Tommy Battle’s desk on the eighth floor of Huntsville’s city hall had no mercy Tuesday morning.
When Huntsville’s mayor showed up for work – the first day of knowing the Rocket City had been declared the nation’s best place to live – the desk was still there, still holding the piles of tasks to be addressed without regard to any kudos the city might have received.
Related: Huntsville is the best place to live in United States, according to U.S. News & World Report
And so as the mayor talked about the atta-boys from U.S. News & World Report, he talked about his desk, too.
“The accolades are great, the ratings are great,” Battle said.
“They’re very good. But you still have more to do. You see it every day. You walk in this morning and there’s five things on your desk, things that you really want to get done, that you really need to do. There are things to be revisited that we’ve done in the past that we need to get better at in the future.
“So that you never end up with finishing it up. But this does kind of validate that your strategy and plan that you’ve got in place is a workable strategy and plan that you know and that you’re going in the right direction.”
There were no bottles of champagne at the Tuesday morning press conference, held hours after the announcement by U.S. News became public. If there was any back-slapping or high-fiving, it was done behind closed doors.
Instead, the celebration was more muted – Battle commended the community as a whole for the achievement and acknowledged that, as he said, there was a certain validation that came with being No. 1. At the same time, the mayor observed being No. 1 was a sort of snapshot in time and there would be other snapshots in the future.
And how would Huntsville look in those moments?
“We’re the best right now,” Battle said. “That’s history. That’s in the history book. So now we got to work on what are we going to do for next year. We’re going continue to push to try to get better and better.”
The mayor offered, as an example, that a team from city hall traveled to Greenville, S.C., a couple of months ago to pick some brains and maybe borrow an idea or two. Greenville is renowned for its revitalized development of the area along the Reedy River that winds through the city’s downtown.
“They came back with ideas about how to improve our city, what we can do that Greenville does well that we can emulate,” Battle said. “Other cities coming to us that look and say, hey, they’re doing this real well, we need to emulate that, they take that back home.
“But being best is not a one-time thing. It’s something that you continue to work on day after day after day, because there’s always someone nipping at your heels trying to be better than you.”
U.S. News analyzed the country’s top 150 largest metro areas in compiling the ratings. The Huntsville metro also includes the cities of Madison and Athens.
Huntsville scored a 7 out of 10 in the ratings, faring best when it came to housing affordability and job market.
The top rating comes less than a year after Huntsville surpassed Birmingham to become the state’s largest city with a population of more than 215,000. It’s been a mantra of Battle, when asked about the population growth, to say that Huntsville is more interested in being the best city and not necessarily the biggest.
Jeff Gronberg, past board chair of the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce, even borrowed that phrase Tuesday before Battle could.
“As the mayor has said many times before, we are now the largest city in Alabama, but that’s never what we’ve strived to be,” said Gronberg, a Huntsville native who is CEO and president of deciBel Research. “What we strive to be is the best city that we can be. And I think that this recognition, really kind of points to that.”
Now comes the matter of how Huntsville best capitalizes on this momentum.
“This type of recognition is going to be a tremendous asset as we continue to retain and to recruit workers into Huntsville,” Gronberg said.
“We have been underpinned by a tremendous amount of work out at Redstone Arsenal and they are kind of the jewel of what we have here. And so from an aerospace and defense standpoint, we continue to try to bring great talent into the city. And things like this are going to help tremendously in that.
“Not only that, but the chamber and all of the governments regionally have been very concentrated on making sure that we have a full and robust economy. We’ve been able to bring in things like advanced manufacturing, the life sciences, IT big data, things like that, that allow for our region to have a broad base of support across the entire economic spectrum.”
It starts, of course, as a simple brag moment for the city and one more piece of evidence to convince people to give Huntsville a look. The more substantive work is still to come but it also bolsters national recruiting and promotion that the city and the chamber has been engaged in over the past year.
“As of last night, we were updating all of our online graphics, our digital ads on our website,” said Lucia Cape, senior vice president of economic development at the Huntsville chamber.
“So it’s an opportunity to make more news about it. So anything that gets into the news cycle about Huntsville in a positive way, it’s good for our recruiting efforts and just raising awareness.
“We’re continuing to get the name of Huntsville, first and foremost, in people’s minds. And then we connect it with jobs and connect with quality of life. And those are people we want to see this and say, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about Huntsville.’ And now they do.”
But just like Battle’s desk and its work that’s always waiting, that work is the reason Huntsville was talking Tuesday about being No. 1.
“It’s a recognition of all the work that we have been doing for years,” Cape said. “And none of this happened yesterday or overnight. So it is something that we do want to celebrate. But we only got to that point because of the work and we’ll stay there because of the work.”