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6 months ago

Gadsden officials hope the Venue will be ‘crown jewel’ on waterfront

Gadsden Mayor Sherman Guyton stands on the Riverwalk at Coosa Landing. (Karim Shamsi-Basha / Alabama NewsCenter)

While growing up in Gadsden, Kay Moore rarely would venture to the Coosa River, which flows under the Meighan Bridge just blocks from downtown.

“There was an old smelting plant, a nasty and smelly place,” she recalls. “There was a trailer park there, too, but nothing that would draw you down to the river.”

But after Ronnie Watkins Ford opened along the river in the late 1990s, things slowly began to change.

“Little by little, something would be torn down and something else would be built,” Moore says. “Nothing major, but things that eventually began to change the look, and certainly nothing to this scale.”

Moore is referring to the Venue at Coosa Landing, a multimillion-dollar project to renovate a 70,000-square-foot former Kmart, turning it into a conference center that would draw waterfront retail and restaurants.

A rendering shows The Venue at Coosa Landing, a $12.5 million conference center being developed along the Coosa River in Gadsden. (Cohen Carnaggio Reynolds)

“At this point, it would be what you would have to call the crown jewel,” Moore says of the $12.5 million project. “There’s been nothing done here on this scale.”

The Venue is the brainchild of Gadsden Mayor Sherman Guyton, a former real estate developer who went after the Kmart property after taking office 12 years ago.

“City Hall is right across the street, and the Kmart has been closed since I was in office,” he says. “I had my eye on it for a long time. We bought the property, and we’re going to use about 50,000 square feet of it for the conference center. This will be a big facility that can be partitioned off and host up to three events at a time.”

The Venue at Coosa Landing project, which is being paid for through a bond issue expected to be completed in the spring, comes on the heels of the $2.5 million Riverwalk at Coosa Landing, which was completed last January. The Riverwalk, which runs alongside the Kmart property, features a nearly mile-long series of boardwalks, piers, docks, pavilions and walking trails.

“We’ve gone a long time without taking advantage of the river running through our city,” Guyton says. “We want to develop the river on both sides.”

The Riverwalk and Venue projects, both on the same side of the river, should spur development on both sides, Guyton says. The 14 acres owned by the city will feature more than 20,000 square feet of retail and restaurant possibilities, including lots that could handle waterfront restaurants. The city owns 8 acres on the other side of the river (the downtown side) that could also be developed, Guyton says.

That’s music to the ears of Tena King, who has run King’s Olive Oil in the heart of downtown Gadsden for four years, and is the incoming president of the Etowah County Chamber of Commerce.

“We already have bass tournaments and some smaller conventions and stuff like that here, and we’ve found that people love to walk around our downtown,” she says. “Our downtown is already pretty vibrant, but I think this is really going to help us with opening up more opportunities on the river. Once we get the convention center, people will see the beautiful river and landscape. I don’t think people realize how beautiful it is, especially out-of-towners.”

Guyton says about 300,000 people live within a 25-minute drive of Gadsden, and the redone riverfront should draw a lot of them to town.

Moore, who is director of Downtown Gadsden, a nonprofit group dedicated to development, is excited about the possibilities.

“Anytime you can bring in something of this magnitude – thousands and thousands of people – it can only be of benefit to downtown,” she says.

Already, downtown Gadsden hosts popular First Friday events, which feature hundreds of classic cars, food and drink from area restaurants and live music. In addition, the city OK’d a more-than-eight-block entertainment district, which allows people to walk and drink alcohol from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. every day.

It’s all an effort to draw people to Gadsden and take advantage of the Coosa River just blocks away.

“We’ve taken the river for granted for so long, as you tend to do when you live somewhere,” Moore says. “When Chattanooga redid its riverfront, we said, ‘Hey, we’ve got the river here. Why don’t we do that?’ It’s going to be a boon for the whole economy. It’s going to help everyone.”

The Venue will be central to those efforts, King says.

“Knowing that we will have a facility where we can actively pursue bringing out-of-towners so they can fall in love with our town, that’s a big deal,” she says.

Like Moore, Shane Ellison, an administrative aide to Mayor Guyton, grew up in Gadsden. He, too, says he’s never seen anything like what’s planned for the Venue.

“It’s huge,” he says. “I guess it’s the biggest development ever on this part of the river.”

This story originally appeared in Alabama Power’s Shorelines.

BY THE NUMBERS

$12.5 million – The estimated cost of the Venue at Coosa Landing project

50,000 square feet – The size of the convention center

20,000 square feet – Space available for retail and restaurants

$2.5 million – Cost of the recently completed Riverwalk

1 mile – Amount of walking trails, piers and boardwalks that are part of the riverfront

(By Alec Harvey, courtesy Alabama NewsCenter)

10 hours ago

Alabama apps: App2Talk helps nonverbal children communicate

As children grow they learn to communicate at first through sound and body movements before advancing to words and language.

But for children with nonverbal autism, communicating needs or wants can be more difficult.

A nonprofit in Alabama is working to help these children by developing a mobile app to assist with communication. Based in Mobile, Autism2Ability aims to develop programs for families with special-needs children.

Autism2Ability founder Ray Miller saw how these families needed tools to enable clearer communication, so the nonprofit partnered with an Apple developer and began building the new technology.

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After years of development, App2Talk launched on the app market in November 2014 for a one-time cost of $99.99.

Miller said the hard work was well worth it given that 25 percent of children with autism don’t speak.

“I felt there was a call for me to do something – it was providential,” Miller said.

The app has many customizable pictures allowing words to be communicated visually when the child needs something.

For example, if a child wants popcorn, he or she presses the popcorn image on a smartphone or tablet and a voice says the image pressed, meaning parents and educators can hear the request.

Since its official launch, the app has evolved with each update.

Miller works with experts in various fields while developing updates for the app, including speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists and special-education teachers.

He said each update makes the app more robust and ensures the autistic community will get maximum usefulness while using App2Talk.

“These children are very smart people. A lot of them just need an outlet to show that off, so we try to make sure we give them the best one,” Miller said.

The three levels of learning on App2Talk – elementary, intermediate and advanced – give children an opportunity to grow and progress when communicating. The app also automatically tracks their progress, giving parents and educators an avenue to analyze what the child has mastered and what’s still difficult.

Educators like Jennifer Williams see positive feedback when using the app.

Williams is the behavior specialist manager at the Mobile County Public School System and uses the device when she’s working with kids. Because many behavioral problems are rooted in a lack of communication, she has used App2Talk to help bridge gaps with children undergoing struggles they can’t necessarily voice.

Williams said a child has also used the app to communicate while in pain.

“Throughout his childhood, the pain was indescribable. It was beyond words,” Williams said. “The child couldn’t tell anyone where he was hurting or how much the pain stung, and the frustration would lead to self-inflicted damage. App2Talk changed that.”

Using the app, the child selected pictures of the body parts in pain, and the parents were finally able to help the child.

“We know the need is there,” Miller said. “We just have to keep pushing, and keep helping out the kids because they’re our future.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

12 hours ago

What’s in a name? ‘It Don’t Matter’

It don’t matter whether you’re on your way to the Gulf, or you’re a native Crenshaw Countian who loves a meat-and-three. The restaurant with the eye-catching name is sure to make you want to pull in.

The “It Don’t Matter” family restaurant in Highland Home, 27 miles south of Montgomery, has the best thing an eatery could have going for it besides good food: an unusual name and location, location, location. “It Don’t Matter” sits directly on U.S. Highway 331, the main drag from north Alabama to the Florida beaches at Destin, Fort Walton, Seaside and the western end of Panama City.

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If you’re heading south, the restaurant is perched on the left on a hill as 331 slips in to Highland Home, an unincorporated town of 1,200 in the very northern edge of Crenshaw County and a stone’s throw from the Montgomery County line. Owner Pete Hayes is keenly aware he has a ready-made clientele of beach-goers driving in front of his daily breakfast; a lunch/dinner buffet of Southern-style meats and vegetables; a seafood buffet on Saturdays; and hand-cut steaks Friday and Saturday nights.

“I’ve had people come in and say, ‘We passed by and turned around and came back. We saw the name and all the cars and said let’s go back and try it,’” Hayes says.

But what they really want to know is where the restaurant got its funky name.

Hayes says it came from original owner John Faulk, a local homebuilder, who would respond, “It don’t matter” when his wife asked what he wanted for dinner every night. Faulk built the restaurant in 2000 on the site of an abandoned gas station that was long ago the site of Highland Home school.

The story of how Hayes acquired the 200-seat restaurant – and Hayes himself – is as interesting as the name.

He was a professional wrestler in the early 1980s alongside the likes of “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes and the “Fabulous Freebirds” Michael Hayes and Terry Gordy in the heyday of Georgia Championship Wrestling.  GCW, later called World Championship Wrestling (WCW), with popular announcer Gordon Solie, drew a national following coast-to-coast in the early days of Atlanta cable Superstation WTBS. Pete Hayes wrestled as Pete Martin in Atlanta and over the years wearing a mask as the Assassin, the Enforcer, Masked Superstar, Los Lobos and the Skull Master, with tag-team partner the Bone Crusher.

Hayes, 58, grew up in the nearby town of Panola. Other than his wrestling career, he has worked most of his life in kitchen maintenance for what has grown to 52 Montgomery County schools.

Every afternoon, Hayes makes the 27-mile trip to the restaurant to make sure everything is going well. His wife, Liz, helps manage, too.

His path to buying “It Don’t Matter” in 2005 wasn’t exactly in a straight line. His son, “Little Pete,” went there to work for Faulk as manager. When Faulk realized it was too much to run both the restaurant and his construction business, he shut down the restaurant, Hayes recalls.

Little Pete said he would manage the restaurant if his father bought and reopened it, which Hayes did. Little Pete, however, eventually went to nursing school, ending his management of “It Don’t Matter” and leaving his father with the restaurant.

Which didn’t matter to Hayes.

“I really like this business because I like talking to people,” Hayes said as one of the main reasons he kept the restaurant. He isn’t a silent owner. He is very visible, socializing with customers and helping replenish the buffet. He even cooks, with steaks his forte.

While the name of the restaurant is fun, and Hayes has plenty of it, things haven’t always been that way. In 2012, the restaurant burned to the ground in just a few hours after it was struck by lightning, taking 8 1/2 months to build back.

Hayes says he will likely retire from the Montgomery County school system in five years, but has no plans to retire from the restaurant business anytime soon. In fact, he recently opened his second restaurant – Front Porch Barbecue – at the Fort Deposit exit on Interstate 65 some 15 miles away.

“The biggest challenge in this business is to make your customers happy,” he says. “You may make 150 of them happy one night, and you make one mad, and they tell 1,000 people. So we try to put out the very best product we can and make people feel like they’re at home.

“It does matter to us if you enjoy it.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

12 hours ago

VIDEO: Trump/Putin summit, Alabama campaigns go negative and lose, no hope, and more on Guerrilla Politics!

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and Dr. Waymon Burke take you through this week’s biggest political stories, including:

— Did President Trump mess up the Vladimir Putin summit?

— Did Alabama candidates who went negative cost themselves their races?

— Is there any evidence a “blue wave” is ready to hit Alabama?

Candidate for Lieutenant Governor State Rep. Will Ainsworth joins Jackson and Burke to discuss his victory over Twinkle Cavanaugh and the upcoming general election.

Jackson closes the show with a “Parting Shot” directed at Twinkle Cavanaugh, who thinks a boat citation is an “arrest” worthy of an attack ad.

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13 hours ago

5 ways Alabama researchers are taking on aerospace challenges

Universities across Alabama are helping to shape the future of the global aerospace industry.

From complex research projects to intensive training for future pilots and engineers, these institutions are making a significant impact on the journey to conquer skies and space.

As global aerospace industry leaders gather at the 2018 Farnborough International Airshow, it’s time to take a look at five interesting projects happening inside labs and classrooms across the state:

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‘MARSBEES’

An assistant engineering professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville recently received a 2018 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Award for his proposal involving robotic bumble-bee-sized flapping-winged fliers to aid in the exploration of Mars.

Dr. Chang-kwon Kang is collaborating on the project with other researchers at UAH, as well as those from George Washington University and the Tokyo University of Science. The proposal features the Marsbee, whose large cicada-like wings have the ability to hover in the Martian atmosphere. It’s also equipped with sensors and wireless communication devices.

“Flying on Mars is challenging because of the ultra-low density in the Martian atmosphere. Our preliminary work shows that bio-inspired aerodynamic mechanisms can help in generating sufficient lift to fly on Mars,” Kang said.

“One of our main goals for the first phase is to experimentally demonstrate that these Marsbees can lift off their own weight in Martian density conditions in the vacuum chamber of UAH’s Propulsion Research Center.”

He said the long-term goal is to develop swarms of Marsbees that can help with the human exploration on Mars.

Kang’s proposal was one of only 25 selected to receive an award from the NIAC program, which invests in early-stage technology with the potential to revolutionize future space exploration. It provides up to $125,000 in funding over nine months to award winners, and the concepts that succeed in feasibility testing are eligible for Phase II awards.

RFID TECH RESEARCH

 At Auburn University, the new Delta Air Lines Aviation Education Building is expected to open this fall.

The 23,000-square-foot facility, funded with a $6.2 million gift from Delta Air Lines, the Delta Air Lines Foundation and the Jacobson Family Foundation, is the first building designed exclusively for aviation education at Auburn.

It will include more room for growing enrollment and class offerings, as well as state-of-the-art flight simulators, technology-equipped classrooms and faculty offices and workspace.

The gift is also supporting the university’s Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) lab, where scientists conduct research on how specialized sensor technologies can affect a variety of industries. For aviation in particular, such technology is useful in maintenance and safety history, tracking passenger baggage and making air travel safer and more efficient overall.

Also benefiting from the gift is Emerge, a student leadership program at Auburn that hosts monthly speakers focused on values, vision and teamwork.

Auburn’s Department of Aviation is home to one of the longest-standing public flight programs in the U.S.

“We know firsthand how capable Auburn graduates are and look forward to a future with Auburn in which truly, the sky is the limit,” said Paul Jacobson, Delta’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, trustee with the Delta Air Lines Foundation and chair of the Jacobson Family Foundation.

SPACE STATION FREEZERS

A research group at the University of Alabama at Birmingham designs and builds freezers that play key roles in experiments conducted on the International Space Station.

A multi-year contract between NASA and the UAB Engineering Innovation and Technology Development (EITD) research group was recently doubled, giving the group a $50 million cap on work to provide and maintain these cold-stowage units for the ISS.

The freezers are capable of maintaining temperatures as low as negative 160 degrees Celsius, and each line meets specific cold-stowage demands. They are used to store scientific samples and serve as galley refrigerator/freezers for the ISS crew.

The group also monitors the units from its Remote Operations Command Center on the UAB campus.

EITD is comprised of nearly 40 engineers and technicians and led by Dr. Lee Moradi, a UAB engineering professor.

“These contracts are evidence of the quality of personnel we have in our group,” Moradi said. “Our engineers and technicians have an impeccable reputation that has been built over decades, and we have been able to recruit extremely talented young engineers and software developers, including several top UAB students, both graduate and undergraduate.”

ELECTRIC SPACE SAILS

University of South Alabama researcher is studying a form of propulsion that would revolutionize deep space missions.

Dr. Carlos Montalvo, an assistant engineering professor, is conducting research on the electric sail, or E-Sail, which has major implications for aerospace.

“The Electric Sail is a relatively new concept of advanced in-space propulsion,” Montalvo said. “This technology has the potential to provide propellant-less propulsion throughout the solar system. An electric sail deploys multiple long (20 km) tethers that are positively charged. The solar wind interacts with the tethers to provide propulsion.”

Based on the E-Sail’s characteristic acceleration, it can reach the heliopause region, the boundary marking the end of the sun’s influence, in 10 years. By comparison, the characteristic acceleration of a solar sail puts it in the heliopause region in 20 years, while chemical rockets take 24 years.

“The only spacecraft to reach the heliopause region is the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, which reached the heliopause region in 36 years,” Montalvo said. “The increase in performance from a solar sail to an E-Sail lies in the growing sheath width of the electric sail, which grows with distance from the sun.”

E-sails provide a new way for small spacecraft to be used for deep space missions.

“This has never been done before. It would pave the way for small secondary payloads to reach uncharted territories of our universe,” Montalvo said.

TRAINING THE FUTURE WORKFORCE

Tuskegee University’s Aerospace Science Engineering Department is focused on sparking an interest in STEM activities among local students, using the power of flight.

Along with the university’s Mathematics Department, Aerospace Science Engineering hosts a weeklong summer camp, “Fly High Your Math and Science Skills,” for Macon County middle school students.

One of the program’s highlights for the students is flying various missions on a flight simulator.

“The simulator is a favorite for students – it provides hands-on experience and allows us to better connect math and science concepts for them,” said Dr. Javed Khan, head of the Aerospace Science Engineering Department.

The activities also teach critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration and communication skills. In addition, middle school teachers receive science and mathematics education training.

The project is funded by the Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program of the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“This is the second year for the program, and it continues to be an outstanding learning opportunity that will greatly benefit teachers and students alike, as well as prepare students for career opportunities in the STEM fields,” Khan added.

(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)

Public contributes ideas for new Birmingham downtown linear park

Dozens of individuals, plus representatives from local businesses, public agencies and nonprofits expressed themselves Tuesday about what should be in the mix of amenities and activities at a proposed linear park in downtown Birmingham.
Officials with the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) and the City of Birmingham kicked off the first of multiple public sessions aimed at crafting a unique, 31-acre, 10-block-long public space that will live underneath a rebuilt elevated section of Interstate 59/20.

“We want to do something special,” Brandon Johnson, the city’s director of Community Engagement, told the crowd at Boutwell Municipal Auditorium.

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“We want your input. We value your ideas,” said DeJarvis Leonard, ALDOT region engineer.

Dubbed CityWalk BHAM, the public space, running from 15th Street to 25th Street North, near the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, is scheduled to be completed in time for The World Games coming to Birmingham in summer 2021.

“The World Games is a magnificent opportunity for the city, and we think this project can be a welcomed attraction for visitors and natives of Birmingham alike, come 2021,” Leonard said.

Ben Donsky, vice president of  Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, told the audience at the start of the first public session that the project is an opportunity to create a unique public space that offers an enormous variety of activities and programming, serving different audiences at different times of the day. One of the project consultants, Biederman has helped design or redevelop numerous public spaces around the country, including Bryant Park in New York City, Salesforce Park in San Francisco and Canalside in Buffalo, New York.

“We want to build something that is sustainable, that will be treasured for generations,” Donsky said.

Participants in the first session moved among six viewing stations, where they could examine conceptual images of different activities and elements that could be incorporated into CityWalk. They ranged from skateboarding to walking paths and playgrounds, a dog park, a farmers’ market, cafés and music stages.

Donsky said programming at CityWalk also could range broadly, from exercise classes for seniors, to art and music events for adults and children, to food stalls for downtown workers on their lunch hour. “We want to have lots of variety,” he said.

“We think this could be an economic generator for the city and a regional attraction … from every demographic and every age level,” Donsky added.

Participants could mark their preferences among the many images spread on the tables – or suggest their own ideas.

Donsky said few cities have created public spaces of this proposed magnitude underneath a rebuilt highway. “It’s really groundbreaking.”

A comprehensive price tag for the project hasn’t been finalized, but an estimated $15 million to $20 million is expected to be available from state and federal transportation coffers for construction. Officials hope to add to that amount with local support, along with corporate and philanthropic dollars that could help to provide resources for ongoing events and programming.

In addition to the three public sessions held Tuesday at Boutwell, a second round is set for July 24 at the Birmingham Crossplex. Additional public meetings also could be scheduled. More information is available at a new website, http://citywalkbham.com/, and a new Facebook page, where additional details are expected to be shared from the public sessions.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)