Tourism continues to be the predominant economic driver for Baldwin County. The county leads the state with an estimated 51,000 people employed in the tourism industry in 2020, resulting in more than $1.5 billion in travel-related wages.
In 2020, Baldwin and Mobile counties combined to generate 46% of the state’s total tourism expenditures ($6.1 billion) and almost 42% of the state’s total travel-related employment. In 2020, Baldwin County welcomed 5.9 million visitors who spent $4.8 billion in the county — again leading the state, according to the latest Alabama Tourism Department economic impact study.
“The last two years have been challenging,” says Beth Gendler, the new president and CEO for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. “With COVID shutdowns, labor shortages, events being cancelled, the uncertainty over if or when Americans would be ready to travel again while ensuring our community was ready for visitors to return, and then Hurricane Sally, we are very fortunate to have only had a slight dip in occupancy levels for 2020 and set a new record for overall hotel and vacation rental occupancy throughout 2021, higher than in 2019 or 2020.”
“Alabama’s beaches fit the trends that experts said were most important to travelers — road trips, beach destinations, and nature and outdoors,” she adds.
According to Gendler, summer remains the busiest time of year for the area’s tourism industry, with spring, fall and winter seasons continuing to grow. “South Baldwin County especially is a tourism economy,” she said. “We want those businesses and workers to be busy year-round and for residents to enjoy the benefits of a strong year-round economy — lower taxes, more amenities to enjoy, enhanced quality of life.”
The Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission rebranded in 2021 to attract major leisure events.
“Sports and event tourism continues to grow and contribute greatly to our year-round tourism-based economy,” says Michelle Russ, STS, vice president of sales, sports and events for Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events. “We have a symbiotic relationship with the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Without the support of our local municipalities and the fantastic city facilities, we would not be able to host high-impact events. In turn, without sports and event tourism, our residents would not have the quality of facilities we are blessed with in coastal Alabama.”
In 2021, Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events recorded 136,599 room nights, 122 events and 20 new events, with a $99 million economic impact.
Tourism attractions also continue to grow. The Park at OWA, for example, is transforming its indoor water park, amusement park and $70 million water park expansion into Tropic Falls, slated to open this spring.
Baldwin County has a healthy, growing aerospace community. Its largest manufacturing employer is Collins Aerospace in Foley, which makes thrust reversers and nacelle components and has 1,100 employees. Segers Aero Corp. in Fairhope expanded with a new test cell facility and capital investment topping $4 million.
And the area has the $2.7 million Academy at the Fairhope Airport, in partnership with the Fairhope Airport Authority, Baldwin County schools and the two-year college system to teach aviation, industrial maintenance and welding to high school and adult students. Gulf Shores city schools also have aviation programs.
Baldwin’s close proximity to Mobile County, with Airbus and other aerospace companies, ensures further growth.
In addition, Auburn University’s Educational Complex in Gulf Shores includes a School of Aviation that delivers aviation learning for K-12 students and hosts unmanned aircraft systems courses. Coastal Alabama Community College in the fall will start offering a new aviation technology certificate program.
The county has four airports. Gulf Shores International Airport is growing quickly. In February, Vic Roberts, chair of the Gulf Shores Airport Authority, announced that the authority chose VINCI Airports/TBI Airport Management Team as a partner for the development and operation of a new air terminal. Already the state’s second busiest airport by number of takeoffs and landings, the Gulf Shores airport hopes to add commercial flights this summer.
Bay Minette Municipal Airport, H.L. Sonny Callahan Airport in Fairhope and Foley Municipal Airport also contributed millions in economic impact.
Baldwin County is home to a diverse group of distribution companies, and this sector is growing. In 2021, grocery company Aldi Inc. began construction on a regional headquarters and distribution center in Loxley, a $100 million investment that creates 200 new jobs. Also in 2021, a new logistics hub began construction in Loxley for Imperial Dade, an independently owned and operated distributor of food packaging supplies, a $20 million investment and 55 new jobs. And Ace Hardware Support Center in Loxley has 300 employees.
Diverse large manufacturers include Vulcan Inc., which produces metal products; Quincy Compressors, producing air compressors; Bon Secour Fisheries; and International Paper.
Baldwin is known for its retail options, from outlet malls in Foley to one-of-a-kind shops in Fairhope.
May 2022: The Park at OWA will transform its new indoor water park, its existing amusement park and its $70 million water park expansion into the rebranded Tropic Falls.
February 2022: The city of Foley announces plans to upgrade the Foley Beach Express. The project is expected to begin in August 2022 and take about four months.
February 2022: Gulf Shores Airport Authority selects VINCI Airports/TBI Airport Management Team as a partner for development and operation of a planned air terminal for Gulf Shores International Airport. The airport opened a new air traffic control tower and adopted the name Gulf Shores International Airport in November.
November 2021: Construction bids will be taken in spring 2022 for Baldwin County schools’ new career technical high school in Loxley, set to open in August 2024.
October 2021: USA Health breaks ground for physician offices and an ambulatory surgery center at its Mapp Family Campus in Fairhope.
September 2021: Meyer Utility Structures announces an expansion in Bay Minette, after purchasing Baldwin Lighting — a $5 million investment at its new spun utility pole facility creating 23 jobs.
July 2021: The Growing Alabama Commission approves the South Alabama Mega Site for a $5.5 million investment for rail improvements at the 3,000-acre tract in Baldwin County.
June 2021: Imperial Dade begins work on a $20 million logistics hub in Loxley to serve its food packaging supply distribution business. They expect 55 workers.
May 2021: Baldwin County is now Alabama’s fourth largest county in population, according to U.S. Census estimates. Baldwin added more than 47,000 people between 2010 and 2020. Also, four of the state’s fastest-growing cities – Fairhope, Foley, Gulf Shores and Daphne – are in Baldwin County.
May 2021: South Baldwin Regional Medical Center cuts the ribbon on its new freestanding ER in Gulf Shores.
May 2021: Infirmary Health cuts the ribbon on its $26 million medical office building in Daphne. Services include lab, imaging, cancer care, surgical specialists, women’s health services and more.
February 2021: Aldi Inc. breaks ground on a regional headquarters and distribution center in Loxley, a $100 million investment that will create 200 jobs.
January 2021: South Baldwin Regional Medical Center in Foley announces a $170 million expansion to add 10 operating rooms, nursing units and a larger ICU.
December 2020: C Spire plans a major investment in high-speed internet in Baldwin County.
November 2020: Segers Aero Corp. breaks ground on a new test cell facility in Fairhope, a $4 million investment.
Source: Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance, EDPA
This article appeared in the May 2022 issue of Business Alabama.