Tourism Tuesdays December 1, 2015

  • Heritage could pay off for Black Belt
  • Mobile officials hope the good times roll with new Mardi Gras Park
  • Construction to start on the dual-branded Hilton Hotel in downtown Birmingham
  • Governor’s Mansion open for Candlelight Tours
  • Capitol Christmas Tree lighting ceremony is Friday
  • Welcome Center Holiday Open House
  • Alabama Tourism Department (ATD) upcoming events



Heritage could pay off for Black Belt

By Brad Harper, Montgomery Advertiser, Nov. 24

The swath of rural Alabama that makes up the Black Belt is rich in things like culture and history, but not in money or jobs.

New federal legislation could help change that by creating a national designation, pumping funds into tourism and uniting the region’s efforts to lure people off the Interstate.

Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, said she plans to introduce the Alabama Black Belt Heritage Act in the next few weeks, with support from the rest of the state’s congressional delegation. It would allow the area to compete for new federal funding, among other things.

“My staff is meeting with Sen. (Richard) Shelby’s staff this week and next week so that we can develop a plan of action to try to get this act passed,” Sewell said earlier this month.

The 19-county section of west and southwest Alabama includes some of the highest unemployment rates in the state. It’s also full of natural beauty and some of the most important sites in civil rights history.

State Tourism Director Lee Sentell ran through a list of the possibilities – farm stays, equestrian trails, the breed of luxury camping called “glamping,” and more. Then he rattled off some of the writers and artists who have made the area home.

“There’s so much richness – stories, agriculture, history, food – that it will be an easy sell once we get this,” Sentell said. “This is an underserved area, where there is not enough (tourism) infrastructure.”

Speaking at a Nov. 12 summit about the possibilities for the Black Belt, Sentell noted that there’s not even a post office where you can get a Gee’s Bend postmark. Instead, a postcard sent from the community of famous quilters says “Boykin.”

Still, one of the area’s biggest problems isn’t how to get people to visit, but how to get them to stay.

A lack of opportunity – and better opportunities elsewhere – have led to a steadily declining population and workforce for many Black Belt cities. Alabama Power Western Division Manager Joseph Brown said Tennessee incentives recently lured away a Black Belt business that had 350 employees.

“That doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but that was the biggest employer in that community,” Brown said. “Not only were the jobs lost, but the spouses were lost. The students – 112 students – left, too.”

Brown said the loss of rural hospitals has made the problem worse, making it more difficult to bring in new industries and new residents.

“Manufacturing has to be within 30 miles of a hospital for liability purposes,” he said.

Brown has worked closely with University of West Alabama President Ken Tucker on development programs for the region. Tucker said years of population loss left the area with a core group of residents who either can’t leave or don’t want to because “they want to stay and make it better.”

A new national designation could help in that way by uniting the area’s marketing efforts and changing how people think of it, leaders said.

Alabama Department of Commerce Deputy Secretary Angela Till said that kind of regionalism can have ripple effects.

“It would improve people’s perception of these areas and the quality of life there, and all of that flows back up to economic development,” Till said. “Companies that are looking for a new site take all of those things into consideration.”

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Mobile officials hope the good times roll with new Mardi Gras Park

By John Sharp,, Nov. 24

For Mobile city officials, it’s Laissez les bons temps rouler after the City Council gave a thumbs up Tuesday to building a park named after the city’s historic Mardi Gras festival.

A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday on a vacant piece of land surrounded by Royal, Church and Government streets that once housed the courthouses.

Within six-to-nine months, the land will be transformed into what some city leaders hope is Mobile’s answer to the French Market in New Orleans or the City Market in Charleston, S.C.

“All great cities have urban parks,” Mobile City Councilman Joel Daves said, citing Central Park in New York City and the Boston Common, which is the oldest city park in the U.S.

“This is a great public-private partnership to create a park that will be an ornament in this city for years to come,” he said.

The council unanimously approved a $2.2 million contract with Ben M. Radcliff Contractor Inc. to oversee the first phase of the two-phase project. The company will manage the leveling of the park’s surface and the construction of retaining walls, extra parking, sidewalks, lighting and other features.

In addition, the council approved a $251,366 bid with Holmes & Holmes Architect to handle the park’s design, $17,500 with Southern Earth Sciences Inc. for construction materials and testing and $13,000 with Clark, Geer, Latham & Associates Inc. for inspector services.

Of the $2.5 million the council endorsed, $980,000 is privately financed through the Hearin-Chandler Foundation, which committed funds in the early 2000s to help subsidize a park dedicated to Mobile’s Mardi Gras festival. As part of the foundation’s contribution, the park is to include Mardi Gras-related statues and other markers linking the city’s history to the annual pre-Lenten Carnival that draws hundreds of thousands of revelers to downtown each year for parades and masquerade balls.

“It will showcase the fact that we’re the birthplace of Mardi Gras here in the United States,” City Councilman Levon Manzie said.

The city’s investment was paid for through a $1.2 million reallocation of economic development money to the Capital Fund.

The money was originally dedicated for the project in 2008. At the time, the city opted to move a large amount of it for the development of a bridge on Michigan Avenue to accommodate motorists to the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley, home to the new $600 million Airbus manufacturing plant.

Mobile City Councilman Fred Richardson had expressed reservations about the funding over concerns about how much money was available for economic development projects. The city could be asked to pay for up to $1 million in infrastructure improvements to accommodate a new grocery store in midtown Mobile, and Richardson said that the fund could be utilized for that.

Richardson did not comment during the meeting, but council members said they got satisfactory information from the city’s administration about the fund.

Meanwhile, the project’s second phase — estimated to cost around $2 million — includes the addition of a pavilion and, possibly, an enclosed marketplace. City officials have said they are seeking private financing to support the second phase that is inspired by features in other southern U.S. cities.

“We don’t have that park or marketplace and the second phase is where we put up a pavilion that will serve as a marketplace comparable with (similar venues in New Orleans, Charleston and Savannah, Ga.),” Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said. “That is, to me, when the real excitement starts.”

For now, the park’s initial development is viewed as creating a park providing a centralized gathering spot for downtown employees and others who come to Mobile. The park is also centrally located on a popular Mardi Gras parade route, and is a visible location next to the History Museum of Mobile, Fort Conde, the Gulf Coast Exploreum, Christ Church Cathedral and Government Plaza.

“I’m excited we’ll have this first-class entertainment and quality of life amenity in downtown Mobile,” Manzie said.

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Construction to start on the dual-branded Hilton Hotel in downtown Birmingham

By Kelly Poe,, Nov. 24

Developers officially broke ground on a Hilton hotel that’s the first of its kind in the country on Tuesday.

Dothan-based LBA Properties, Sunbelt Development and Hollis & Spann will develop the double-branded Hilton Hotel, which will feature a Hilton Garden Inn and Home2 Suites, a Hilton extended stay brand. That combination is the first of its kind in the country.

The two brands will share a common check-in point and share amenities like office space, a pool and a fitness center. The hotel will have 210 rooms total as well as a restaurant and bar.  

Construction is scheduled to finish in about 18 months.

“This will be the first dual-branded hotel in Birmingham,” said Hayne Hollis, a managing partner of Sunbelt Development. “It will also be the first entire city block developed under Parkside guidelines since the city adopted those rules.”

Parkside – defined as the rectangle of 13th Street South, 4th Avenue South, 20th Street south and the Railroad corridor – has seen millions of dollars in private development in recent years, from apartments to Alabama Power’s Powell Avenue Steam Plant to Regions Field. 

Children’s of Alabama sold the land at 250 18th St. S. to the developers, who got approval from Birmingham’s Design Review Committee in May.

Mayor William Bell said the city had been working with Children’s for years on what to do with the piece of land, and had previously considered building a parking deck there.

“We’ve been looking at this spot for a long time,” Bell said. “When I found out they were proposing a hotel for this property, I said, ‘Thank goodness they didn’t build a parking deck there.'”

There are two other hotel projects currently under construction in downtown Birmingham.

Buford, Ga.’s Ascent Hospitality announced it would undertake a $45 million redevelopment of the Empire Building at 1928 1st Ave. N. and open two adjoining Marriott brand hotels, including an Autograph collection hotel.

The Redmont Hotel is expected to open later this year after a massive renovation. The $20 million renovation will bring a rooftop bar and a cafe.

To read this article online, go to:

Governor’s Mansion open for Candlelight Tours

Gov. Bentley will open the Governor’s Mansion for candlelight tours on the first three Monday nights in December from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. 

Designers from across the state have volunteered their time to decorate the Governor’s Mansion and the neighboring Hill House for the candlelight tours.  “The Governor’s Mansion belongs to the people of Alabama and I want to share it with them during this wonderful season,” said Bentley. 

Tickets for the tours are available free of charge at the gift shop prior to the tours each day.  The gift shop is located at 30 Finley Avenue across the street from the side entrance of the mansion.

The designers working on decorating the mansion include Jerry Thrash with Capitol’s Rosemont Gardens in Montgomery, Millie Radney with The Arrangement in Birmingham, Cathy Wayman with C. Wayman Floral & Events in Auburn, Evan G. Cooper with Evan & Company in Montgomery and Crystal Strickland with Southern Posies in Montgomery

Choirs scheduled to perform include the Trinity Presbyterian Children’s Choir from Montgomery on Dec. 7, Forrest Avenue Academic Magnet Elementary School Choir from Montgomery on Dec. 14 and Mobile’s Singing Children Choir on Dec. 21.

The Governor’s Mansion is a 1907 Colonial Revival house located at 1142 South Perry Street in Montgomery and has served as the official residence for governors of Alabama since 1951.  The neighboring Farley-Hill House became part of the Governor’s Mansion complex in 2003 and will also be open for the candlelight tours.

The mansion will be open for candlelight tours from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 7, 14 and 21.   More information is available about the Governor’s Mansion Candlelight Tours by going online at

Capitol Christmas Tree lighting ceremony is Friday

The annual Capitol Christmas tree lighting ceremony will be held Fri., Dec. 4, at 5:30 p.m. on the front steps of the State Capitol.  The ceremony will feature Gov. Robert Bentley, Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey, Secretary of State John Merrill, Treasurer Young Boozer and special musical guest Taylor Hicks. The state Christmas tree is an Eastern Red Cedar grown in Bullock County and is approximately 38 feet tall.  The tree will be decorated with more than 40,000 lights and 67 stars, one representing each of Alabama’s counties.

The tree lighting ceremony will be followed by a Capitol Open House from 6-7 p.m.  There will be refreshments, an art show, photos with Santa Claus and a gift collection for foster children.


Welcome Center Holiday Open House

Welcome Centers around the state are always helpful, friendly and welcoming to guests from around the world.  Our talented Welcome Center staffs also work with the communities where they are located.  During December they have a Holiday Open House to celebrate the holidays with food and fun. 

See the Alabama Tourism Department (ATD) upcoming events below for each center’s open house date.


Alabama Tourism Department (ATD) upcoming events

Nov 30 – Dec 3           Travel South International Showcase – Charlotte, NC

Dec 3                           Holiday Open House – Cleburne Welcome Center

Dec 7                           Governor’s Mansion Candlelight Tour – Montgomery

Dec 8                           Holiday Open House – Lanett & Sumter Welcome Centers

Dec 9                           Holiday Open House – DeKalb Welcome Center

Dec 10                         Holiday Open House – Ardmore Welcome Center

Dec 14                         Governor’s Mansion Candlelight Tour – Montgomery

Dec 15                         Holiday Open House – Grand Bay Welcome Center

Dec 17                         Holiday Open House – Baldwin Welcome Center

Dec 21                         Governor’s Mansion Candlelight Tour – Montgomery



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