By Wendy Reeves, Contributing Writer
Every day, Huntsville gets closer to becoming the largest city in Alabama. That growth wouldn’t be possible without great leaders from all around Madison County – working together to make important things happen.
Throughout the changes that have turned Huntsville from a farming community to a high-tech, history-making tourist destination and economic engine, Julian Butler played a critical role for 35 years as the county attorney.
“When I graduated law school in 1963, there was only one accredited law school in the state, and that was at the University of Alabama,” Butler said. “I think I’m right about this, that one-third of my class came to Huntsville to practice law.”
Butler’s career made him an active player in a lot of historical “firsts” and landed him in the company of five diverse and influential leaders the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber is featuring in a special series of stories throughout 2020 called “Huntsville: A City in the Making.” Others include Hundley Batts Jr., W.F. Sanders, Loretta Spencer, and Charles Younger.
Butler moved to Huntsville in 1966. When he became county attorney in 1977, there were five county commission districts: four “very small districts” in rural areas such as Gurley, New Hope, and Owens Cross Roads, and one large district that included Huntsville and Madison down to Triana. The chairman was elected from that one large district before being elected by the county at large.
The arrangement meant that the commissioners were elected from those very small communities, resulting in a minority of the county controlling the Madison County Commission. A lawsuit brought against the commission claimed that the makeup violated the “one man one vote because a vote in the city did not have the same weight as a vote in the county.” The first move, Butler said, was to leave the districts as they were with at-large elections of candidates who lived within each district.
By the 1980s, more lawsuits arose related not just to the commission, but also to the city council and school board elections. Butler said the county commission settled its lawsuit and came up with a plan that still exists today: a seven-member county commission that has a chairman elected at large and six commissioners elected from single districts that are generally close in population.
Here, Butler makes a confession.
“I was involved with drawing the districts, and we were trying to protect the four rural commissioners, and so a pie was drawn where those four districts were pied into the city with two total in the city. One district had a majority African-American population that resulted in the first African-American ever elected to the commission with Dr. Prince Preyer. The new districts also resulted in the first Republican to be elected in Rob Colson and Faye Dyer, who was the first woman ever elected.
“So, it not only changed the method of electing the county commission, it dramatically changed the composition of the county commission.”
The county has played a major role in facilitating economic development.
“There were two key parts,” Butler said. “One, early on the county created what is known now as Chase Industrial Park because at Cummings Research Park they did not want warehouses or light manufacturing. They wanted office buildings.”
That led the county to purchase the land at Chase. Over the years, the county expanded it to provide a place for light industry warehousing.
“Like at Cummings Research Park, the primary value of the move was that it kept speculators from taking advantage of new companies that were coming into town. The county had a fixed rate it charged for the land, and it would not allow a real estate agent to market the land,”
Butler said. “Sometimes it also meant moving a little dirt, sometimes a lot of dirt, or putting in infrastructure and drainage.” Butler said the county truly partnered with the City of Huntsville and the Chamber.
“Mike Gillespie was effective as a spokesperson from the county. Mike served as chairman for 38 years, and Mike was very articulate and made a very professional appearance for the county. It helped that he enjoyed economic development,” Butler said.
When it comes to major turning points over the past 50 years or so, Butler said it always starts with the Wernher von Braun team. “When I got here, this was a different place,” he said. “You had Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile re-fighting the Civil War, and Huntsville was the only place with an economic future.”
Over the years, leaders have been strategic in expanding beyond Redstone Arsenal, NASA, and the aerospace industry, which continues to fuel growth.
“I think that’s been a critical factor for the diversification of our economy,” Butler said. “Look at Mazda Toyota Manufacturing, go back to HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, and keep in mind the National Children’s Advocacy Center, and diversification in other areas as well.”
He said he remembers the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) when it was just an extension division of the university.
“UAH is an outstanding educational institution, particularly in engineering, and it is also a major player in economic development.”
Butler remembers that metro government was a hot topic of discussion but said that time has come and gone. “For schools and law enforcement, it makes a lot of sense,” he said. “But the nail in the coffin on metro government was when the City of Madison formed its own school system, which killed any idea of putting the schools together.”
While one governing body for the whole county may never happen, one of the key factors that keeps Huntsville, Madison, and Madison County on a strong path is their ability to work together.
To Butler, the Metro Jail is proof.
“The city had bonding capacity to build it; city building authority built it, and it is the ultimate monument to cooperation even though most of the focus was on all of the problems. When is the last time you read something about the Metro Jail? It is something that worked. It got the city out of the jail business, and it is a monument to cooperation between the city and county.”
Butler retired in 2012. During his 35 years working for the county, he encountered many influential players like former Commissioner Tillman Hill, whom he described as being the most colorful of them all.
“Tillman was wonderful. He was one of the most innovative people ever. He would go to meetings and bring back ideas like an Easter Egg Hunt for the blind. Back then it was the first time I’d ever heard of it. Now you hear about them, but back then, having Easter Egg Hunts with beeping eggs for blind children to find was very innovative.”
James “Jimmy” Record was the commission chairman when Butler was hired, and Record also left a strong impression.
“He was an innovator in things that don’t seem like they’re that important, but they were to Madison County, especially when you see all the road signs we have all over the unincorporated areas today … and they serve two great purposes. One, if you’re trying to find someone’s house, but what’s even more important is for first responders. They are a wonderful asset to help a fire truck, deputy, or ambulance find an address.”
Into the Future
What’s next for leaders is managing the growth. He sees the commission’s development of the new Madison County Service Center at Oakwood Avenue and North Memorial Parkway as another step in the right direction.
The new facility includes offices for the Probate Judge, Board of Registrars, Sales Tax Department, License Department, tax assessor and collector. It comes with free parking, too.
When the constitutional convention met in Huntsville in 1819, 44 people from 22 counties were elected to serve as delegates. Butler said Madison County had eight delegates and dominated the convention. According to the Alabama Department of Archives, Blount, Limestone, and Monroe counties each had three delegates, with the remaining counties represented by one or two delegates.
“It’s not just since the 1950s,” Butler said. “Since the beginning, Huntsville and Madison County have been major players in the State of Alabama.”
As long as future leaders carry on the innovative planning from the past that’s currently in place, he said, Huntsville and Madison County will continue to be a rare find.
This article appears in the October issue of Initiatives magazine, a publication of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber.