Tourism Tuesdays June 21, 2016

  • Spirit of America Festival celebrates 50 years
  • Travel Channel names Birmingham one of the Next 11 Great Destinations
  • Alabama has one of the summer’s top travel destinations – but it’s not the beach
  • Birmingham to Memphis I-22 and I-65 interchange open for traffic
  • Singer-songwriter Amy Black pays tribute to an American institution with her Muscle Shoals Music Revue
  • Buildings next to Muscle Shoals studio demolished
  • features Alabama itinerary: Florence area boasts fashion and fame
  • I quit a successful 15-year career in tech to be a cheese maker
  • Dutch travel writer soaks in local music scene
  • Teachers from 25 countries attend space camp in Huntsville
  • The U.S. Space & Rocket Center announces 2016 class of the Space Camp Hall of Fame
  • Alabama Tourism Department (ATD) upcoming events


Spirit of America Festival celebrates 50 years

Spirit of America Festival celebrates golden anniversary in 2016 and has been named a Top 10 event for the state.

For 50 years, the City of Decatur, Alabama has been proud to host the Spirit of America Festival and provide free, family entertainment to thousands of area residents in celebration of the 4th of July. 

The festival began in 1967 during the height of the Vietnam War amid rising protest as a way to show community support for the fighting men and women of the Armed Services.

This annual celebration honors the contributions of those Americans, both past and present, who have dedicated their lives to the preservation of our freedoms both at home and abroad.

This year, the festival has been named a Top 10 event for the state by the Alabama Tourism Department.  The star-spangled fun begins on June 29, and culminates with a spectacular fireworks show on the night of July 4.

Headlining this year’s event is Craig Wayne Boyd, an American country singer and songwriter best known for winning season seven of NBC’s The Voice competition.

Most activities take place in Point Mallard Park and admission to the festival and all concerts is free. 

For more information, visit or visit its Facebook page.


Travel Channel names Birmingham one of the Next 11 Great Destinations

By Jenny Adams, Travel Channel

We’ve found every lagoon and towering peak, and thanks to technology, we only need seconds to inform our friends of the epic stretch of deserted beach we just discovered. Yet, despite our best efforts, destinations remain cyclical.

They ebb and flow in popularity over the decades and centuries.

For all you true travelers out there looking for the coolest passport stamps of 2016, we bring you the 11 Next Great Destinations.


This mid-sized Southern city can now claim America’s oldest baseball park (Rickwood Field) and one of the newest with Regions Field, opened in 2013. Avondale Brewery, Good People Brewing and Trim Tab Brewing have all opened over the last few years, creating a craft beer scene to go along with the city’s serious culinary talent. The James Beard Awards nominated Highlands Bar & Grill in the national, Outstanding Restaurant category this year.

This January, the historic Lyric Theater reopened across from the famous Alabama Theater downtown. Mae West, The Marx Brothers, Roy Rogers and Buster Keaton all found a spotlight in this vaudeville theater and after being shuttered for decades, it’s fully restored to its former glory. Expect national and global acts in performance art and music regularly.

To read this entire article online, go to:


Alabama has one of the summer’s top travel destinations – but it’s not the beach

By Mitchell Kilpatrick,, June 17

Looking for a fun place to visit for the summer? Well look no further than Sweet Home Alabama. The Yellowhammer State is home to one of Forbes’ 20 best summer destinations, but it’s not where you might think. While Alabama’s beaches are some of the best in the world, Forbes listed Birmingham among the 20 best cities for summer travel in North America.

Forbes partnered with travel site Lonely Planet to create a list of 20 cities throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Here’s what they had to say about Birmingham:

Lonely Planet called Birmingham one of the most unexpectedly exciting places to see in the U.S. in 2016, and it’s easy to see why. History buffs can tour the Civil Rights District; music lovers can explore the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and foodies have a plethora of great dining spots like barbecue at Saw’s. Looking for drinks? There’s a 24-hour bar filled with comic book art and Star Wars memorabilia.

Forbes and Lonely Planet based their list on factors that included cost of accommodations (and whether Airbnb or home-sharing was available), accessibility of the destination, and the price of entertainment and cultural attractions. Forbes specifically wanted to find destinations that would appeal to younger travelers.

Other U.S. cities included on the list were Austin, TX; Boulder, CO, Jacksonville, FL; Las Vegas, NV; Oakland, CA; Palm Springs, CA; Pittsburgh, PA; Portland, OR; St. Louis, MO; and Washington, D.C.

Birmingham’s stock continues to rise. The Magic City has seen a revival of sorts in the past decade. According to the Birmingham Business Alliance, the Magic City has been included on 117 positive ranking national lists since 2011, including 26 already in 2016. Birmingham has been called one of the most misunderstood cities, one of the happiest cities for workers, the best city for millennial entrepreneurs, one of the best cities for first-time home buyers, one of the best cities for employee engagement, along with many more accolades.

To read this article online, go to:


Birmingham to Memphis I-22 and I-65 interchange open for traffic

By Charles J. Dean,, June 20

It was first talked about more than 60 years ago.

Ground was broken to build its first section in northern Mississippi in 1978.

It has taken the almost four decades since then to complete the 213-mile highway between Memphis and Birmingham at a cost well over a billion dollars.

But on Monday, I-22, probably better known by its old name, Corridor X, was officially completed and opened by the cutting of a wide red ribbon by Gov. Robert Bentley and a dozen other state, county and federal officials.  The ribbon cutting took place within sight of where I-22 connects to I-65 in northern Jefferson County in Fultondale.

Long sections of I-22 have been opened for several years.  The final work connecting I-22 to I-65 began in 2010 at a cost of $168 million.

Once called the highway to nowhere, the highway has seen more than its share of fighting to build and fund over the years.  Politicians, economic developers and road builders fought to build the road and were opposed by a coalition of people concerned about its impact on the environment and its high costs.

But on Monday all the words that were said were words of praise and hope about what the new highway will mean.

“What a great day for the state of Alabama and particularly this part of Alabama which is affected by this interstate,” Bentley told a crowd of several hundred who had come to watch the highway officially open.

Bentley said the new I-22 will help a part of Alabama develop that has needed help a long time.

“This has been a long time in the planning,” said Bentley. “I appreciate the patience of the people of northwest Alabama who have waited for a corridor like this that will connect their part of the state with the rest of the state.”

Bentley said economic development in the state is impossible without good infrastructure and the new highway provides infrastructure much needed if northwest Alabama is to develop.

Brian Hilson, president and CEO of the Birmingham Business Alliance, called I-22 the opening of a door to growth and economic development.

“We feel the opening of I-22 and this interchange at I-65 will open many doors that will continue to strengthen not only our regional economy but Alabama statewide and maybe most importantly, make lives better for all of our citizens,” said Hilson.

To read this article online, go to:


Singer-songwriter Amy Black pays tribute to an American institution with her Muscle Shoals Music Revue

By Danielle Immerman, Scene, June 13

Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones. What do all of these talented musicians have in common? They all recorded music in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Known for recording many hit songs from the 1960s to today, Muscle Shoals is the music industry’s best kept secret. Because the city has two recording studios, FAME studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, it wasn’t uncommon for an infamous artist to be recording there at any given time. However, not many people know this. Few know the history and story of Muscle Shoals, which is why Amy Black, a singer-songwriter and Muscle Shoals educator, decided to record the Muscle Shoals Sessions. She brings her “Muscle Shoals Music Revue” to the Beachland Ballroom on Thursday.

Born to two Sheffield natives, one of four towns that make up Muscle Shoals, Black got into music and learned about Muscle Shoals later in life.

“I started singing when I was 35; I always had a good voice, but I was working for a software company in Boston and we owned a house and life was nice and normal and I remember sitting at the kitchen table one night thinking you know, I never tried doing anything with my voice,” she says via phone. “So I started at an open mic in my little town and then it just kept building, people started coming out to shows and then I started writing music and then I started recording. It started becoming what I wanted to do, so two and half years ago I left corporate America, and I’ve been touring and making music ever since. It’s a pretty cool way to go into your forties.”

Part of what makes Black’s music career so successful is her strong, soulful vocals which can be accredited to her upbringing.

“I sang a lot at church and at home growing up; the church we went to didn’t have any instrumentation so it was really just about your vocals,” she says. “I got comfortable with my own voice and learned to not rely on music, so now I try to do one a cappella song at every show.”

Additionally, Black grew up listening to talented female vocalists which no doubt helped shape Black into one herself.

“When I was 16, I found Bonnie Raitt for the first time and that was really eye opening,” she says. “She continues to be one of my top influences, and I had never heard of her; it was way more rootsy and it had the electric slide guitar, and I was like, ‘What is this?’ It was so different from anything that was on the radio. And then I started listening to the jazz ladies and worked my way through the older stuff when I was in college. Now, pretty much everything I listen to is the Muscle Shoals stuff and Mavis Staples. I really love a soulful sound; that’s what’s moving me right now.”

With a solid foundation of musical experience under her belt by way of two albums, Black decided to pay homage to her roots by recording some original music in Muscle Shoals. But what she originally planned to be a four-song EP turned into a full length 12-track album due to the outpour of positive responses the four songs and the Muscle Shoals Revue received.

However, a 12-track album is only a small sliver of Muscle Shoals music, so deciding which songs to include on Blacks’ The Muscle Shoals Sessions was no doubt a difficult process.

“I listened to the full catalog of songs recorded in Muscle Shoals; I was trying to find songs that I could sing and bring something to, but I didn’t want super iconic songs because I didn’t want to be compared to Aretha or Etta James because I’m not them, I’m me,” she says. “I tried to find songs that were a little bit more obscure and I tried to find quite a few songs that men had sung because I thought it would be interesting to bring a female voice to those songs. It was a mix of high energy and slow burners that have a really cool groove.”

With nine Muscle Shoals originals, Black then decided to throw in three original songs. She wrote “Please Don’t Give Up on Me,” “Woman on Fire” and “Get to Me.”

“I wrote ‘Please Don’t Give Up on Me’ in the vein of the Muscle Shoals era, it’s meant to have a nostalgic Muscle Shoals feel to it while ‘Woman on Fire’ is a song I wrote when I was down in Texas; I wanted it to kind of have a sexy feel to it,” she says. “And ‘Get to me’ I wrote with a motown feel in mind; I had two options for melodies, but the motown feel wasn’t working which is how we ended up with the melody that you hear now.”

What makes Black’s original tracks so unusual is probably that fact that she isn’t a conventional songwriter.

“I’m not one of those people that writes down everything in a notebook; I probably should do that, but a lot of the times I’ll start singing a couple of words in the car and then I just start singing that. Like with ‘Get to Me,’ I started with the chorus, but it wasn’t coming from a certain place. I don’t always know what’s happening, it just happens.”

The result is musical brilliance. Black’s deep, rich vocals intertwine perfectly with the unusual instrumentals and lyrics, leaving the songs pleasantly ringing in your ears for hours to come.

To read this article online, go to:


Buildings next to Muscle Shoals studio demolished

By Robert Palmer,, June 19

The long-empty buildings behind Muscle Shoals Sound Studios have been demolished, making way for new facilities at the iconic studio. 

“Getting those buildings down paves the way for the next phase of our efforts to preserve the legacy of Muscle Shoals music,” said Judy Hood, president of the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation, which owns the studio.

“While the foundation board has not made a final decision on how to best utilize the property behind the studio, we have discussed several possibilities,” she said. “Our eventual goal is to build a facility on the property that would house a Muscle Shoals music museum, a small performance venue and a gift shop.”

The foundation bought the studio at 3614 Jackson Highway in 2013.  The previous owner had restored the building to a recording studio after it had fallen into disrepair and had been used as an appliance store.

The foundation, with a grant from Beats Electronics by Dr. Dre, is restoring Muscle Shoals Sound to its early 1970s appearance, when it hosted artists ranging from the Rolling Stones, Traffic, the Staple Singers, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The studio, which opened in 1969, was moved to more spacious quarters on the Tennessee River in 1978 by its owners, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. They sold the studio to Malaco Records in the mid-1980s.

Most of the restoration is complete, but wiring for a vintage recording console is still underway. The lobby of the studio is open, where visitors may buy souvenirs.

“The studio itself is not ready to open to the public,” Hood said. “There is still a lot of work to do to get the recording piece of the project ready to roll.”

Rodney Hall of FAME Recording Studios, and a member of the foundation’s board, supervised the installation of a vintage API recording console that was owned by Chet Atkins.  He said the console is from the same era that the studio restoration will reflect when completed.

The plan is to make Muscle Shoals Sound a working studio at night and a museum by day, much like Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee.

“Music enthusiasts from all over the world are watching this process, so we can’t open this iconic studio to the public until we can present it in its very best light,” Hood said. “Our best guess is that we may be able to open for tours in late July. We will open for tours before we are open as a recording facility.”

The studio has been closed since September, when restoration began.  Even closed, it is attracting visitors from around the world.  Since March 2014, when tours began, 30,000 people from 42 counties and all 50 states have visited the studio. 

To read this article online, go to: features Alabama itinerary: Florence area boasts fashion and fame

Group Tour Media,, June 6

From Native American and pioneer tradition to award-winning retail stores and music studios, groups are bound to find their particular interests in the Florence area.

This two-day sample itinerary was provided by the Florence/Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.

To read this entire article and the itinerary online, go to:


I quit a successful 15-year career in tech to be a cheese maker

By Krista Soriano, Country Living, June 15

This Alabama native turned her love of food into a thriving business.?

“I tell people I’m half Greek and half Alabaman,” says Tasis Malakasis, meaning that to her, sharing good food in the company of friends and family is everything. “Food is all-important to both cultures. At any kind of gathering, you’re offered something to eat or drink before you’re even asked how you are.”

Malakasis, who helms the Belle Chèvre Creamery in Alabama and has authored two cookbooks on Southern-style cooking, was reared on plate after plate of high-heaping portions as an expression of love.  From childhood, food was, as she puts it, the “universal, no-language-needed communication that you’re welcome here.”  That simple truth never faded, even after she left her home in Alabama to launch a career in tech and marketing.

For 15 years, Malakasis bulked up a dynamite résumé in Silicon Valley, Philadelphia and New York, building startups and helping usher large media companies like Gannett into the digital age. It was the early aughts, the tech space was booming, and she welcomed her first child — Malakasis, by all appearances, was set for life.

But there was always something missing, an itch she couldn’t quite scratch no matter how high on the executive ladder she climbed. 

“I never knew ‘cheese maker’ was even an option?.”

She took a sabbatical while in New York, and enrolled herself in the Culinary Institute of America located north of the city. The first class she took? Career Exploration. “I was in this class with a bunch of disgruntled attorneys and brokers from New York,” she recalls. “Everyone was trying to figure out the same thing: What do we do with this passion we have for food?”

Fortunately, jumping ship into the food world was a feasible option for Malakasis, whose experience and background in startups equipped her to build and create a business. But it wasn’t until she noticed a piece of Belle Chèvre goat cheese — a product made in her home state of Alabama — at gourmet New York food shop Dean & Deluca that she realized exactly what she wanted to do.

“I never knew ‘cheese maker’ was even an option,” Malakasis says. “But at the time, Alabama wasn’t really known for great food. I thought, here’s a great opportunity to expand on something and also come home and highlight what’s beautiful in Alabama.”

She visited the Belle Chèvre Creamery in Elkton, met the founder and never looked back.  Her son was three years old when she quit her job, and that same night, she emailed the Belle Chèvre founder saying, “I’m coming home to make cheese.  Can I work under you for free?”

After a year of learning about artisan cheese-making, Malakasis bought the company in 2007 with a four-year earn out, which is an extended time to pay for the acquisition of the business. (She’ll be the first to say that though she had no capital to buy a business, she was familiar with acquisitions and mergers from her time in the startup space, and she also had a very willing seller).  She’s since grown and rebranded Belle Chèvre’s fine cheeses as approachable, accessible and non-intimidating — no doubt the effects of her upbringing.

“The desire to do it was stronger than the fear of worrying about the obstacles.”

“It’s not that I grew up thinking, oh my gosh, cheese is the only food I really enjoy, if I could just cut cheese for the rest of my life I would be so happy! It could have been pickles,” Malakasis muses. “But it wasn’t pickles. It was the idea of taking something small and growing it. Belle Chèvre didn’t even have a computer when I started.”

Now, the company has grown its distribution worldwide and is turning out not just cheese, but ice cream, cheesecake, yogurt, milk and other dairy products.  As the owner, Malakasis loves being in the kitchen, thinking up new recipes. (They’re currently developing goat cheese dips). The hard work has been cut out for her since taking charge of the creamery, but the path Malakasis took to pursue this labor of love inspires many.  “People say, ‘I really want to do that, but I have to have the money first, or I have to get this done first,'” says Malakasis.  “For me, the desire to do it was stronger than the fear of worrying about the obstacles.” 

She pauses before adding, “Cheese making, it turns out—and don’t tell anybody—is actually really easy.”

To read this article online, go to:


Dutch travel writer soaks in local music scene

The News Courier, Jun 12

Tuesday morning didn’t bring just sunny weather and mild temperatures to Limestone County, but also Marc Stakenburg, a travel writer from the Netherlands.

Marc’s itinerary was packed for his two-day visit. The Delmore Museum and Debbie Delmore, as well as Athens State University, were part of his first-day schedule as he immersed himself in the music heritage and history of Limestone County.

After a two-hour interview and tour with Debbie Delmore, Stakenburg and Tourism Director Teresa Todd returned to the Beaty Street visitor center to end the day with an interview with American Idol contestant, Lillian Glanton.

Stakenburg said he was totally blown away with the personality of the young singer/songwriter and her outlook of where she will be one day.

Day two had interviews starting at High Cotton Arts with managers Bill and Tina Swindell, who are also music artists. Before long, Musicians Hall of Fame inductee Milton Sledge walked through the door and the three men reminisced and discussed all the artists and songs they had in common.

There was a phone interview with Roger Murrah, lunch with Mayor Ronnie Marks at LuVici’s and another phone interview with Atlantic Records’ new artist, Athens native Anderson East.

As he walked through downtown, Stakenburg encountered many Athenians on The Square, who quickly gave their high approval of the Alabama Shakes as being the best and most generous artists to come from Athens. There was a stop at the local music store, Railroad Bazaar, where he said he enjoyed seeing all the musical equipment the store carries.

Marc said the moment that capped his visit was taking time to compose his article at Village Pizza when Zac Cockrell of Alabama Shakes walked in. Marc approached him and Zac agreed to be interviewed for the article on the spot.

Marc said he was thrilled to meet Zac, especially in downtown Athens, and it was the perfect note for his article to be published in the Netherlands.

Before Marc left for Birmingham and his flight home, he toured county architecture and antebellum homes. He walked through the Beaty Historic District, taking photos and enjoying the history lesson provided by Todd.

To read this article online, go to:


Teachers from 25 countries attend space camp in Huntsville


Thirty-seven states, 25 countries, one mission, that’s the motto for this year’s class of Honeywell Educators at Space Academy.

Hundreds of teachers from around the world were at the Space and Rocket Center this week for astronaut training and hands-on experience with science, technology, math, and engineering.

“All of the experiences that we have at space camp, I learn so much that I can then bring confidently back to my students and inspire them on a career that they may not have otherwise thought about if I hadn’t had this experience as a Honeywell teacher,” said Washington D.C. STEM teacher Vanessa Ford.

They get to meet teachers from different parts of the world and take what they learned back to their students.

“Hands down my favorite part is meeting teachers from around the world,” said Ford. “There’s no other way I’d be able to connect with people from Russia, Vietnam, South Korea, and Alaska at the same time on the same team.”

Teachers did team building exercises, learned things about aerospace to teach their students, and even got astronaut training while they were at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

You can learn more about the Honeywell Educators at Space Academy here


The U.S. Space & Rocket Center announces 2016 class of the Space Camp Hall of Fame

PRNewswire-USNewswire, June 7

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is pleased to announce the selection of three outstanding individuals who make up the 2016 class of the Space Camp Hall of Fame: Jason Hopkins, an aerospace engineer and business development specialist at Masten Space Systems and a former NASA Fellow; Dr. Amy Kaminsky, Senior Policy Advisor, Office of the Chief Scientist, NASA; and George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company.

In honor of the 30th anniversary of its release, the Rocket Center is also inducting the cast of “Space Camp,” a movie that launched the dream of attending Space Camp for thousands of children. Larry B. Scott, who played Rudi Tyler in the movie, will accept the induction of the cast into the Space Camp Hall of Fame.

“Each of these individuals have built successful careers from a dream they had while they were at Space Camp,” Dr. Deborah Barnhart, CEO and Executive Director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, said. “The professional accomplishments of this year’s inductees and their passion for inspiring the spirit of curiosity and exploration in others are standout examples of what our more than 700,000 alumni are capable. By recognizing and sharing the stories of these three people, we are encouraging Space Camp trainees past and future to follow in their footsteps and make their dreams a reality.”

The Space Camp Hall of Fame includes graduates and former employees who have distinguished themselves in their respective careers and friends of the Center who have made considerable contributions of personal time, effort or resources to further the goals of the Space Camp programs. Members exhibit leadership among the globe-spanning Space Camp alumni community of almost 700,000, providing guidance and encouragement for alumni to continue to support the Space Camp mission.

This year’s inductees join the ranks of 35 Hall of Fame members, including Dr. Wernher von Braun and astronauts Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, Samantha Cristoforetti and Dr. Kate Rubins, who is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in June.

The 2016 class will be inducted at the Hall of Fame Ceremony and Dinner, to be held July 16, 2016, at the Rocket Center’s Davidson Center for Space Exploration. Miles O’Brien, a longtime space journalist and the science correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, is the guest speaker for the evening.

The induction ceremony is part of a three-day Space Camp Summer Fest, a family-friendly event that offers participants the chance to relive the Space Camp and Aviation Challenge experiences. The weekend concludes with a “Totally 80s Concert is Shuttle Park” in honor of the 30th anniversary of the movie “Space Camp.” Headliners are Eddie Money, Mickey Thomas from Starship and special guests Bill Champlin, formerly of Chicago; Robbie Dupree; Jeff Carlisi, formerly of .38 Special; and Yacht Rock Revue.

For more information on the Space Camp Summer Fest, visit: OR contact: Pat Ammons,, 256-721-5429.

Alabama Tourism Department (ATD) upcoming events

Aug. 20 – 23                           Alabama Governor’s Conference on Tourism            Orange Beach

Sept. 7 – 9                               STS Fall Forum                                                          Birmingham



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