Visit reveals Huntsville’s strengths, insecurities

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If you’ve looked at our cover this week, you’ll have noticed I spent a little bit of time in Huntsville this month.

While there, I was able to tour NASA, see the place where we tested the first rockets to go into space, and visit some of the fastest-growing companies in the country.

I also saw the Space Center, but I didn’t get to go to Space Camp, which is hugely popular with the kids.

If you haven’t been, I’d recommend it, especially if you’re in the aerospace business. I really liked what I saw. The skyline’s impressive, it was easy to get around and you can’t beat Southern hospitality.

But the highlight of my trip wasn’t the glitzy office buildings or the high-tech wonder of NASA; it was the people.

Take Dr. Marvin Carroll, for instance. The CEO of Tec-Masters, a national company with seven locations and nearly 300 workers, Carroll runs his company based with a combination of technical knowledge needed for high-tech engineering projects and a homespun wit.

“It’s more about attitude than aptitude,” he said. “Companies are all about the people.”

He’s stayed in Huntsville because, he said, it’s the best place to perform his kind of government work. But the environment isn’t for the faint-hearted.

“You have to have a good sense of how the government and the DoD work,” he said. “If you don’t, you’re going to meet extreme difficulties.”

Carroll feels so strongly that Tec-Master owes its success to its people that he changed his business cards. They now read “servant” instead of  “CEO.”

Another person I met, Dr. Kader Frendi, was a small boy in Algeria on July 20, 1969 — the date Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. He was captivated, and made up his mind to work for NASA one day.

“Can you imagine — a Third World boy wanting to join the U.S. space program?” Frendi asked. “That’s why having a space program is so crucial — it serves as a symbol of hope for the entire world.”

Today, Frendi is the director of the University of Alabama at Huntsville’s aerospace engineering program.

Frendi ended up in Huntsville because of the university job. After more than 25 years at NASA in Virginia, he wanted to help train the next generation of rocket scientists.

People like Frendi and Carroll make it easy to market the city, chamber officials say.

But attracting the two men to Huntsville wasn’t easy. And recruiting remains a challenge, said Dynetics CEO Marc Bendickson. Business leaders in Huntsville are envious of one thing about Colorado Springs — they imagine it’s easier here to attract workers.

“Who doesn’t want to live in Colorado — mountains, skiing, camping?” Bendickson asked. “But we have to do some selling to even get college recruits here. Once they’re here, they’re sold on the place. But we have to get them here. I imagine companies in Colorado Springs don’t have that problem.”

Despite the Springs’ welcoming vistas, the economic picture isn’t quite as rosy as people think down South. Huntsville’s wages are rising at a faster rate than in the Springs, and a dollar goes farther there.

The city is small, but welcoming. It’s a “manageable size,” Bendickson said. Yet, there are still things to do — museums, symphony, music festivals, fishing, camping. It boasts two of the most-visited places in the entire state — the U.S. Space Center and the Botanic Gardens. It has a world-class performing arts center, and an art museum that’s expanding.

All that’s due to the kind of people who live in the city, officials say.

“Frankly, Huntsville’s great because it isn’t full of Huntsvillians,” Frendi said. “Everyone here is from somewhere else. It leads to fascinating conversations over dinner.”

But don’t go in July. The temperature seldom got below 100 during the day in the three days I was there. It was sticky and hot. It was, in fact, miserable.

“That’s only three months out of the year,” said Dr. O’Neal Smitherman, executive vice president of HudsonAlpha, a big fan of the city. “The rest of the time, it’s very pleasant. It doesn’t snow.”

Yeah, well, I’d have killed for a bit of snow.

Amy Gillentine can be reached at 719-3298-5205 or at amy.gillentine@csbj.com. Friend her on Facebook.