ABOVE The beaches are just the beginning of Baldwin County’s attractions, which drew 5, 119 new residents just last year. Photo by Marc Anderson
Baldwin County is home to Alabama’s Gulf Coast beaches, and those beaches and region surrounding them — filled with sports venues, restaurants, shopping and natural resources — combine to create the state’s top natural resource destination and a formidable economic impact.
The beaches are important, but officials also have worked hard to build the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. Sports tourism is a big draw, and cities are adding on to sports field complexes, building new ones, adding event centers and creating other attractions for families.
As well as attracting tourists, Baldwin County is attracting new residents — 5, 119 moved in last year alone. It’s the top county in the state for net migration — the term for number moving in minus number moving out.
“Both retirees and younger families are moving to the county because it offers high quality of life, from great amenities to quality schools and great economic opportunities, ” says Viktoria Riiman, a socioeconomic analyst with the University of Alabama Center for Business and Economic Research. “Nonfarm employment in Baldwin County has gained 14, 100 jobs between 2010 and 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Employment Statistics.”
The Owa amusement park, in Foley, is the region’s newest attraction. Operated by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, the 14-acre park features 21 rides plus food and other activities, and represents the tribe’s first major non-gaming development in the state. The park works in tandem with the city of Foley and the Foley Sports Complex. A Marriott TownePlace Suites is on site, and more is planned in the mixed-use development.
Also, a new Gulf Coast Zoo is under way, on a new site; the newly rebuilt Gulf State Park is nearly ready to open, and every city has major road projects and all kinds of initiatives to help traffic flow, create pedestrian-friendly areas and more. There are new schools planned. In Gulf Shores, Auburn University has broken ground on a new satellite campus as part of an education center that may include other colleges and other development.
Eight years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the area has bounced back from disaster, stronger than ever.
“When we had Hurricane Ivan in 2004, we recovered and then we had the 2008 recession, ” says Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft. “Then the oil spill. You can draw a line economically on what happened, but it just cannot explain the way we felt. We were devastated and fearful.
“Today, for all the great things that are going on, there is just a difference in the way we feel about our future — you just can’t describe it to anyone who didn’t live here or love it here.”
Millions of dollars in Restore Act funds, designed to mitigate the effects of the oil spill, are paying for projects to improve traffic, bolster economic development and more.
For all the focus on tourism and community development, Baldwin County also has a healthy manufacturing base, along with aerospace, residential and commercial construction. Workforce development training is a priority, too.
Investment firm SmartAsset has ranked Baldwin County first in the state for incoming business investment two years in a row. Also, labor market analysis firm Emsi has ranked Baldwin tops in the state for attracting workforce talent.
The county has the largest number of AdvantageSite locations in the state, and is marketing the South Alabama Mega Site, one of the largest certified industrial sites in the Southeast. It has been certified by CSX and McCallum Sweeney and is located along I-65 in Bay Minette with a mile of interstate frontage, has direct four-lane highway access, all utilities and all environmental due diligence completed, officials says. It is publicly owned by the Baldwin County Commission.
Lori Chandler Pruitt is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.