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Golf Magazine Puts Ross Bridge on 100 Best Resorts List

Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa has been named to Golf Magazine’s 100 Best Golf Resorts in North America. Photo by Michael Clemmer

Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa has been named to Golf Magazine’s 100 best golf resorts in North America. Located in Hoover, Ross Bridge was ranked as one of the top 25 Buddy Trips in North America.

Part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail developed by the Retirement Systems of Alabama, this was the first time Ross Bridge was named to Golf Magazine’s listing. More than 3,700 golfers reviewed 250 golf resorts across North America for Golf Magazine’s ranking. Once the selection process was complete, the magazine’s panelists and editors then categorized the locations into luxury, buddies, general excellence and family categories.

“To be compared with iconic golf venues such as Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, Bandon Dunes, Broadmoor, Greenbrier and others showcases the quality of golf experience we deliver in Alabama,” said John Cannon, president of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.

Ross Bridge, designed by Bobby Vaughan and Roger Rulewich on 330 acres, is one of the longest courses in the world at 8,191 yards, but offers multiple tees for golfers of all levels. Carved into the rolling terrain of the Shannon Valley, the golf course features 10 holes along the banks of two lakes. Considerable elevation change combines with the water and other natural obstructions to make the course a challenge.

Located on the heart of the course is the Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort & Spa, which features 259 rooms with 15,500 square feet of meeting space, a fitness center and The Spa at Ross Bridge, offering custom treatments.

Over the past 27 years, the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail has welcomed more than 13 million golfers to Alabama.

Vrbo: Tuscaloosa, Auburn Top-earning College Towns

Everyone knows Alabama and Auburn are fierce statewide rivals. They even go head-to-head on game weekend vacation rentals, according to new data from Vrbo.

In Tuscaloosa, the average nightly rate of vacation rentals spiked to $730 and vacation rental demand increased 535 percent on average during University of Alabama home games in 2018.

On the Plains, meanwhile, the average nightly rate of vacation rentals soared to $700 and vacation rental demand increased 205 percent during Auburn University home games during the same period.

Vrbo is a Texas-based company founded in 1995 that assists homeowners to market and rent their place temporarily as a vacation spot. Its name stands for “vacation rental by owner.”

Other top earning college towns based on average nightly rates during home games include:

  • South Bend, Indiana
  • Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • State College, Pennsylvania
  • Blacksburg, Virginia
  • Oxford, Mississippi
  • College Station, Texas
  • Clemson, South Carolina
  • Fayetteville, Arkansas

Opinion: Raise the Cap on Passenger Facility Charge

Huntsville International Airport

Huntsville is one of the fastest growing local economies in our nation. Boosted by federal and private sector investments, our region is on a strong economic trajectory. In fact, a recent population boom has put the Rocket City on track to potentially be the largest city in Alabama in the next six years. Our airport represents a key component to continuing this trend because current and new industry considering locating to our region depend on passenger and air cargo operations that support their own operating needs. The local economy depends on our ability to connect with other communities across the globe, so Huntsville International Airport (HSV) is vital to maintain those bonds as the region’s gateway to the world.

But similar to other airports around the country, HSV needs infrastructure investments in order to continue to be able to meet the expected flow of passengers and goods in the future. Projected growth in the area and HSV’s desire to continue to propel this region forward is why in 2012 the airport completed a major $92 million dollar terminal and landside project that included creation of a public waiting area, a new security screening checkpoint, a new baggage claim and a second parking deck. Those necessary upgrades that were a part of the 2002 Master Plan update, have improved the passenger experience and the efficiency of the airport.

Although HSV has seen many improvements and aesthetically offers visitors a very warm welcome to our community, other portions of our terminal are between 30 and 50 years old and in immediate need of improvement. As determined by HSV’s current Master Plan update, the parts of the airport’s facility that passengers use every day like our elevators, escalators, restrooms and concessions need redevelopment and expansion to keep up with demand. In addition, these anticipated terminal improvement projects are imperative to adhere to new federal standards and provide our passengers with facilities that meet their expectations like nursing rooms and pet relief areas. The aforementioned terminal improvement projects would reinvigorate HSV and set the stage for continued growth for our region for years to come.

We are grateful to Senator Shelby and our Alabama congressional delegation for recently securing significant FAA discretionary grants, however these funds are designated for specific federal government high priority airfield projects. The previously mentioned terminal improvement projects are considered a lower priority for federal discretionary grants. Therefore, our challenge is to find funding for these necessary terminal improvement projects that are currently on hold.

The good news is that there’s a solution that doesn’t require taxpayers to foot the bill. If Congress would lift the cap on the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) — a small user fee paid only by air travelers on which airports depend to fund their infrastructure – HSV could begin this project immediately. The PFC is federally capped at a maximum of $4.50 and it hasn’t been updated in nearly 20 years, making it ineffective and inadequate to serve 21st century airports that have experienced inflation just like everyone else. For example, HSV’s current PFC dollars are already committed through 2030. By modernizing the PFC for the first time since 2001, Congress would allow our airport to generate funding from only the people using the airport, for the project referenced above – all without a dime of taxpayer dollars.

Starting these terminal improvement projects would have a major impact on our region’s economy. On top of the tens of thousands of jobs that Alabama’s airports already support, it’s estimated that these projects would create 608 construction jobs and inject $19.1 million into the Huntsville economy via construction labor wages alone.

Some will say that we should leave the PFC alone. However, those voices fail to acknowledge that maintaining the current PFC could result in stalled growth in Huntsville. The airport has a major footprint on the local economy, with a total regional economic direct impact of 7,692 jobs equating to a payroll of $474,327,000 and a total multiplied impact of 24,293 jobs equating to a payroll of $942,828,000. Failing to upgrade our airport infrastructure could harm our economy and job growth. We have recently experienced lower fares at HSV due to the addition of two new carriers and the competition that those carriers created in the market. The improved and expanded infrastructure projects will further encourage the airlines to grow and expand, therefore modernizing the PFC can have a positive and direct impact on passenger fares.

HSV is not alone, America’s airports need nearly $130 billion in infrastructure over the next five years in order to match the demand. It sounds like a staggering number, but the number of passengers traveling through U.S. airports has doubled since 2000 to approximately one billion annually. Conversely, the PFC that pays for critical infrastructure of those airports has not increased in nearly two decades. These airports in their current state were designed for half of that traffic so it is clear that something must be done to modernize airports.

Airports across the country and organizations like Airports Council International-North America and the American Association of Airport Executives stand alongside numerous conservative organizations asking Congress to consider eliminating the PFC cap entirely or, raising the cap and adjusting it periodically for construction cost inflation.

There’s no doubt that Huntsville is a city on the rise. With a strong economy and a growing population, we are poised to continue to enjoy this success. HSV has always worked to provide the community with an airport that acts as an economic engine by taking proactive measures that allow for immediate and long-term growth. However, to stay on this path we must ensure that our airport is able to meet the vital needs of the growing population and business community. Modernizing the PFC isn’t just important for HSV – it’s critical for the future of our region.

Rick Tucker is the executive director of Huntsville International Airport.

State Tourism Conference Wraps Up

U.S. Space and Rocket Center, in Huntsville, was Alabama’s top tourist attraction in 2018, with 849,981 visitors.

Attendees at the Alabama Governor’s Conference on Tourism being held through Tuesday in downtown Huntsville have a full slate of speakers, as well as a pile of awards to be presented.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of the National Travel and Tourism Office Phil Lovas is the headliner, set to give an update on key policy issues of the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board.

Mike Elkins, president of Unclaimed Baggage Center, was also on the schedule, providing an inside look at successful practices for training within organizations, and Coca-Cola executive Andy Britton was to discuss how to get sponsorship support for local events and festivals.

“More than 215 tourism professionals from across the state will be attending this three-day educational conference,” said state tourism director Lee Sentell. “This is our opportunity to bring in experts to present the latest trends in tourism marketing. Tourism is a $15.5 billion industry in Alabama, and it has grown $1.2 billion over the previous year,” he said.

The staff of the Alabama Tourism Department presented an annual update Sunday afternoon on their current and upcoming marketing campaigns.

Seventeen tourism awards will be presented at the awards banquet Monday evening. The awards presentation will be live streamed at 7 p.m. at facebook.com/AlabamaGovernorsConferenceOnTourism.

Alabama Growth in Overseas Travel Leads Nation

One of Alabama top tourist attractions, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, in Huntsville

Alabama led the nation last year with its increase in the number of overseas visitors, state travel officials announced August 13.

With 384,000 overseas visitors, who spent $585 million in Alabama in 2018, the state had a 10 percent increase over the year before, according to a report prepared for Travel South USA by Tourism Economics, an Oxford Economics company that is one of the world’s leading providers of economic analysis, forecasts and consulting advice.

“Alabama experienced very strong growth in both international air arrivals and foreign credit card activity in 2018,” said Tourism Economic Senior Economist Geoff Lacher. “Alabama had the highest state growth rate in the entire U.S. The fast growth rates from mature, typically slow-growing markets like Australia (13 percent), France (12 percent), the UK (9 percent) and Germany (7 percent) is especially impressive.”

Alabama Tourism Department Deputy Director Grey Brennan said the report showed that visitors are traveling to Alabama from every region of the world. “The Alabama Tourism Department and Brand USA, America’s destination marketing organization, worked together on several international promotions in 2018 featuring state tourism destinations including the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, Muscle Shoals recording studios, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail,” said Brennan.

The entire Alabama travel industry grew by more than $1 billion in 2018 to a record of $15.5 billion in expenditures, and increased jobs by 11,984 to some 198,890 employees. The state’s travel industry attracted more than 27.7 million visitors, which paid $954 million in state and local taxes, saving the average Alabama family $507 from additional taxes to maintain current service levels.

Mobile’s Carnival Fantasy Dirtiest Cruise Ship, Says CDC

Carnival Fantasy cruise ship docked at Cozumel, Mexico.

The Carnival Fantasy, the Carnival cruise ship home-ported in Mobile, was given the lowest cleanliness report of all cruise ships by the most recent inspections of the Centers for Disease Control. The ship scored 77 out of 100, with a score of 86 being considered “satisfactory.”

“The inspector noted brown water discharged from two shower hoses in the medical center,” noted the most recent inspection report. “Medical crew reported these shower hoses were not used often. A crew member confirmed that they see brown water in their shower that is used at least twice daily. Potable water crew were unaware of the current issue. Crew noted the water had been tested in past but that it was not recent.”

The report included 44 violations of CDC cruise ship standards, from low chlorine levels in the waterpark pool to lack of stainless-steel surfaces for food preparation in the sushi bar.

Scores and reports for the Fantasy and other ships regularly inspected by the CDC can be seen at this CDC web page.

American Airlines Adding Non-stop, Same-day Flight to Reagan National


Business travelers wanting to go from Alabama’s capital to Washington, D.C. will have a new option in January 2020, when American Airlines will add a same-day, return flight between Montgomery Regional Airport (MGM) and Reagan National Airport (DCA).

American began non-stop service from MGM to DCA in June 2018. The airline’s current flight patterns typically require passengers to remain overnight, before returning to Montgomery. The new schedule offers more flexibility for corporate customers, who can depart on an early morning flight and return home in time for the nightly news.

“When we announced the non-stop service to Washington, D.C. last year, we were confident that the flights would perform well. Today, we are pleased that MGM travelers can continue to enjoy access to our nation’s capital with the added convenience of returning home to Montgomery later on the same day,” said Tammy Knight Fleming, Montgomery Airport Authority chair.

The non-stop, same-day flights from MGM to DCA are currently available for purchase at aa.com. The schedule for these flights, will be effective for travel beginning next year, on Tuesday, January 7, 2020.

Departure AirportDeparture TimeArrival AirportArrival Time
MGM6:11 AMDCA9:17 AM
DCA7:10 PMMGM8:19 PM

* All times listed are local

Superlative Burbs: Hampton Cove

Golf and gracious neighborhoods blend in the Hampton Cove community, part of the city of Huntsville.

The Hampton Cove planned community is part of the city of Huntsville but shares a zip code with the adjacent small town of Owens Cross Roads. The area began development in 1992 and now is home to an estimated 8,000 residents in 20 neighborhoods with about 2,000 dwellings that range in size from townhomes and patio homes to luxury estates, says Ronda Miskelley, director of the Hampton Cove Owners Association. “We attract residents in all stages of life from families to retirees,” she says. “Three of our communities have contracted lawn maintenance services.”

Miskelley’s family has lived in several of the community’s neighborhoods over the years. She and her husband moved up from their starter home as their family grew. “Once you move out here and see what a nice retreat it is, and yet is convenient to the city, you don’t want to leave,” she says. “And you don’t have to in order to scale your lifestyle up or down.”

Situated in a valley in the foothills of Monte Sano, the community is a short commute over the mountain for those who work in Huntsville but want to live in a more rural area. Hampton Cove has its own fire station, as well as an elementary and middle school. Shopping and other services are plentiful nearby. “We’re like a small town unto itself,” Miskelley says.

The community’s main entrance includes a visually striking waterfall and fieldstone springhouse. Amenities include the Hampton House, which serves as the area’s recreational facility, the Hays Nature Preserve, a multitude of lakes, a 54-hole Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail golf course and more than 20 miles of continuous sidewalks.

“We’re so fortunate to have such a well-designed community located within the city limits of Huntsville,” Miskelley says.

Kathy Hagood and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Homewood and he in Huntsville.

Gulf State Park’s Eagle Cottages Gain National Geographic Recognition

Gulf State Park’s Eagle Cottages have been recognized as one of National Geographic’s select Unique Lodges. The 11 Eagle Cottages are located on the banks of the park’s Lake Shelby. Photos courtesy of Gulf State Park

Already a beacon of sustainability, education and eco-tourism, Alabama’s Gulf State Park is again at the forefront of providing visitors with much more than the traditional “toes in the sand” experience.

In fact, the ultimate compliment has been bestowed on Gulf State Park’s Eagle Cottages by National Geographic with a Unique Lodges of the World designation, the only such recognition for any facility east of the Rocky Mountains in the U.S.

The Unique Lodges program is a highly selective process. Only 56 properties worldwide are included in the program. Only six other properties are in the United States, two in Alaska and four in the West.

Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said he always knew Alabama was special, but he’s glad that National Geographic will now draw the world’s attention to the biological and cultural diversity throughout our great state.

“I think this is very fitting that we are recognized by National Geographic,” Blankenship said. “This is a significant milestone for Alabama. This opens us up to about 730 million people through the National Geographic magazine or their digital network around the world. A good portion of those 730 million people don’t know that Alabama has such beauty and biodiversity.

“This will not only be good for the Gulf State Park and the Alabama Gulf Coast, but people also will learn that we have the largest artificial reef program in the world. They will learn how special the Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta are. They will also learn that Alabama is No. 1 in aquatic biodiversity.”

Commissioner Blankenship further highlighted the great range of special places in Alabama, from the river shoals that feature the Cahaba lily in Bibb County, to the Red Hills salamander habitat in Monroe County, to the beauty of the Paint Rock River Valley in north Alabama.

“Working with National Geographic has been great. They did not realize what a wonderful place the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is until they came for some site visits,” he said. “Then they looked at other opportunities in the area that included the Grand Bay Savanna and Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. It was an eye-opening experience for them.

“We think it will be that way for so many people around the world once National Geographic starts to promote the Eagle Cottages. I can’t express how big this is for Alabama as a whole.”

Chandra Wright, Director of Environmental and Educational Initiatives at The Lodge at Gulf State Park, said the Eagle Cottages program is one aspect of the overall Gulf State Park (GSP) Project. The vision statement of Gulf State Park reads: “Gulf State Park will be an international benchmark for environmental and economic sustainability, demonstrating best practices for outdoor recreation, education and hospitable accommodations.”

“A typical National Geographic traveler is looking for property committed to taking care of the environment, taking care of the resources, taking care of the local communities and making sure we preserve those assets for the future,” Wright said. “It also includes immersing the traveler in the local culture. We’re targeting a slightly different traveler than we normally target in coastal Alabama.”

With the Unique Lodges designation, Gulf State Park will have access to National Geographic resources, including training to elevate the visitor experience.

“Our staff who undergo that training will be able to promote themselves as a National Geographic guide,” Wright said. “We’ll be working with National Geographic to bring additional programs to the park. It’s exciting to see what’s going to happen over the next few years.”

“The 11 cottages fit in the concept of a National Geographic Unique Lodge, which is focused on an international traveler who wants to really engage in the local community,” Wright said. “That includes local history, local nature, cultural heritage and really getting to know the community.”

Almost a year ago, a ‘freshening’ of the facilities started that included painting, adding new furniture and replacing artwork that better reflected the local environment and heritage.

“We established a theme that the communities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach grew up around, which was a fishing community,” Wright said. “So, we thought about the old fish camps that were up on stilts. That’s how the original structures were based.

“We had to figure out how to translate that concept to Eagle Cottages. We rebranded and made more of an authentic Alabama fish camp experience but also worked in some additional sustainability features. All the light fixtures were replaced with LED bulbs. Appliances are being replaced with more energy efficient models. We’re embracing some of the things we’re doing at The Lodge, but also we’re testing some concepts at the cottages that may translate later to the 350-room Lodge.”

One aspect that makes the Eagle Cottages so special is the goal of providing a personalized guest experience, Wright said.

“We’re putting packages together where we can get to know our guests on an individual basis,” she said. “When we find out what their interests are, we can steer them to some personalized experiences. One of the things we talk about is the amount of biodiversity on the Alabama Gulf Coast. We have relationships with outfitters in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, at Dauphin Island, down at Fort Morgan as well as Gulf Shores-Orange Beach. This allows us to get people out to have a more intimate experience through kayaking, fishing or going on Delta tours.

“If they want to know about our local artists and artisans, we can set them up with a tour of the Coastal Arts Center in Orange Beach and give them the opportunity to take a glass-blowing class or a clay-throwing class, so they get to know some of the local people and engage in a hands-on experience.”

Because of this enriched visitor experience, the GSP Project team reached out to Costas Christ, a National Geographic (NatGeo) travel editor who advises NatGeo on sustainable tourism.

A friend of famed biologist, naturalist, author and native Alabamian E.O. Wilson, Christ was somewhat familiar with Alabama but had no idea of the vastness of the natural wonders that make Alabama special.

“Costas didn’t really appreciate our wealth of biodiversity until we got him to come down in December of 2017,” Wright said. “He spent three days in coastal Alabama, and we tried to give him a crash course in everything we have to offer. We took him around Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan. We took him to Bird and Robinson islands. We took him to Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge to showcase our biodiversity, our Native American history, our Civil War history, and we convinced him that we were worthy of National Geographic coming into the park. He has been helping us on how to transition these cottages into something that would be worthy of National Geographic selection. Christ has visited coastal Alabama every four months since December 2017, and he explores a different section of coastal Alabama on each visit.

“We took him to see the Delta by boat. We took him to Mobile to see a portion of the African American Heritage Trail. He had no idea we had that amount of African American heritage in our area. That got National Geographic interested in finding the Clotilda (considered the last American slave ship), which was recently discovered. He was blown away by our natural biodiversity and our cultural heritage that people around the South, around the United States and around the world have no idea about. This gives us an opportunity to educate people worldwide on what we have to offer.”

One way Eagle Cottages’ management and Wright have reached out to visitors is through an afternoon manager’s reception at the Eagle Cottages office, called the Eagle’s Nest. Coastal Alabama-specific snacks, sweet tea and lemonade provided by the park’s Woodside Restaurant are served as Cottages manager Mark Larkin and Wright interact with the guests about what coastal Alabama has to offer.

Visit www.eaglecottagesatgsp.com/ for more information.

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