Excitement popping out everywhere
by Michael Kelley
From what started more than 150 years ago as a sleepy cotton town on the western edge of Madison County, the City of Madison has mushroomed into perhaps the fastest growing city in Alabama and eighth in population of all Alabama cities.
Madison Mayor Paul Finley takes pride in peeling off the statistics. “When you think that as recently as the 1990 census we were only some 14,000, it really makes you stand up and take notice. We doubled to 29,000 in the 2000 census and jumped to more than 43,000 in the 2010 census. We estimate we’ll top 52,000 in the 2020 census.” Looking out just over 20 years, Finley foresees a city of 75,000 by 2040, which would make Madison the sixth or seventh largest city in the state.
Most cities yearn for growth, but not all are prepared for the challenges growth brings. Madison’s can-do attitude has allowed it to step up to the challenges of growth rate in an exciting way. Infrastructure needs must be met, and a drive anywhere around Madison today brings one into contact with road construction, sewer or drainage projects. Subdivision developers eye every parcel of undeveloped land, with commercial development not far behind. Madison has added more than a thousand new homes since 2010, a number that will increase dramatically by 2025.
This burgeoning suburban population with high disposable incomes feeds a strong current of retail sales. Finley points to sales tax growth that has averaged a compounded 7.5% growth rate over the past ten years.
Madison draws families. Hundreds gravitate to the city each year, drawn by the City’s proximity to Redstone Arsenal and Cummings Research Park, with their burgeoning technical and aerospace industries. And of course, they come for the city’s excellent school system, a system that consistently wins top honors for quality of education and associated programs.
Top Schools, Lowest crime
It was just over 20 years ago, in 1998, when city leaders decided to break away from the Madison County school system and go on their own. Now among the 10 largest school systems in Alabama with 11,300 students and more than 1200 employees, Madison City Schools now boasts two high schools, two middle schools, seven elementary schools, and a stand-alone Pre-K center.
It’s the quality of education that makes the system such a powerful magnet. Like a championship football team, Madison schools now take top awards in all rankings of Alabama schools. The December 2018 Alabama Unified Report on the state’s schools awarded an A to every school in the Madison City System. Madison High School scholars consistently rank among the state’s best, with Madison City Schools producing more National Merit Scholars in 2017 than any other Alabama system regardless of size. Bob Jones High School produced five U.S. Presidential scholars for 2019, while across town three young scholars helped James Clemens High School win the 2019 Alabama Scholar’s Bowl competition.
While right at the top in educational rankings, Madison is near the lowest in violent crimes. 2018 rankings by the SafeHome.org, which uses FBI data from more than 13,000 U.S. cities with population of 22,000 or more, ranked Madison 5th in the state in overall safety. Madison joined Vestavia Hills, Daphne, Pelham and Alabaster in having overall safety scores in excess of 80, considered “extremely safe.”
A city that owes its growth to the rise of technology has embraced technology to improve the quality of life for its citizens. For example, Madison is among a relative handful of Alabama cities using unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) for a multitude of purposes.
With nearly 30 miles of streams and major drainage ways within its city limits, flooding can be a problem. City Engineer Gary Chynoweth uses drones to check city streams for blockages after major rain events. The Police and Fire Departments are exploring the use of drones to inspect burning buildings from the air, or to search wooded areas for fugitives or missing children.
“This is still in the experimental phase,” explains Madison Fire Chief David Bailey, “but the results have been promising and we’re on the cusp of launching this for 2020.”
The Board of Education has begun to educate children in community risk reduction. Taking advantage of the growing fascination among kids for virtual reality, a new school program begins with kindergarten children and moves forward in a stepped fashion to educate them on fire awareness, how to escape from burning buildings, and situations that could arise in modern suburban life. “We take advantage of kids’ tendencies towards being digitally focused,” says Bailey.
Trash Pandas Stadium Key Feature of Town Madison
Madison’s big story, of course, is luring the Trash Panda and the return of major league baseball to the Tennessee Valley.
That’s been the big news for the past year, as excitement has swirled around the minor league baseball team moving to Madison. What has been known as the Mobile Bay Bears decided in 2018 to pull up stakes and relocate to the glitzy new sports complex currently under construction near I-565 and Zierdt Road, where they’ll play their first home game in April 2020.
The team’s new stadium, clearly visible from I-565, will anchor the nearly 500-acre development along Highway 20 and Zierdt Road called Town Madison. The stadium will be the centerpiece of, as Finley describes it, a “work-play-live area that will grow for the next ten years.” Joining the Trash Panda stadium will be Margaritaville, the latest in a string of fun dining and entertainment venues launched years ago by singer Jimmy Buffet. A new 150 room hotel will soon be under construction, and will be joined by condominium complexes, shopping areas, and other entertainment venues.
It will also host a convention venue for the City of Madison. “At present we have no place in Madison to have a meeting of more than 100 people,” says Finley. “But this will give us a place to support major events for Madison and the entire Tennessee Valley.” Plans call for a club room with seating for up to 400, breakout rooms, executive suites, and a concert venue. Outdoor areas will be arranged to host outdoor concerts, movies, car shows and similar events.
New developments planned for historic downtown Madison and continued residential and retail growth will continue to propel Madison on its growth trajectory, making it one of the top draws in Alabama.