Decatur’s nationally recognized Best and Brightest Initiative has brought seven young professionals, plus two spouses, to reside in the city as part of its third class.
As the first comprehensive incentive package in the nation focused on attracting young professionals in science, technology, engineering and math, the initiative led by John Joseph has been recognized by the Tennessee Valley Authority and U.S. News and World Report.
The initiative attracts young adults to Decatur by offering accepted applicants $3,000 a year to go toward student loans in return for a five-year commitment to live in the Decatur city limits.
The initiative is sponsored by Decatur Corridor Development and funded with a combination of corporate and private contributions.
The newest class features a New Jersey native, two from Huntsville, a former Northport resident and one from Forestdale. The new Decatur residents are:
• Megan Vansant, Huntsville, Mississippi State University, NASA.
• Chase Anderson, Huntsville, Athens State University, nou Systems Inc.
• Jose Medina, Forestdale, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is currently completing his doctorate, so his future employment has not been settled.
• Brandon Bounds, Northport, University of Alabama, CDG Engineers & Associates Inc.
• Pam Zierdt, Lumberton, New Jersey, University of Alabama, United Launch Alliance.
Joseph said the seven were chosen out of 25 applicants. He said he had to slow down the marketing because the interest outpaced the number of available slots.
Bounds and his wife, Emily, moved to Decatur in late July when he was accepted into the initiative. A civil engineer, he began his job at CDG. His wife is teaching at Cedar Ridge Middle School after graduating in May from Alabama.
Bounds said he found out about the initiative from a friend, Von Bryan, who is already in the program.
“I’ve been up to north Alabama for various reasons, but I didn’t know much about Decatur,” Bounds said. “Decatur is a great place. It’s got a small-town feel and people seem to care about you. There also seems to be a lot of opportunity.”
Bounds said the city fits the lifestyle he grew up with in Northport.
“I’ve never craved an active nightlife,” Bounds said. “I grew up in a family-oriented lifestyle that I really enjoy.”
Zierdt, a mechanical engineer working on ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, said she asked to stay in Alabama when she was hired by ULA.
“I probably would have lived in Madison or Huntsville if it wasn’t for the initiative,” Zierdt said. “But I’m glad I found out about it because I really like living here so far.”
Zierdt said she particularly loves the 3rd Friday downtown street festival held on Second Avenue from March until October.
“3rd Friday is great,” Zierdt said. “It’s something they had in Denver, and my friends from college couldn’t believe it. Decatur seems like such a small town when you first drive in, and then there’s all of these people.”
Bounds and Zierdt said the student loan money will leave them debt-free at the end of the initiative, but both said the program offers other attractive aspects. They also receive mentoring from community leaders, employer networking, and guidance toward community involvement.
Joseph said he has been happy with the initiative so far. The initiative has only lost one person in its first two years.
Megan Pitts, a member of the initiative’s inaugural class, said she loves the initiative and the city.
“I don’t think I would enjoy living here as much” but for the initiative, said Pitts, formerly of Hartselle. “The initiative has created so many more opportunities. I’ve met a lot of people I don’t think I would have met otherwise.”
Pitts said Joseph is a big reason for the program’s success because he’s willing to listen to the initiative members and their suggestions.
Joseph said he is focusing on trying to show the initiative’s members that Decatur is a place they should want to make their long-term home. He has dinner with the members monthly to talk about their concerns and difficulties and help them create connections.
Joseph said he is also encouraging them to get involved in the community. Bounds said he wants to get involved in helping the community grow. Zierdt said she’s begun volunteering at Decatur Animal Services’ shelter.
“So far, we've gotten people involved in the hospital, the Carnegie (Visual Arts Center) and the young professional group,” Joseph said. “I think that really helps recruiting.”