Huntsville, Alabama and Pace : How Innovation Spurs Growth

By Chad Emerson, President and CEO of Downtown Huntsville

When people think of the most innovative cities in America, they probably don’t think of Huntsville, Alabama. But they should.

Huntsville was named the fastest growing technology market in the United States in 2017, with an astounding 309% year-over-year growth in technology jobs. That’s no surprise to those of us who know Huntsville’s history. The city has been a tech hub since the 1950s, when the United States government sent a group of scientists here to ignite the country’s early space program. This group eventually became NASA, which has long served as a magnet for the nation’s tech savvy and as a beacon of our innovative nature. But with fewer than 200,000 people, Huntsville can be overshadowed by tech hubs like San Francisco, Boston and Austin. We’re working hard to change that by modernizing and revitalizing our community.  

One of our most exciting new initiatives was the introduction of dockless bike share in early 2018. Bike sharing has been taking the country by storm, but we were wary of some of the well publicized backlash. We searched for a system that fit our view of ourselves as a forward-thinking city. Ultimately, we chose the Pace dockless bike share system. Pace bikes can be unlocked easily on a rider’s phone, providing a more seamless experience for our tech-savvy residents who expect nothing less from us. While it’s fairly easy for pedestrians to walk from one side of our compact downtown to the other, we saw in Pace an opportunity to introduce a transportation alternative that also augments the downtown experience. Now, residents and visitors alike have a fun new way to explore our growing city.

Data from the program shows particularly high ridership on the weekends, especially when the weather is nice. With bike share, residents and visitors can discover the historic areas of Huntsville or travel to the furthest corners of downtown with ease. For some, the program is not only used for recreational purposes, but also for an efficient, convenient way to regularly travel from point A to point B—such as from home to work each morning and home again, or to the grocery store each week. Met with overwhelmingly positive feedback, the program has successfully improved both leisure and transportation in the city.

While bike share has been welcomed in Huntsville by people of all ages, we believed the forward-thinking, sleeker design of the dockless Pace program would be especially appealing to younger riders, and we were right. We are one of many mid-sized cities hoping to get on young people’s radar because we know that attracting and retaining youthful talent is important to our community’s long-term health. Fortunately for us, young people are increasingly looking to move to mid-sized cities, citing reasons like the lower cost of living and a stronger sense of community than they find in bigger metro areas. While these factors are important, we in Huntsville understand that they’re not sufficient on their own. That’s why we’ve worked hard to offer both a happening environment as well as opportunity so young people will consider us a viable place to live and work.

Though an innovative bike share program certainly contributes to the overall vibrance of Huntsville, it’s by no means our only initiative. Two years ago, we launched a comprehensive, ongoing plan to promote neighborhood development, economic growth and the modernization of public transportation. More recently, we signed an agreement to bring 5G technology to the city, and invested millions into the airport to accommodate easier travel.

Each of these initiatives capitalizes on our existing strengths and sends the message that we are committed to long-term growth and innovation. For mid-sized cities to become appealing destination, they have to find their own ways of building on their unique strengths to communicate that they are an interesting and innovative place to live, work and play. Americans have tremendous choices about where they’d like to live. If we want them to choose our cities, we have to give them a good reason. Pace certainly helps Huntsville do that.