Gulf State Park Renovations on Schedule
By: Rick Harmon, Alabama Tourism Department
MONTGOMERY (Governor’s Office) – Major developments at Gulf State Park that range from a beach environmental center to a 350-room lodge for family reunions are under construction and on schedule to open within two years, Gov. Robert Bentley announced today.
Creating miles of trails for biking and hiking and restoring sugary white sand dunes that would cover the equivalent of 50 football fields will be completed even earlier, he said.
Bentley, who tasked the University of Alabama System and the Alabama Department of Conservation to work together on the $135 million project, said that the work won’t be funded through taxes but financed with funds that BP provided to restore the economy along the Gulf Coast after the 2010 oil spill.
Three of the projects are currently under construction: the dune restoration, the trails and trail enhancements, and the lodge and meeting space.
All five components will open by summer 2018 with the trails expected to open by spring 2017, he said.
The redevelopment, which Gov. Robert Bentley promised voters before his election in 2010, is expected to be a huge boon to an already surging Gulf Coast economy.
“This will preserve and enhance the natural wonders of Gulf State Park, make it a national showplace and teaching tool, while also boosting the economy of the state,” Bentley said.
The Gulf State Park project was one of the first Alabama projects approved by the Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustee Council, which was set up to disperse BP money and includes representatives from four federal agencies and the five affected states. But some have protested the move, and filed lawsuits, saying the funds shouldn’t be used on Gulf State Park because it was damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 rather than the oil spill.
The renovation includes $56 million to replace the park lodge. That will add 350 rooms and a 40,000 square-foot ballroom, the biggest on the Gulf Coast, which will create a major space for meetings.
“We know there is pent-up demand for additional meeting space on our coast,” said Herb Malone, president and CEO of the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism. “This should help meet that demand and bring in larger groups that may not have been able to hold their meetings or conventions here before.”
But Lee Sentell, director of state tourism, said the redeveloped park won’t just attract conventions. He expects it to become a major ecological tourist site.
“The last six governors talked about investing in Gulf State Park to reach its potential, but Gov. Bentley made good on his campaign promise with vision and money,” Sentell said.
“Because of the Governor’s vision in redeveloping this park, it will be a major draw for those who want to learn as well as experience nature in a new and exciting way.”
Since 2003, the amount tourism has contributed to the general fund has more than doubled, going from $23 million to $47 million. In 2015, Alabama tourism created $12.6 billion in visitor spending, generating about $798 million in state and local taxes.
Malone said the redevelopment at Gulf State Park will only help Gulf Coast tourism, both as a premier ecological park and as a meeting space that will help the state get a larger share of convention business.
“It would give us a larger meeting space than we currently have, and it would mean more meetings held here during our shoulder seasons,” Malone said. “That will generate more year-round jobs and bring Alabama association’s meetings, many of which have had to be held in Florida because we simply didn’t have the space, back to Alabama.”
Preserving parks ecosystems
Project spokeswomen Nisa Miranda said Gulf State Park is a unique asset to Alabama in that it contains eight distinct ecosystems and with both beach and forest ecologies inside a single park.
She said improving access to both ecologies will help attract tourists to the region even when it isn’t peak season for the coast. The renovation project consulted several internationally renowned experts who collaborated on developing the environmentally sensitive projects at the park.
One of the major ones is the dune project.
Jill Dixon is with Sasaki Associates, a firm of landscape architects that has worked on the master plan for the renovations, including work with the Volkert engineering firm responsible for the Dune Restoration Project.
“Our team, comprised of some of the nation’s foremost experts in their respective fields, will be using innovative techniques and native plantings to rebuild the equivalent of more than 50 football fields of dunes,” she said.
They have come up with a way to encourage the dunes to naturally form themselves, which will make them more resilient than man-made dunes. The innovative techniques being developed and used for the park are the focus of an article in the March 2016 edition of Landscape Architecture, the magazine of the American Society of Landscape Architects.
The result of these techniques should be more protection from storms and for the animals that use the dunes as core habitats, including hundreds of migratory bird species and such endangered species as loggerhead sea turtles, least terns and the Alabama beach mouse.
“The purpose of these renovations are to respect the existing ecologies while working with nature to preserve the beauty and specialness of the the park,” Miranda said.
Alabama’s coastal classroom
Miranda, who said cooperation between the state and the University of Alabama system on the project has been seamless, is also proud of another part of the renovation – making the park “Alabama’s coastal classroom.”
The renovations include: a learning campus, a new environmental research and education program that will include a center with classrooms, research facilities and even visitor dorms; a nature center within the campground where visitors can meet with the park’s naturalist to find out about the ecology and to take guided walks; and an interpretive center on the beach that will inspire families to take their own self-guided tours of the trails.
The trails also will be improved. There will be seven trails through six distinct ecosystems spanning 11.5 miles. The enhancement project will add 9.5 miles of new trails for hiking and biking.
While rebuilding the destroyed lodge, the team has gone to great lengths to make the 350-room lodge fit in with its environment.
The new lodge has a smaller footprint than the previous one and is set more than 125 feet further back from the beaches to encourage dune formation.
“Making it environmentally sustainable has been a big focus of the renovation,” Miranda said. “Everything from how it has been constructed, to the materials used in its construction, to how it will operate has been done so that it will have less of an environmental impact than other types of construction.”
Improved ecology equals improved economy
Being green, may lead to another kind of green.
Miranda says the more the park promotes its environment, the more popular it will be with visitors.
Sentell agrees, saying the park’s mixture of unique ecosystems and environmental teaching initiatives could make it a major ecotourism site.
The renovated park’s popularity won’t just help the local economy, but will bring in tourism that will help the general fund and will particularly help other state parks that now largely depend on state park user fees for their funding.
“The Legislature has had difficulty adequately funding the state park system, and the fees Gulf State Park will bring in once it has been redeveloped will be a godsend to financially beleaguered parks throughout the state,” Bentley said.
The redeveloped park is also expected to keep the Gulf Coast’s tourism numbers soaring.
“The beach drives state tourism,” Sentell said. “The entire state benefits from this, both through the funds going to the general fund and from the money tourists spend in counties throughout the state while they are driving to the beach.”
As an example, 400,000 more visitors came to Baldwin County in 2015 than in 2014, and Malone believes from what he’s seen so far in 2016 that Alabama’s Gulf Coast will likely have a sixth straight record-breaking year.