Tourism Tuesdays June 28, 2016

  • Governor Bentley Makes Good on His Promise: Announces Gulf State Park Renovations on Schedule
  • July 4th celebrations across Alabama
  • Huntsville’s CityCentre announces AC Hotels construction timeline
  • Mayor: Even more new hotels coming to Montgomery
  • Birmingham’s OvenBird restaurant to be featured on Cooking Channel program
  • Two Alabama joints featured on list of nation’s essential BBQ dishes
  • Anniston unveils Civil Rights Trail markers to commemorate era
  • Send in anniversary events for 2017
  • Alabama Tourism Department (ATD) upcoming events



Governor Bentley Makes Good on His Promise: Announces Gulf State Park Renovations on Schedule

WDHN-TV ABC 18, June 27

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.

Increasing tourism

The renovation includes $56 million to replace the park lodge, which will add 350 rooms.  Construction will also include the biggest ballroom 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 spokeswoman 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.

To read this article online, go to:


July 4th celebrations across Alabama

Fireworks, great summer food and live entertainment highlight July 4th celebrations across Alabama.  Visitors can choose from more than 20 Independence Day events and firework shows.

The celebrations include the 50th Anniversary of the Spirit of America Festival at Point Mallard in Decatur, Thunder on the Mountain at Vulcan Park & Museum in Birmingham and Independence Day 1776 at the American Village in Montevallo. Families can also enjoy a picnic at the riverfront in Montgomery, sample fresh watermelon at the Watermelon Festival in Grand Bay or watch reflections of fireworks on the waves at Gulf Shores.

The Alabama Tourism Department suggests the following July 4th events.

AthensAthens Fireworks Show

Athens High School. Annual fireworks show. 256-232-5411.  Free.

BirminghamThunder on the Mountain  

Vulcan Park & Museum. Birmingham’s annual fireworks display with Vulcan as the centerpiece of the program. 9 p.m.  205-933-1409.  Free.

CullmanSmith Lake Park 4th Independence Day Festival

Smith Lake Park. All-day entertainment, arts, crafts, food, fireworks and more.  Free.

DecaturSpirit of America Festival

Point Mallard Park. Celebrate the nation’s birthday at one of the state’s largest patriotic festivals, featuring children’s activities, live music and a fireworks show. This year is the festival’s 50th anniversary. 800-232-5449.  Free.

Eclectic– 4th of July Blast

The AMP on Lake Martin. Watch fireworks over the lake from the lawn of the amphitheater after the concert. Activities from 6-9 p.m. with fireworks at 9 p.m. 256-397-1019.  Admission charged.

Elba– Let Freedom Ring

Downtown Elba.  Evening activities including a concert, walking parade, children’s activities, watermelon eating and fireworks display.  Free.

Fairhope– Fourth of July Festival and Fireworks Display

Henry George Park and Fairhope Municipal Pier. The Baldwin Pops Band Independence Day Concert begins at 7:30 p.m. with a variety of patriotic music before and after the fireworks display. 251-929-1466.  Free.

FlorenceShoals Spirit of Freedom Celebration

McFarland Park. Live music and family activities with food vendors onsite. Fireworks show after dark. 256-740-4141.  Free.  

Grand Bay– Watermelon Festival

Festival Park. Sample locally grown watermelon while enjoying local music, arts & crafts. Admission charged.

GreenvilleCelebrate America

Greenville High School Stadium. Family activities and fireworks. 7-9:30 p.m. 334-382-3251.  Free.

Gulf Shores– Fourth of July Fireworks Celebration

Gulf Shores Public Beach. Fireworks shot over the beach at 9 p.m. 1-800-745-7263. Free.

Gulf ShoresFort Morgan Salute to American Independence   

Fort Morgan State Historic Site. Independence Day is celebrated at Fort Morgan with artillery firing, small arms firing and special tours of the Fort. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 251-540-7202.  Admission charged.

GuntersvilleAll American Celebration

Lake Guntersville. Fireworks show at 9 p.m. best viewed from Civitan Park and Lurleen B Wallace Drive. Free.

Harpersville– Music and Fireworks in the Vineyard

Morgan Creek Winery presents live music, wine tours, wine tastings, barbecue and fireworks. 205-672-2053.  Admission charged.

Henagar– Sand Mountain Potato Festival

Celebrate with live music, arts and crafts, entertainment, games and fireworks. Event begins at 10 a.m. and culminates with a beautiful fireworks display.  1-888-805-4740.


Huntsville– U.S. Space & Rocket Center July 4th Celebration

Children ages 12 and under get free admission on July 4 at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. Enjoy special, family-friendly patriotic activities during regular museum hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Rocket Center will close at 5 p.m., and there are no evening activities inside the park on July 4. Instead, the Center will launch its largest fireworks display ever for the city of Huntsville at 9 p.m.

Mobile– USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park

Annual Independence Day and fireworks celebration at USS ALABAMA Battleship Memorial Park. Live, patriotic entertainment provided by the Mobile Pops Band, until the fireworks illuminate the sky at 9 p.m. 251-433-2703.

MontevalloIndependence Day 1776

The American Village. See the stories of America’s founding with period re-enactors such as Patrick Henry and Abigail Adams, play Colonial games, patriotic music, fireworks and more. Gates open at 11 a.m. 205-665-3535.  Admission charged.

Montgomery– 4th of July Picnic on the River

Riverfront.  Enjoy a picnic by the river with live music at the amphitheater, a rib eating competition, kid’s activities, food vendors and a fireworks show. From 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. 334-625-2100.  Free

PrattvillePrattville Independence Day Celebrations

Events kick off with a parade through downtown at 9 a.m., followed by the Lions Club BBQ fundraiser at 10 a.m. at Pratt Park, Cardboard Boat Races at 11 a.m. at Pratt Pool and a huge fireworks display and patriotic program beginning at 6 p.m. at Stanley Jensen Stadium. 334-358-0297.  Free.

Scottsboro4th of July on the Tennessee River

Goose Pond Colony, Ed Hembree Drive.  Beginning at 6 p.m. there will be music, entertainment, a huge boat parade, and food.  A fireworks show at the Amphitheater will cap off the celebration.  Free.

Sheffield– July Walking Parade

Montgomery Avenue–Old fashioned walking parade with entries from baby carriages to wagons. 10 a.m. 256-381-3907.  Free

Wetumpka4th of July Celebration

Gold Star park. Live entertainment, children’s activities and fireworks. 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. 334-567-5147.  Free.

For a complete calendar of events listing see


Huntsville’s CityCentre announces AC Hotels construction timeline

By Lucy Berry,, June 16

Work will begin this month on a new-to-Alabama hotel at one of the city’s most anticipated projects in downtown Huntsville.

RCP Companies and Yedla Hotel Management confirm grading will start before the end of June on AC Hotels by Marriott, a proposed 150-unit boutique hotel at CityCentre at Big Spring at the old Holiday Inn site, which was razed in January 2015. Vertical construction will follow early this fall.

The hotel will be the 10th U.S. location for AC Hotels, a global joint venture with Spanish hotelier Antonio Catalán. Yedla Management Company, which owns and operates Starwood, Marriott and Hilton franchises, will run the property.

RCP Director of Acquisitions and Asset Management Odie Fakhouri said the hotel will be customized for Huntsville and have integrated new restaurants with rooftop bars and outdoor terraces overlooking Big Spring International Park.

“The results are delivery of a special hotel experience that resonates with the local market and embodies a unique personality within the brand,” he said in a statement.

CityCentre at Big Spring, a $100 million project, will also feature a 12,000-square-foot artisanal food hall called The Public Market designed by The Gravity Company, an Orlando consulting firm.  Ray Schaefer, founding partner of The Gravity Company, said food halls offer a “snapshot of a community’s culinary and cultural identity.”

The food hall at CityCentre will be inspired by Ponce City Market and Krog Street in Atlanta, Eataly in Chicago and The Source in Denver.

“Food halls are a part of a culinary trend spreading throughout the U.S., born of an era in which the old way of buying and consuming is new again,” Schaefer said. “They celebrate emerging talent and give small purveyors a chance to display their creative skills in a brick-and-mortar location.”

More CityCentre details are expected this summer.

The project as a whole
 will feature approximately 50,000 square feet of retail, upscale homes, structured/street-level parking, and regional and local cuisine. It will also have pedestrian crossings, bike pathways, walkways and a linear park that connects visitors to Big Spring Park, the VBC, Twickenham Square, medical district and other nearby properties.

To read this article online, go to:


Mayor: Even more new hotels coming to Montgomery

By Mark Bullock, WSFA-TV, June 22

Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange hinted Tuesday that even more new hotels are coming to the capital city. The news comes on the heels of several recent openings and announcements involving new hotels in downtown and on the city’s east side.

It’s Montgomery’s high hotel occupancy rate that’s attracting developers. At 73%, Montgomery’s occupancy rate is higher than any other city in Alabama. The improving downtown landscape is part of the reason why.

Earlier this month it was announced that StayBridge Suites would open in downtown Montgomery in 2017. A few weeks before that, we learned that a developer has plans to renovate Bishop-Parker’s downtown furniture warehouse into a hotel as well.

At Tuesday night’s city council meeting, Mayor Strange said the city should expect similar announcements in the future.

“Two new groundbreakings, and we just added a ribbon cutting out at Eastchase,” Strange said. “We should have at least one or maybe three more announcements in the next 60 days or so.”

Mayor Strange also credited a rise in the number of locally-hosted sporting events for the city’s higher hotel-occupancy rate.

And it’s not just because of large-scale events, like the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl. The Central Alabama Sports Commission has been successful in attracting more regional and statewide tournaments to the city as well, including basketball, baseball, tennis, archery and more. 

To read this article online, go to:


Birmingham’s OvenBird restaurant to be featured on Cooking Channel program

By Tim Steere, Birmingham Business Journal, June 27

Birmingham chef Chris Hastings just can’t seem to shed the spotlight for very long.

And now, Hastings’ OvenBird restaurant is slated to be featured on the season premiere of the Cooking Channel’s “Man Fire Food.” The show is scheduled to air July 5 at 8 p.m.

Crews from the cooking channel filmed the segment in March, which features the renowned Birmingham chef using a unique, open flame cooking method. Hastings will showcase his “fire barrow” concept, which he uses to cook items over an open fire. In the episode, Hastings will prepare a dish featuring rabbit, lamb shoulder, beef shoulder, sweet potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, onions and herbs.

“It’s intended for cooking, for building a fire in,” Hastings told “At your hunting camp or lake or your backyard, you can use it as a fire pit. It’s very efficient in terms of the way it burns. It’s also a very interesting piece of equipment to cook with.”

Hastings said he’s working with his friend and fire barrow designer Turner Inscoe to bring the device to the masses.

To read this article online, go to:


Two Alabama joints featured on list of nation’s essential BBQ dishes

Birmingham Business Journal, June 20

Two Alabama barbecue joints earned a spot on a new list of essential barbecue dishes in America.

Both Birmingham-based Saw’s Soul Kitchen and Tuscaloosa’s Archibald’s were each featured on the list from

Archibald’s was featured for its spare ribs, which the site described like this: “The archetypal example of barbecued spare ribs — tender-taut, fleshy, and speckled with char marks from the grill.”

As we’ve noted before, experts believe Alabama’s style of barbecue offers the state an opportunity to build awareness around the national.

To read this article online, go to:


Anniston unveils Civil Rights Trail markers to commemorate era

By Dixon Hayes,, June 24

It’s more than a collection of markers and even more than history, supporters say.

The new Anniston Civil Rights Trail marks what Mayor Vaughn Stewart called “sacred ground.”

A series of 10 markers were dedicated Friday denoting 10 spots in the city, that were important for one reason or another to the civil rights era as it unfolded in Anniston.

The most famous incident, the May 1961 attack and burning of a Greyhound bus full of Freedom Riders, is mentioned in two markers, as well as a 1963 incident in which two pastors were viciously attacked by a large mob, for the simple act of starting the integration process at the local library.

Rev. William McClain, one of those two, was the keynote speaker at the dedication ceremony, held in the 17th Street Missionary Baptist Church.

That’s where the other pastor, the late Rev. Nimrod Reynolds, was a preacher for many years.

Rev. McClain described himself and fellow pastor Reynolds as two “Christian men of God,” educated in college-level seminaries, “unable to go to the Anniston public library, unable to own a library card, check out a book, let alone sit down and read and ponder what we read, and carry out our services.”

He says when the two men showed up as planned that Sunday afternoon at the Carnegie Library at 10th Street and Wilmer Avenue, a racist mob attacked and beat both of them, even stabbing Reynolds.

Then as the two men made their way back to McClain’s car, they found themselves surrounded and unable to move. Then a bullet shattered the windshield and struck McClain in the head, just behind his ear.

Determined, Reynolds actually delivered a sermon at his church that night–“The Gospel had to be administered that night,” he later told a white pastor friend–then the two later successfully made their way into the library, alongside the mayor and the chairman of the library board.

The markers include one for the old, now-demolished Carnegie Library, located on the same site, where the current day Anniston-Calhoun County Public Library now sits.

It also includes markers for the Greyhound and Trailways bus stations, both of which were scenes of the 1961 Freedom Riders’ bus attacks including the one that played out later on Highway 202 with the world-famous bus-burning incident.

And it includes one for the 17th Street Missionary Baptist Church itself, a meeting place during the civil rights era.

One even denotes the “city within a city” in West Anniston, where black culture and black commerce was still able to flourish for years during that era. Many of these sites also have murals, including one on 15th Street that tells the story of West Anniston.

One marker is located at the site of what was then Anniston Memorial Hospital, where the injured Freedom Riders were treated and where racist mobs beat on the outside doors trying to get to the wounded.

One marker at the old Southern Railway Depot–now the city of Anniston multi-modal center, where city trolleys and AmTrak trains come through–commemorates the January 1961 incident in which Talladega College student Art Bacon, who was a young black man, was brutally attacked for sitting in a “whites only” waiting area, even though the U.S. Surpreme Court had outlawed segregated facilities like that one.

Bacon was waiting for a station wagon from the college to take him back to campus when the incident happened.

“I was attacked for sitting in the ‘wrong’ waiting room, and that’s ‘wrong’–quote unquote wrong,” Bacon says. “And I was almost killed.”

Bacon says he would have been killed, in fact, had a mysterious person in the waiting room, someone unknown to him even now, not intervened.

Bacon went to Anniston Memorial Hospital instead, and several days later, the student body of Talladega College staged a peaceful protest march on the streets of Anniston over the incident.

“Four days later, the whole campus turned out from Talladega College,” Bacon said. “Now those people exhibited the true courage. It took a lot of courage to march into what they knew they were going into.”

“It’s part of history and it should have been told a long time ago,” Bacon added.

Bacon later became president of Talladega College.

Maps showing all 10 sites are available at Anniston City Hall.

To read this article online, go to:


Send in anniversary events for 2017

The Alabama Tourism Department would like to highlight any state events/festivals having major anniversaries next year (10th, 25th, 50th, etc.) in our 2017 Vacation Guide.  If any of your local events are celebrating one of these major anniversaries next year please send the name of the event, its anniversary, the dates for 2017 and a short description to Pam Smith at                                     

Please send these in by July 15. 


Alabama Tourism Department (ATD) upcoming events

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

Sept. 7 – 9                               STS Fall Forum                                                          Birmingham



Tourism Tuesdays is a free electronic newsletter produced by the Alabama Tourism Department. It contains news about the state tourism department and the Alabama tourism industry.

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Alabama Tourism Department