Baldwin County is home to the beautiful Alabama Gulf Coast beaches. Those beaches — and the area surrounding them, which boast sports venues, restaurants, cottages and condos, shopping and natural resources — make up the largest tourism economy in the state.
City officials are dedicated to keeping their number one attraction clean and safe. A new initiative, Leave Only Footprints, requires that virtually all items on the beach be removed by an hour after sunset when the beach patrol comes through to remove and dispose of items left behind.
“There are environmental reasons, aesthetic reasons and safety reasons, ” says Herb Malone, president and CEO of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism.
City officials are also continuing their efforts to attract sports tournaments, smoothing traffic flow in some areas to accommodate crowds while making other areas more walkable for pedestrians.
“We have had success building the ‘shoulder seasons’ between the summer season, ” says Ken Grimes, Orange Beach city administrator. “We are on the map. More and more people are coming to visit from all over — we think some of it is due to BP’s advertising us in the northern parts of the country. We see visitors all year round for all types of events.”
By every measure, the area is on an economic high tide — from increased sales tax revenue, increased residential housing and condominiums, beach rentals and more. Baldwin also is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. Cities are riding that wave and investing in sports tourism and entertainment venues. For example, the city of Foley will open its Sports Tourism Complex this month with 16 multi-purpose fields, one of which is a championship field with TV-ready lighting, press box and seating for up to 1, 000 spectators. And in spring 2017, the Foley Events Center will open adjacent to the sports fields, an indoor facility that will offer space for sports, concerts, banquets, conventions and trade shows.
Also in Foley, a proposed 420-acre development will be built by 2017 on the concept of creating a family-friendly retail, dining and entertainment destination. It is only seven miles from the beaches, and is being developed by Foley Holdings LLC, of Creek Indian Enterprises Development Authority.
Phase one will include a 14-acre lake; a 150-room national brand hotel; 225, 000 square feet of retail, dining and entertainment space, and a 10-acre theme park with 20 rides, including one major roller coaster. Future plans include an indoor/outdoor waterpark with attached hotel and a resort level RV park.
“We see the addition of this world-class destination to south Baldwin County as a catalyst for the economy through generation of significant lodging and retail sales tax for the City of Foley, Baldwin County and the State of Alabama, ” says Tim Martin, president and CEO of Creek Indian Enterprises Development Authority and managing member of Foley Holdings. “We anticipate hundreds of new jobs to be created, from entry to executive level, during construction through completion of this new development.”
Gulf State Park also is being redeveloped. The University of Alabama designed the master plan for the three-phase, multi-year project to rejuvenate the park, which was damaged in hurricanes a decade ago. So far, dune restoration has begun.
For all the focus on tourism, Baldwin County also has a healthy manufacturing base, along with a strong agribusiness sector, health care, higher education and residential and commercial construction sectors. Workforce development training is a priority.
This time last year, the $2.7 million, 15, 000-square-foot Academy at the Fairhope Airport opened. Created as a partnership among the Fairhope Airport Authority, Baldwin County schools and the two-year college system, the facility teaches aviation, industrial maintenance and welding to adult and high school students for college credit. The school system’s North Baldwin Technology Center also provides dual enrollment locations for students.
Moving beyond city borders, the Gulf United Metro Business Organization (GUMBO) — a coalition of local business leaders, chambers, convention and visitor bureaus and tourism-travel organizations — is working to promote intelligent growth and development of south Baldwin County.
Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.
Text by Lori Chandler Pruitt