25 Years on the Destination Travel Map

When Retirement Systems of Alabama CEO David Bronner proposed a statewide golf trail in Alabama to attract visitors and retirees, big-money investors didn’t salute.

According to a professor who wrote the book, literally, on the subject, RSA’s CEO was not deterred.

“These were pension funds, hard-earned dollars that couldn’t be gambled on frivolous investments, but Dr. Bronner felt powerfully that a stronger Alabama economy would mean a stronger pension fund, ” says Mark Fagan, now on the emeritus faculty at Jacksonville State University.

“It was originally conceived as a $100 million investment for four sites, and he had to get approval from two boards, but when somebody puts a hundred million on the table it gives credibility to what they’re saying, ” Fagan says. His research suggests the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail has now generated an $8.8 billion economic impact.

Before the Golf Trail was ever discussed, Jacksonville State had talked up tourism as a clean development target. Alabama was considered a “pass-through” state, seldom a destination.

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The Golf Trail changed that in a monumental way. It now has 26 world-class golf courses, eight resort hotels and five luxurious spas, employing hundreds of Alabamians. Subsequent development at the 11 sites by private developers includes more than 8, 300 houses and more than 5 million square feet of commercial space. Thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in tax revenue have been generated from initial construction spending and ramped-up tourism.

The trail has drawn 500, 000 visitors a year from all 50 states and dozens of foreign countries. Almost 12 million rounds of golf have been played on it since 1992. SunBelt Golf leases the courses and operates them, while PCH Hotels and Resorts manages the hotels. RSA has also provided, through its two media companies Raycom and CNHI, more than $1 billion in free advertising since 1996 for Alabama.

Fagan’s analysis shows that five of the sites, Oxmoor Valley/Ross Bridge, Capitol Hill, Grand National, Grand Hotel/Lakewood and The Shoals, boast a truly national market. Hampton Cove and Magnolia Grove draw golfers more from around the South. Highland Oaks, Cambrian Ridge, and Silver Lakes are most popular with local and instate golfers.

Fagan’s book on the 25-year Golf Trail journey — The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail: Its History and Economic Impact — based in part on 64 scrapbooks from Bronner himself, is available on Amazon.

Text by Dave Helms

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