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Military relocation should boost population and area’s economy

By Deangelo McDaniel · 340-2469

The next time you meet a stranger on the streets, speak.

And, if you hear someone who doesn’t talk with an Alabama accent, smile. You may be looking at your new neighbor.

The visits to North Alabama from families who are affected by Base Realignment Closure Commission recommendations are into their second year.

By 2011, the U.S. government is moving almost 5,000 military-related jobs to the area. The Tennessee Valley population is estimated to increase from between 15,000 and 20,000.

So, you may be asking why should I care? That’s simple, said John Seymour, president and chief executive officer of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce.

“These families are going to be our neighbors and church members,” he said. “They are going to have children in our schools and be involved with social organizations. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re going to see growth like the area has never seen before.”

In November 2005, President Bush signed BRAC panel recommendations to relocate the headquarters of the Army Materiel Command, Army Space and Missile Defense Command and most of the Missile Defense Agency work from the Washington, D.C., area to Huntsville.

Under BRAC, the Pentagon must complete relocating military units and organizations by 2011.

An estimated 53 percent of the jobs coming to Redstone Arsenal are defense contractors. Another 38 percent will be Department of Defense civilian jobs.

Most of the jobs pay $60,000 and higher annually. Assuming 100 families moved to the Decatur area, that puts potentially at least $6 million worth of disposable income in the economy.

This will increase the tax base for city and county governments, giving them more revenue to spend on parks, roads and schools.

The increased population will also make it easier for chambers in Lawrence, Limestone and Morgan counties to increase the national restaurants and retailers in the area.

“BRAC impacts everybody and we all should care,” Seymour said.

Marine Lt. Col. Paul Fontanez, his wife, Tamara, and their eight children visited the Tennessee Valley in August.

“We looked in the Huntsville area, but all it took was just one look at Decatur to know where we were moving to,” Tamara Fontanez said.

Paul Fontanez works for the Missile Defense Agency. His family lives in Stafford, Va. His job is relocating to Huntsville sometime this summer.

“When we visited Decatur, everybody was so nice,” Tamara Fontanez said. “People smiled. They spoke to us. The hospitality was wonderful and people made us feel really welcomed.”

Now, you know why it’s important to speak and smile.

Tour of schools

Jeanne Payne, director of curriculum of Decatur City Schools, gave the Fontanez family a tour of Decatur schools.

She expects the Decatur area to get at least 10 percent of the BRAC families, in part, because of the education system.

Payne has made three BRAC recruiting trips with the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce.

IB program

One of the first things families ask about is the education system, she said. With its International Baccalaureate program, Decatur is a leader.

Payne said most of the schools in the Arlington, Va., have IB programs. A large percentage of the relocating families live in that area.

“The majority of these families want their families to be in IB schools,” she said.

Retired Col. Mike McKean agrees. He lives in the Danville area and is helping the chamber with BRAC recruiting.

“Everybody in Northern Virginia knows what IB means,” he said.

Education may be the big carrot local leaders have to dangle in front of BRAC families. But, there are many others such as housing, recreation and health care, said McKean, who works as a defense consultant.

He said the majority of the families moving here live in homes costing between $300,000 and $600,000. McKean said he owned a “little bitty house” in Virginia with no property.

“For the first time, there are families, because of cost, who will be able to own a home with property,” he said.

The Decatur area offers choices from new subdivisions to townhouses to historic districts and multi-acre farms.

Depending on where you build, the cost of new home construction is between $93 per square foot for a home in Trinity to $105 per square foot for a home in Hartselle.

For existing homes, the average selling price is between $69 per square foot to $78 per square foot.

Strong housing market

Re/Max Realtor Mark Hampton of Hartselle said the area’s housing market is strong with homes available from 1,700 to 4,000 square feet.

“I don’t think these families are going to have any problems finding the kind of housing they are looking for,” he said.

Jeff Compton, a civilian government employee, and his wife, Bonnie, had no problem finding their dream home in Hartselle.

They said homes in the area are equitably priced and easily accessible to main roads leading to Huntsville

“This is a big plus for this area,” Bonnie Compton said.

As for recreation, the Tennessee Valley is a gem. Parks and recreation departments in Lawrence, Limestone and Morgan counties offer a variety of activities from youth soccer, softball, baseball and football to adult softball and some of the best golf courses in the state.

In the past five years, city and county governments have invested more than $30 million in recreation facilities.

“What these families do when they are not at work is important,” said Seymour, who added that the Decatur area has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state.

Alabama’s unemployment rate remained below the national average of 4.2 percent in 2006, with Limestone County’s being 3 percent for the year.

With at least 35 Fortune 500 companies in the Decatur area, BRAC spouses shouldn’t have any problem finding employment, especially in the medical field where local hospitals say there is a shortage of nurses.

‘Spirit of God’

The Fontanezes said the Decatur area has everything most BRAC families are looking for, including church life. They said they “felt the spirit of God” while attending Calvary Assembly in Decatur and were impressed with the charitableness of the church.

Religious life in the area reflects the Christian faith held by early settlers and fanned by their preachers, evangelists and missionaries. Many early churches came out of frontier camp meetings, log houses and brush arbors.

Baptists and Methodists have been the most numerous denominations for generations. Several churches have more than 1,000 members.

Independent churches of Christ are the third-largest group. Charismatic churches have grown in recent years, with one church planning to relocate on a 182-acre site.

Morgan County’s Catholic community has expanded to a new campus in Southwest Decatur.

Several area Christian schools offer education for preschool, elementary and high-school-age students.

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