HUNTSVILLE, AL – When Chad Emerson took over as Downtown Huntsville Inc. CEO on Aug. 1, 2013, this was his goal: Reintroduce the center city to thousands of area residents who had made up their minds that it was too dull or too dangerous or too hard to navigate.

Fourteen months later, downtown is humming with an energy not seen since the 1960s Space Race.

Monthly food truck rallies introduced by Emerson have become Huntsville’s must-attend social event, routinely drawing more than 5,000 people. The historically buttoned-up Courthouse Square has let loose with live music and digital light shows and mini-golf contests. Downtown Huntsville Inc.’s Facebook page is one of the most-read in the city — more than 12,000 “likes” and counting.

How did it happen?

Emerson, who helped lead a renaissance in downtown Montgomery before moving with his family to Huntsville, identified a strategy early on and has stuck by it. He favors events that are free to attend and also a little eclectic – but not weird or threatening.

“We could do bungee jumping off a high building, and it would certainly be unique,” Emerson told Wednesday. “But it probably wouldn’t be approachable to a wide segment of the population.”

His eclectic-but-approachable event philosophy seems to hit the sweet spot for many Huntsville residents.

The Downtown Street Food Gathering series has been so successful – the inaugural rally in April drew about 7,500 people – that Emerson had to go hunting for a larger food truck venue. He settled on Church Street between Big Spring International Park and Big Spring Park East.

“As long as the food trucks and other vendors keep serving interesting and good-tasting food, I think the momentum will last,” he said.

While 2014 will go down as the year that Huntsville was introduced to mobile dining, Emerson and Downtown Huntsville’s Inc.’s two-person staff – Macy Chapman and Amy Jones – managed to crank out more than a dozen other memorable events and activities.

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