Cooperative investment in a coastal workforce — the Gateway Initiative

South Baldwin County creates Gateway Initiative to recruit and train workers for careers in hospitality and tourism.

Gateway Initiative's Ed Bushaw at The Wharf in Orange Beach, one of the project sponsors. Photo by Dan Anderson.
Gateway Initiative’s Ed Bushaw at The Wharf in Orange Beach, one of the project sponsors. Photo by Dan Anderson.

South Baldwin County has outgrown its workforce.

New restaurants, new night spots, new real estate developments and thousands of new people moving into Baldwin County, visiting or discovering the snowbird lifestyle, have essentially created more business than the businesses can keep up with.

As a result, an entry-level employee or someone just looking for a summer job at the beach may have a hard time finding a place to live and will likely end up fighting traffic daily.

Finding child care may be even harder.

Business operators who can’t find enough workers can’t expand as they would like and may not even be able to stay open as many hours as they once did. In turn, local and state governments don’t see the tax revenues that they could.

- Sponsor -

South Baldwin County’s Gateway Initiative aims to boost workforce development to deal with these problems affecting the growth of the hospitality industry. It’s an ambitious coming together of individual businesses, local governments, chambers of commerce and educators to help everyone by helping themselves.

At the heart of the Gateway Initiative is a planned campus to be built on some 150 acres with, organizers hope, federal and state funding. The price tag? Currently, $214 million. The precise location has not yet been chosen but will likely be in the area of the Beach Express, Foley and Elberta, according to Ed Bushaw, vice president of workforce development for Gateway.

The overall goal is to create a trained workforce for the restaurants, hotels, resorts and retail businesses in Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Foley that have been chronically short of help. The Gateway Task Force estimates that businesses need at least 2,500 more people to fill jobs during the peak season.

Examples of lost revenue cited on the Gateway website include the Hangout Restaurant Group, which put off plans this year to open two new restaurants in addition to its popular beachfront restaurant and successful music festival. The Cosmos Restaurant Group, meanwhile, was paying out $1,500 weekly in overtime.

Breaking the cycle of turnover means creating and expanding career paths so that working in tourism and hospitality offers more opportunities than a summer job waiting tables at a beachside restaurant or cleaning condominiums when vacationers leave.

Nationally, there are employment programs that offer housing in some towns with ski resorts, but Bushaw says the Gateway campus will be unique.

“The difference between our campus and what we’ve seen elsewhere is we’ve got a major training component there,” he says. “It’s not going to be just housing. It’s going to be education, training, housing, transportation. We also have a 200-child childcare center on the site.”

The campus will serve local students seeking more training as well as jobs, international workers who have taken temporary jobs in the past, college students from out of town or out of state who need housing and people who need child care on the weekends and after normal business hours. Existing businesses looking to grow will also have incubation and other resources.

Plans continue to evolve. At a December meeting, it became clear that health care had to be considered when the task force learned that South Baldwin Regional Medical Center had 80 openings for registered nurses, Bushaw says. He suspects the Foley hospital is not alone. Clinics and other medical facilities are growing as well, and they, too, will need workers.

Bushaw estimates that lost revenue due to worker shortages this year amounts to $100 million, although a formal economic study will be part of the Gateway Initiative funding process.

Speaking of which, how will all these plans be paid for?

Not with new taxes, Bushaw says. Gateway has applied for a $500,000 grant from the federal Economic Development Administration and, if that grant is received, will become eligible to apply for up to $100 million more. Another potential source is American Rescue Plan funding from the state, county and the three local cities. Bushaw says the task force wants to come up with enough money to avoid starting off with a capital debt.

A conservative timetable for the campus to open is the spring of 2025. However, some training courses are already available through Coastal Alabama Community College and other sources. Gateway is also reaching into local schools, beginning at the middle school level, to get students interested in potential careers in hospitality and tourism.

The Gateway Initiative began about five years ago as separate efforts by two chambers of commerce, South Baldwin and the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber. The separate movements merged, and since then a host of agencies, business organizations and individual businesses have signed on as investors.

Bushaw calls the amount of cooperation involved, “remarkable.”

“If we bring more workers here, that means we can open more businesses. That means our businesses can make more money, and that means that more tax revenue is going to go back to the state. So, it’s a true investment to put money into this project.”

Preliminary plan for the South Baldwin Workforce Training campus.
Preliminary plan for the South Baldwin Workforce Training campus.

Here is what’s expected to be available at the Gateway campus:

· Classes and training through Coastal Alabama Community College, ranging from certificates in the basics of service and hospitality to associate degrees. “Not everyone is going to climb the career ladder to the top, but we want to show them the way,” says Josh Duplantis, dean of workforce development at Coastal. Training can lead to jobs not only in culinary, which is already available, but to positions such as manager, assistant manager or golf course superintendent, he says. There will be an emphasis on the quality of service expected in the hospitality industry. “We have to continue to provide that exceptional customer service experience,” he says. “And it’s not just hospitality. It’s Southern hospitality.” 

· A university-level component. Bushaw says the Gateway Task Force is talking with four state universities — Alabama, Auburn, the University of South Alabama and Alabama State — about locating at the campus to offer studies leading to a bachelor’s degree in the hospitality industry, and to offer business incubation services to new and existing businesses.

· Dormitory-style housing. Workers in South Baldwin County may not be able to afford to live there. Single-family housing costs have risen 41% in the last five years, according to Gateway’s website. The Perdido Beach Resort had to set aside 175 rooms for its own employees this summer. The Gateway campus would include 1,000 transient housing units.

· Transportation. The cost of housing means workers commute from farther and farther away, Bushaw says, and that in turn contributes to the ever-increasing traffic. An expansion of BRATS, Baldwin County’s public transportation service, may be the first visible Gateway component. Rather than joining the traffic jams, workers could take the bus on one of three fixed routes: the Beach Express crossing the bridge and going to the Wharf and on to the Florida border, a route going down Highway 59, and one going west on Fort Morgan Road. Meanwhile, a park-and-ride service could become available as soon as this summer. All three mayors understand the need “to get people off the road,” Bushaw says. “It would be a cultural change, but there are ways around it.”

· Child care. More day-care services are needed countywide, but the situation is especially critical in an industry that depends on employees working nights, weekends and holidays. Bushaw says 71% of workers in the hospitality industry are women. Parents who could find jobs in south Baldwin County end up staying home because of the high cost and lack of availability of child care. As for extended hours, “We don’t have any of that now.” Plans call for a child-care center to serve 200 children.

Jane Nicholes and Dan Anderson are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Daphne and he in Mobile.

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