Full Speed Ahead

Order a latte and settle into a seat at Prevail Union in Montgomery, Ala., a sleek, modern coffee shop tucked inside the recently renovated circa 1929 Kress Building (once a department store, now loft condos). Take a look around. A cross section of the capital city fills this buzzing downtown spot—seasoned politicians, young professionals, artists, entrepreneurs, maybe a few airforce members from Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base. Both the place and its customers are evidence of the energy in Montgomery, a vibrancy that’s feeding off strategic collaborations and forging a culture of innovation.

You might see Steven Lambert there. The cofounder of Handshake Union, a branding and design studio, came to Montgomery in 2012 and is a cheerleader for the city’s potential. When Lambert talks about the area’s present and future, he describes Montgomery as place that is candid about its racist past but has numerous positives that are important to remember. “Montgomery has a long record of innovators and is the site of multiple firsts, like the Lightning Line, the country’s first electric street car system,” Lambert says. “Look at how the Civil Rights movement was funded here, and you’ll see examples of social entrepreneurs.”

Today Montgomery is inspiring and attracting a new generation of economic game changers. Technology is their tool, and the city has laid the necessary groundwork with TechMGM, a public-private initiative that’s investing in transformative infrastructure to kickstart tech-related ventures. With downtown roots, TechMgM is building on the area’s rich history.

Prevail Union and the Kress building are just the latest highlights in a downtown revitalization that began in the early 2000s. That push to reinvigorate the city center has brought a renewed recognition of the compelling stories Lambert highlights, including the world-changing chapters that played out on a single downtown street, Dexter Avenue (Prevail’s address). The telegram that started the Civil War was sent from Dexter. In 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a city bus on Dexter and sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which in turn ignited the Civil Rights movement. Ten years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the final leg of the Selma-to-Montgomery march up Dexter to the Tennessee State Capitol Building.

Due to slavery and a legacy of racism, Montgomery has certainly had a complicated and painful past—no one would deny that. But things have changed dramatically here, and the city’s leaders and residents are embracing and accelerating that change. (In the next issue of Worth, you’ll read more about how a commitment to social progress is redefining Montgomery.) With its tech focus, Montgomery is pushing forward, as Leslie Sanders, vice president, Southern Division of Alabama Power, explains. “Commerce Street downtown is a moving example of our evolution,” she says. “Slaves brought up the Alabama River once walked up Commerce to Court Street Square to be auctioned. Now, it’s the site of the Smart City Lab and where the Equal Justice Initiative’s offices are. [EJI is a civil rights organization focusing on race and the justice system.] That’s progress to me.”

The Smart City Lab is the focal point of the newly formed Montgomery Smart Community Alliance and features fiber optic infrastructure, an expansion of the city’s open data portal, free public Wi-Fi, the conversion of street lights to energy-saving LEDs and the deployment of smart parking solutions. That’s one prong of TechMGM. Another prong is MGMWERX, a tech-idea incubator operated by national nonprofit DEFENSEWERX that brings military, academia, government and industry together to solve complex issues. These and other projects are supported and augmented by offshoots like the city’s MGMix internet exchange, one of only four in the Southeast.

Other positives like low property taxes and utility costs, a central location and tax-incentive “opportunity zones” encouraging robust private investment around the city have combined to score major economic development wins, like landing the F-35 jet program, which put a national spotlight on the city. Add the emphasis on technology and connectivity, and Sanders sees more good news ahead. “It’s incredibly exciting to see what’s happening on the tech front and the types of businesses interested in
Montgomery,” Sanders says.

But a broader definition of connectivity is equally key. “People are blown away when they see how so many entities work hand-in-hand here,” Sanders explains. “In a world where there is so much divisiveness, that there is a city, a county, universities, a military base and a business community joining forces in pursuit of a common goal is impressive.” It’s why Sanders believes now is the time to give Montgomery a serious look. “We have the systems in place, but you can’t discount our collaborative spirit and our determination to see and meet the needs of business,” she says. A William Faulkner quote painted on an exposed brick wall in Prevail Union sums up this can-do attitude: “Together, we prevail.”

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