Modern Nashville, Tenn., exudes both a trendy and traditional ethos. It has a relaxed, yet professional atmosphere that appeals to young people. The cost of living is lower here than in many cities. By day, Millennials can make their own rules and create their own business start-up culture. At night, they can enjoy the city’s cultural and culinary offerings.
Donna Gainey grew up here in the picturesque fishing village of Bayou La Batre, Ala., – went to school only a mile away, married a local boy, and made the tiny City Hall on Wintzell Avenue her home away from home. This is all she’s known. All she’s ever wanted to know. For 32 years, she’s watched mayors and council members come and go, but still she remains.
Traffic is jammed, bumper to tailgate, but no one seems to mind. Drivers cruise along at crawl speed, hanging out their windows from time to time to wave and yell friendly greetings to one another. The smell of barbecue hangs like Southern perfume in the sweltering heat, and strains of “Sweet Home Alabama” blast from roadside speakers. In the heart of Dixie, where college football is religion and every day is a good day to celebrate, the World’s Longest Yard Sale might as well be redubbed the Biggest Tailgate Party.
You should probably leave the rocket scientist jokes at home when visiting Huntsville, Ala. The chances are good (1 in 12, in fact) you’ll meet one here. In a state beset with educational challenges, this mid-size city (pop. 396,000) is an anomaly, a figurative brain soup where intellectual capital is a commodity and innovation is the driving force behind economic recovery and future success.
Alabama has been particularly aggressive. Since the early 1990s, the state has offered German-based Mercedes, Japan’s Honda and South Korea’s Hyundai a staggering $1 billion in tax incentives, abatements and infrastructure improvements to build plants there. The return on investment has been $7 billion, creating almost 50,000 direct jobs and another 70,000 in sectors like parts suppliers. The population of the town of Vance, where the 4,000-employee Mercedes factory is located, has leapt from 500 to 2,000. Unlike the local sawmill, fertilizer plant or rock quarry, residents feel Mercedes “is going to survive, no matter what,” says one woman who has five family members working there. “That’s what made Vance what it is.”