Tourism Tuesdays February 7, 2017

U.S. Space & Rocket Center was Alabama’s most visited tourism attraction in 2016
Alabama Tourism Department relaunches Civil Rights app
Los Angeles Times does feature on new OWA theme park coming to the gulf
USA TODAY showcases Florence as one of the most picturesque small towns
USA TODAY launches Readers’ Choice online voting for favorite BBQ chicken sandwich in Alabama
Birmingham Kiwanis Club commits $4 million to Vulcan Park expansion
Alabama’s historic renovation tax credit gets favorable grade in study
Pizitz Food Hall, Birmingham’s ‘foodie’s heaven,’ nears opening
How does Alabama’s wealthiest man spend his money? Revitalizing his beloved hometown
Hospitality & Tourism Workforce Summit at University of South Alabama

U.S. Space & Rocket Center was Alabama’s most visited tourism attraction in 2016

More than 657,000 people visited the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville last year, ranking it first among state attractions that charge admission, state tourism officials said.  The Birmingham Zoo ranked second with 644,667 and the McWane Science Center in Birmingham was third with 388,551. 

Eight of the state’s Top 10 attractions charging admission showed an increase in attendance over previous years, state tourism director Lee Sentell said. 

The USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile placed fourth with 294,724 and the Huntsville Botanical Garden was fifth with 276,952. 

Point Mallard Park in Decatur was sixth with 274,703. The Montgomery Zoo was seventh with 238,192 and the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo in Gulf Shores was eighth with 175,000.  EarlyWorks Family of Museums in Huntsville was ninth with 174,000.  Vulcan Park and Museum in Birmingham was tenth with 168,352. 

The Alabama Tourism Department also released the Top 10 attendance figures for other categories.  The beaches of the Alabama Gulf Coast were the most visited natural destination in the state, attracting 6.3 million tourists last year. The Birmingham Botanical Gardens attracted 350,000 visitors to make it the most attended free attraction. More than 1 million people celebrated Mobile’s Mardi Gras making it the most attended event.  University of Alabama home football games played at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa had the highest attendance for sports destinations with 712,747, followed by 695,498 at Auburn University.

Attendance figures were collected by the Alabama Tourism Department from local tourism organizations.  

For a list of the Top 10 in each of the categories please see

Alabama Tourism Department relaunches Civil Rights App

The Alabama Tourism Department’s Civil Rights Trail App is launching multimedia updates in time to commemorate Black History Month.

The mobile application allows users to walk in the footsteps of the Civil Rights Movement by exploring the people, places and events that brought Alabama into the international spotlight and changed the course of history. Users can do this by using the app to discover civil rights landmarks across the state, plan visits to pivotal cities like Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma and Tuskegee, explore interactive timelines, and browse biographies of famous figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

“We took what was already an invaluable resource and made it even better,” said Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department. “The importance of educating yourself on the Civil Rights Movement cannot be stressed enough, and this app is an excellent tool for doing so.”

This update also comes after President Obama has designated multiple sites in Alabama as national monuments including the site of the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four girls and injured 22 other people, as well as the A.G. Gaston Motel, where segregation opponents organized in the 1960s.

Some of the updates to the app includes content, a design refresh, a new “media” section with audio and video files of key figures and updated bios and timelines. The app is available for both iOS and Android.

For more information and links to download the Civil Rights Trail App please see


Los Angeles Times does feature on new OWA theme park coming to the gulf

From the article by Brady MacDonald in the Los Angeles Times:

A new theme park coming to Alabama’s Gulf Coast hopes to fill a void left by Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of Six Flags New Orleans more than a decade ago.

The Owa theme park, about 45 minutes southeast of Mobile, is set to open May 17. It will feature 20 rides as part of a $500-million complex built by a local Native American tribe.

The 14-acre site will be the biggest amusement park in Alabama and the only nearby option for serious thrill seekers in a four-state area.

Operators hope residents in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama will view Owa as an alternative to bigger theme parks in the region:  Dixie Landin’ in Baton Rouge, La.; Wild Adventures in Valdosta, Ga.; and Six Flags Over Georgia outside Atlanta.

Owa is also positioning itself as a budget alternative to the pricier Disney and Universal parks in Orlando, Fla.

Since the loss of Six Flags New Orleans in 2005, theme park buffs in the region have been left with tiny beach-side amusement and water parks along the Gulf of Mexico.

Italy-based Zamperla will provide all the rides for Owa park, including three roller coasters.

The marque Rollin’ Thunder coaster will be a clone of the Thunderbolt at New York’s Coney Island. The 125-foot-tall looping steel coaster will feature a 110-foot vertical lift and four inversions, including a dive loop, a corkscrew and a heart-line roll.

The other two coasters: A wild mouse ride with spinning cars and an oval kiddie one with a mid-course helix.

The collection of thrill rides includes: Disk’O half-pipe ride; Air Race airplane ride, which simulates an acrobatic air show; Discovery pendulum swing, with outward-facing seats and a rotating gondola; Enterprise-style ride attached to a tilting arm with swinging gondola seats; and a 125-foot tall swing tower.

More family-oriented rides include: a 40-foot tall hot air balloon tower ride; Wave Swing carousel; Rockin’ Tug half-pipe ride; Kiddie drop tower; Teacups; Autopia-style big-rig truck driving course; and 5 Dumbo-style spinning flat rides (Aerozoom, Magic Bikes, Flying Tigers, Jump Around and Mini Jet).

Zamperla is a company that creates most of the rides at parks in Italy, Germany, Guatemala, Iraq and North Korea as well as at Luna Park at New York’s Coney Island. Unlike Luna Park, Zamperla will not use Owa as a proving ground for new rides.

Owa will be located about 10 miles from the gulf in Foley. The property was originally developed as the Blue Collar Country theme park by the comedy team of Bill Engvall, Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy.

When the $200-million project fell through, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians stepped in to take over the development. The 520-acre complex will include a shopping center, hotels and a youth sports complex. Future expansion also calls for a water park, condominiums and an RV park.

Owa will be built around a 14-acre lake and themed to a small Southern town with a downtown area and warehouse district. Owa means “big water” in the tribal language.

For the complete article please see

USA TODAY showcases Florence as one of the most picturesque small towns

from the article by Lisa Singleton-Rickman in the Times Daily:

It may be true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s not only the locals who appreciate Florence’s majestic beauty.

The national publication recently placed Florence on its online photo gallery display of the 50 most beautiful small towns in the nation, highlighting each state. 

The accompanying description of Florence on the USA TODAY website describes it as a town that “sits on the Tennessee River in North Alabama and is a gateway to Helen Keller’s home in nearby Tuscumbia, and Muscle Shoals’ tremendous music scene.”

The pictorial/editorial piece by travel writer Susan Barnes is part of USA TODAY’s 50 State Road Trip project.

For the complete article please see

USA TODAY launches Reader’s Choice online voting for favorite BBQ chicken sandwich in Alabama

Online voting is open in the USA TODAY Reader’s Choice for the best barbecue sandwich in Alabama.  10Best editors from USA TODAY, Sandwich America, The Food Channel and local experts nominated 20 restaurants across Alabama for the online contest.

The public can go online and vote for their favorite barbecue chicken sandwich once per day until Feb. 27 at

(Editor’s note: Annette Thompson was chosen as one of the local experts to help nominate the restaurants. Thompson is author of the book Alabama Barbecue that was produced in cooperation with state tourism’s Year of Alabama Barbecue promotion.)

Birmingham’s Kiwanis Club commits $4 million to Vulcan Park expansion

From the article by Erin Edgemon on

The Kiwanis Club of Birmingham is committing $4 million to make improvements to Vulcan Park, including extending the trail system by two miles and creating a light show that will be projected onto the 112-year-old cast iron statue.

“We want to invigorate Vulcan’s role as the heart of a new and dynamic Birmingham,” Kiwanis Club President Tom Thagard said, as he announced the club’s centennial project today, which includes new park space on the north side of Vulcan and the trail extension. This space is will be named Kiwanis Centennial Park. 

“Kiwanis Centennial Park is designed to reconnect Vulcan to Birmingham physically, visually and in spirit,” he said. 

The Kiwanis Club’s project will reconnect Vulcan to downtown Birmingham physically, according to the group. This will include landscaping on the north side of the park, renovation of the lower piazza entrance and building steps for walking access from the north side to the statue itself. 

The redevelopment of the park will allow families to come up from Southside, enjoy the park space and then walk up to see the Vulcan statue, Thagard said.

“In addition to enhancing Vulcan’s prominence on the skyline, this visionary project will physically reconnect Vulcan as the central hub from which locals and tourists will access our cultural institutions and parks,” Vulcan Park and Museum President and CEO Darlene Negrotto said in a statement. 

The Birmingham City Council recently approved the extension of the Vulcan trail to Green Springs Highway. The trail currently runs from 11th Place South to Richard Arrington Boulevard South.

Birmingham Mayor William Bell said a portion of the Kiwanis funds will go towards the extension, and the city is looking for other funding partners.

“Vulcan is our city symbol and we have done a lot in the past several years to improve the quality of the experience for the individuals who go to Vulcan,” Bell said. “The Vulcan Trail will add to that experience, and I am just so grateful that the Kiwanis are being civic minded enough to give about $4 million for the improvement of the Vulcan Trail.

It continues to show the great support from civic organizations in our city to really improve the quality and image of the city itself,” Bell continued.

The two-mile walking and jogging trail at Vulcan will serve as the hub for planned 750 miles of Birmingham’s Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System.

Thagard said he hopes to break ground on the construction project on May 19, 2017, the 100-year anniversary of the Birmingham Kiwanis Club. 

The dynamic, multi-colored light show to be installed on the Vulcan statue was designed by Schuler Shook. 

Thagard said the light show will be similar to the computer driven LED light system used at the Empire State Building in New York City. 

Bell said he envisioned the lights being used for commemorate special events in the city. 

Vulcan is the world’s largest cast iron statue. It was designed by Italian artist Giuseppe Moretti and cast from local iron in 1904.

According to the Kiwanis Club, the Birmingham group was the key driver behind the creation of Vulcan Park. In the 1930s, club leaders worked to secure the location and bring the cast iron man to the top of Red Mountain as “a unifying symbol of the city’s can-do spirit.”

The Kiwanis Club of Birmingham will hold a capital fund drive over the next five years to raise the funds needed to pay for the project, Thagard said.  The funds will come from individual member contributions, corporate and civic foundation contributions and easement contributions from the Freshwater Land Trust.

The Freshwater Land Trust is partnering with Kiwanis Club, Vulcan Park and Museum and the city of Birmingham on the project. 

For the complete article please see

Alabama’s historic renovation tax credit gets favorable grade in study

from the article by Brent Godwin in the Birmingham Business Journal:

Sen. Del Marsh (R-Anniston) said that he intends to be a part of drafting legislation to revive and improve the Historical Rehabilitation Tax Credit program during this year’s Alabama Legislative session.

Marsh, who held up passage of a bill to renew the program in last year’s session, told media last week that the results of an independent evaluation of the program gave it a ‘B’ rating. He said he intends to work with Sen. Jabo Waggoner (R-Vestavia Hills) in drafting the legislation to reinstate the program. The evaluation, conducted by the University of Tennessee, was commissioned by the Alabama Department of Revenue at the request of Marsh.

In a conference call with reporters, Marsh said the study shows the program is a benefit to the state, and that he intends to work with colleagues in the Alabama Legislature to address a couple of issues and institute some best practices to get it to an ‘A’ rating.

“Overall the historic tax credit is a good program that could be a great program with a few modifications. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the regular session as we attempt re-establish the tax credit with the suggested improvements.” Marsh said in a statement.

The study recommends that the historic tax credits be made refundable, and that the evaluation process be moved away from the Alabama Historical Commission to an outside entity.

“I want to thank Sen. Marsh for looking into this program. There is no doubt that the historic tax credit is vital to the revitalization of downtown Birmingham as well as many cities and counties across Alabama,” Waggoner said. “I am confident that we will have legislation that will re-establish the historic tax credit and we will continue to see the economic advantages that come along with it.”

Results of the historic tax credit in Birmingham include projects such as the Lyric Theatre and the Redmont Hotel, and ones like the Pizitz building, the Empire Building and the Historic Federal Reserve building.

Marsh said he doesn’t envision hurdles like the ones faced in 2016 that would hold up passage of historic renovation tax credit legislation in the session, which begins Feb. 7.

The study also evaluated Alabama’s CAPCO program, which received a D rating. The CAPCO program provides insurance premium tax credits to insurance companies that invest in certified capital companies, which are typically venture capital entities.

For the complete article please see

Pizitz Food Hall, Birmingham’s ‘foodie’s heaven,’ nears opening

From the article by Bob Carlton on

The opening of downtown Birmingham’s new Pizitz Food Hall is so close you can taste it.

Many of the vendors — who will serve an international mix of foods from such countries as Ethiopia, India, Israel, Mexico, Nepal, Vietnam, as well as the United States — are in the latter stages of training their staffs and fine-tuning their recipes. Some have already hosted private tasting events.

While the opening date is still a “moving target,” a representative for developer Bayer Properties said, the food hall will “open in the coming weeks.”

The 20,000-square-foot space at 1821 Second Ave. North is on the ground floor of the former Pizitz department store building, which has undergone a $70 million restoration that also includes apartments, office space and, eventually, two independent movie theaters.

When it reaches full occupancy, The Pizitz Food Hall will include 14 food stalls, three restaurants, two retail shops and a central bar, The Louis, that developers hope will become the focal point of the food hall.

“We needed kind of a gathering place,” said Sam Heide, Bayer’s vice president of leasing. “That’s how the idea of The Louis bar came about. That’s going to be the convening spot.”

Named in honor of the building’s original owner, Louis Pizitz, The Louis will not only serve cocktails, beer and wine for the grown-ups, but also milkshakes and soft drinks for the kids.

“We want the food hall to be very family-focused, very family-friendly,” said Bayer Properties’ Tom Walker, the lead developer on the Pizitz project.

Three restaurant spaces — one of which has yet to be leased – will anchor the northwest, northeast and southwest corners of the 94-year-old building.

The main entrance to the food hall will be on Second Avenue North, across the street from the McWane Science Center, with additional entrances from the courtyard and on 19th Street North.

Seating will be available in the common areas of the food hall, as well as in the courtyard behind the western side of the Pizitz building.

Food hall guests may park for up to two hours for free in the adjoining deck at the corner of 18th Street and First Avenue North.

The Pizitz project also includes 143 one- and two-bedroom apartments; 14,000 square feet of office space on the mezzanine overlooking the food hall; and the future home of Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival, which will have two 100-screen art-house movie theaters and office space for the festival’s staff, on the lower level of the building.

‘A foodie’s heaven’

The food hall, however, is the piece of the puzzle that has generated the most buzz, including a shoutout in The New York Times last summer.

“It’s going to be elevated food, not like the food court at the mall,” said Birmingham sushi chef Abhi Sainju, who will operate one of the food stalls. “For Birmingham to have it, I’m super excited. You have them in cities all over the world. To have all of these ethnic foods available under one roof, I’m super excited about the concept.”

The idea of converting the ground floor of the Pizitz building into “a foodie’s heaven,” as The Times called it, was partly inspired by a story on, a dining website that ranked the country’s top food halls, Heide said.

“Even though they had been around for ages in Europe traditionally, and in larger cities like New York, we saw they were re-emerging as a trend,” Heide said. “We thought, ‘Why can’t we bring that to Birmingham?’

“We’ve got an amazing culinary landscape here, with wonderful chefs that have created this kind of family tree of talent, and we felt that we had the talent, and the interest level of people that have sophisticated palates, to bring that to Birmingham.

For the complete article please see

How does Alabama’s wealthiest man spend his money? Revitalizing his beloved hometown

From the article by Kelly Kazek on

The Henry County town of Abbeville, whose population hovers at about 2,700, is not on the way to anywhere. Located in a far southeastern corner of the state, within spittin’ distance of the Georgia line, it’s a little town mostly known to those who live there or who happen upon it. But that’s changing. Civic leaders and Abbeville’s most prominent resident, Jimmy Rane, are preserving the town’s historical buildings, encouraging new businesses and adding fun and quirky touches to make Abbeville a destination city. Here’s how.

Jimmy Rane may be listed by Forbes as Alabama’s wealthiest person but, like his advertising persona Yella Fella, he’s just a regular guy.

In fact, Rane, a lifelong resident of Abbeville, spends a lot of his time saving historic buildings and helping revitalize the tiny town.

“I’ve lived here all my life and my mother’s family has been here more than 200 years,” Rane said during an interview at his offices in Abbeville. “It’s a very important place. Not just because it’s home but because of the history of the town. Some of its people have made significant contributions to the country and to the world.”

Abbeville is the oldest remaining colonial settlement in east Alabama, located in one of the five original counties in the state.

The headquarters of Rane’s business, Great Southern Wood Preserving, makers of YellaWood, is located on the outskirts of town in a beautiful building constructed, of course, of his company’s wood. Rane also preserved a historic Standard Oil gas station in town as additional office space for his employees. For many years, Rane portrayed a cowboy dressed in sunshine yellow for television commercials to promote his YellaWood product.

In downtown Abbeville, Rane opened a family style restaurant filled with collectibles that is a lure for residents and tourists, and he spearheaded the construction of a convention center. Rane said his future plans for the downtown area include a boutique hotel.

One unusual feature of the downtown area is a series of neon advertising signs hung on buildings along Kirkland Street. The working signs were collected by Rane and attached to buildings for a fun, vintage feel. They include signs for Buster Brown Shoes, Rexall Drugs, Philco, Mother Penn Motor Oil, Ford and many more.

“Walking around downtown is like a walk back in time,” Rane said.

Visitors can see more vintage advertising signs, as well as movie memorabilia and antique mercantile displays inside Rane’s restaurant, Huggin’ Molly’s. The restaurant is named for a witch in a local legend.

Rane, who also serves on the board of trustees for Auburn University, said he believes in a quote about the importance of the dash between the birth and death dates on a tombstone. The “dash” is how we live our lives, he said.

“Nobody really owns anything,” Rane said. “We are just stewards while we are here. Your dash is how you find your stewardship. I’m trying to be a good steward.”

In the years since he achieved the means, he has used his wealth to be a good steward in Abbeville.

An article about Rane on says: “Rane first got into the lumber business by accident. As a law school student in 1970, he stepped in to mediate a family dispute over his father-in-law’s estate and ended up taking over a small business that manufactured fence posts. He tried to sell off the machinery but couldn’t get rid of it all. So instead he put the equipment back to work as part of a side business, while he served as lawyer in town.” It eventually became a company with $700 million in revenue annually.

Inspired by his parents

Rane’s parents, Tony and Libba, were good stewards during their lifetimes, helping build Abbeville to a prosperous town after World War II. Tony Rane was Abbeville’s first Chamber of Commerce president, his son said.

During this boom-time, the town had several drug stores and “four or five dry goods stores,” he said. “If you came to town on a Saturday, the sidewalks would be so crowded you could hardly walk.”

Rane’s father would give him 15 cents for a movie – 10 cents for the ticket and 5 for snacks – and little Jimmy would have to step from the sidewalks into the streets to make his way to the Archie Theatre.

When Rane went off to law school in 1971, the town was thriving. But in the mid- to late-1980s, it began to decline. Then, in the wake of NAFTA’s passing, the West Point Pepperell textile mill closed, taking 1,400 jobs with it. By the late 1990s, many of the downtown businesses were “burned out and caved in,” Rane said.

“As they aged, my parents grew melancholy that all the work to build the community was lost,” he said. “I thought, ‘I don’t know what we can do but we’re going to do something.'”

The Archie

Rane loves to tell the story behind the name of the town’s 1948 theatre, The Archie. He had a plaque installed on the building, which has been refurbished but is not yet open for events, that tells the story. It says, in part:

“Mrs. Bessie Walker owned the Archie and named the theater after her son, Archie Mansfield Walker Jr., who died in June 1944 as a result of injuries suffered in Normandy during the D-Day invasion during World War II…. Archie’s boat was among the first wave of boats to land on Utah Beach during the famous Allied invasion of Europe at Normandy in France on D-Day at 6 a.m. June 6, 1944. He was critically wounded on the beach that day and died on June 13, 1944 at age 25. By an ironic twist of fate, Archie was taken to the first medical aid station established on Utah Beach where he was attended by friend and Abbeville native, Captain Thomas J. Floyd, Jr., a surgeon in the Medical Corps.”

Henry County history and the Rosa Parks home

Each year, the town hosts a Yatta Abba Day festival, named for the Creek Indian word for “Grove of Dogwoods,” for which the town is also named. The May event celebrates the town’s origins and features music, crafts, food, and vintage cars.

Abbeville is the first city alphabetically, both by city and state, listed in the Rand McNally Road Atlas. It was settled in 1822 and was home to William Calvin Oates, who lost his arm at Gettysburg during the Civil War. He served several terms in the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected governor of Alabama in 1894.

The centerpiece of downtown, the Henry County Courthouse, is a contemporary building because the original was demolished.

One of the county’s treasures, a home where Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks lived as a child, is endangered but Rane understands its value to history and its potential tourism impact.

“People have put a lot of effort into protecting it. We organized an effort to move it downtown but that didn’t work out,” he said.

Organizers hoped to move the Parks home from a rural part of the county to downtown Abbeville where people could visit it. However, the property they planned to use was instead zoned for a Family Dollar store.

Rane said he hasn’t given up hope of moving the home to Abbeville.

For the complete article please see    

Hospitality & Tourism Workforce summit at University of South Alabama

The University of South Alabama (USA) in Mobile will hosts its inaugural Hospitality & Tourism Workforce Summit on March 5-6.

The purpose of the summit is to discuss public-private collaboration efforts to help meet the workforce needs of the growing Gulf Coast hospitality and tourism industry.  

The summit is proposed and supported by the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management’s Advisory Board. The advisory board consists of industry leaders and experts from various hospitality and tourism sectors from Mobile and Baldwin counties, other areas in Southern Alabama and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

There will be a reception on Sunday, March 5 at the Pillars and the summit will be March 6 at the Mobile Convention Center. Proceeds from the reception will go towards Department of Hospitality and Tourism scholarships and proceeds from the summit itself will be used for workforce initiatives and future summits.

The summit will also provide excellent learning, mentoring and networking opportunities for USA students.

More information and summit registration is available at:

USA is seeking corporate sponsorship to help reduce costs for participants and provide financial assistance for Hospitality and Tourism Management students.

For more information on sponsorship please contact Aimee Meyers or Amanda Donaldson. Aimee can be reached at or 251-414-8276 or Amanda, at or 251-341-3859.




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