of the lakeside courtyard that sidles up to the mostly glass prefunction area.

The hotel also has the city’s largest full-service spa, the Westin Heavenly Spa Huntsville, and director Brandon Claypool promises meeting planners that the spa and its 13 treatment rooms “will open early or stay open late for groups.”

A 10-acre lake with gondola rides is among the surprises at Bridge Street Town Centre, Alabama’s first lifestyle center and home to a 210-room Westin hotel.

On the opposite side of I-565, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center touts its venues for “out of this world” events.

With 600 space program artifacts, the center is part museum and part training camp for the 16,000 to 18,000 youth who attend its Space Camps each year. Everything is focused on the U.S. space program, including Huntsville’s contributions to it.

In January 2008, the center opened the home it built for a Saturn V rocket that had sat on the grounds for years.  “It was either take drastic steps to save it, or lose it,” said Al Whitaker, media relations manager.

The new Davidson Center for Space Exploration, essentially built around the rocket, is the center’s new front door. Because it is where visitors buy tickets and see movies in a 3-D digital theater, the center is available for functions only in the evenings.

And what functions it can host, with diners seated beneath and to the sides of the 400-foot rocket, suspended — very well, Whitaker assured — 10 feet above the floor. An adjacent 360-seat 3-D theater can also be used for awards presentations, speeches or films.

Other space center venues include the main exhibit area and its historic space capsules, the Galaxy Dining Room, which overlooks stalwart rockets at the center’s Rocket Park, the Spacedome IMAX theater and its lobby, and the Astrotek building, a futuristic building next to Shuttle Park, where a full-size space shuttle is on display.

In keeping with its futuristic fashion, the center’s team-building programs involve space travel. For example, a group on a simulated shuttle mission might be forced to work its way out of a dire situation. “The end result is that they work more cohesively when they return to the board room,” said Whitaker.

 Groups that have events at the center might meet at the Marriott Huntsville, a 290-room hotel that is on the U.S. Space and Rocket Center grounds. The hotel has 13,390 square feet of meeting space.

To the hotel and center’s east is one of Huntsville’s other favored attractions and meeting venues, a place where, like butterflies, retired engineers and scientists seem to migrate.

The Huntsville Botanical Garden is 112 acres of blooms and beauty, a self-made garden that shows the possibilities when a community rolls up its collective shirt sleeves. “Volunteers are the real story of the garden,” said John Hacker, former marketing director there.

The garden began 20 years ago when a group of local ladies “dug up plants from their yards and sold them to get the gardens started,” said Hacker. Since then, the volunteer rolls have grown to 2,400, with Huntsville citizens pitching in to do everything from paint murals in the garden’s 3,600-square-foot arbor, its largest indoor event space, to creating lighted displays for a holiday light show that draws about half a million people.

That’s where the former space engineers and scientists come in. Retired from jobs that put them in charge of man’s fate in space, they are now happy to rig up animated displays to delight children and their families.
“A rocket scientist is in charge of our Galaxy of Lights display,” said Hacker, “a nuclear physicist is his assistant. We couldn’t do the garden the way we do withot those guys.”

The scientists seem to typify Huntsvlle as a whole, a city that refused to sit idle, and instead, puts its brains to work for the betterment of many.