Tourism Tuesdays August 21, 2018

Aretha goes home

Lynching memorial draws tourists to a new kind of Deep South

Fly over Dallas with Sweet Home Alabama

Gulf State Park Lodge rebirth on schedule

How to spend 24 hours in Montgomery

Sidewalk Film Festival celebrates 20 years

Alabama Tourism Department’s 2018 Fall Tourism Workshop

2018 Alabama Welcome Center Retreat set for Huntsville Marriott, Oct. 14-16

Registration open for the 2018 Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee Rural Tourism Conference

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website


Aretha goes home
From the article by Chuck Reece on

In the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century, the murders started early.

From 1955 forward, Southern white supremacists trying to stop the movement in its tracks killed dozens of black people. From Emmett Till in 1955 to Medgar Evers and the four little girls of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, no-account Kluxers rained terror on Southern blacks.

Did Southern courts bring swift justice to the martyrs’ families? Hell, no. Did every Southern news organization stand against the terrorists? Sadly, just a few.

But something else was going on in those years. Even as countless heartless crimes were committed against African-Americans, small groups of Southern blacks and whites worked together in secret to build a monument of great beauty, a cultural achievement that will stand until the end of time.

Their workshops were recording studios. The monument they built was called soul music. Blacks and whites together built resplendent musical bridges over the old divide, and did it primarily in two places: Memphis, Tennessee, and Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Thus, in January of 1967, a 24-year-old Aretha Franklin came to magical Muscle Shoals, in search of her groove.

After Columbia Records head John Hammond signed Franklin in 1961, he seemed unable to find the right setting for Franklin’s remarkable voice. Her early albums on Columbia cast her, for the most part, as a jazz singer, and none of them climbed higher than 69 on the U.S. albums chart. After Columbia’s final attempt, 1966’s “Soul Sister,” stalled out, Aretha Franklin moved to Atlantic Records under the direction of Jerry Wexler, one of the label’s founders. Wexler brought Franklin to Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, where she spent January and February of 1967 recording with Shoals masters like Spooner Oldham, Jimmy Johnson, Chips Moman, Tommy Cogbill, and David Hood. The result was, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.” The album was released in March, and it jumped to No. 1 on the U.S. R&B album charts and No. 2 on the Hot 200. It produced Franklin’s first two hit singles: her definitive version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” and the title cut, written by Ronnie Shannon.

That album made — and still makes — perfect, beautiful, Southern sense to me. When word Franklin was gravely ill came earlier this week, I put it back on the turntable. And it reminded me, as it always has, Aretha Franklin had to come home to find the music that could do justice to her inimitable voice and would rocket her to stardom.

I know the South, technically, was not her home: Aretha grew up in Detroit. But her roots in the South run as deeply as those of any African-American family that departed our region during Jim Crow and the Great Migration. She was born in Memphis, but was only 4 when her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, the son of Sunflower County, Mississippi, sharecroppers, settled in Detroit as pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church.

Aretha’s singing career bloomed in that church. She recorded her first album — a gospel record called “Songs of Faith” — at New Bethel in 1956, when she was only 14 years old. Listen to that record (if you can find it), and you’ll hear just how far the threads of Southern music had traveled by the mid-20th century. Black families carried the gospel sounds of their churches with them as they dispersed across the Midwest and Northeast to escape Jim Crow, and their music remained intact in those new locations.

The conclusion is inescapable: Aretha’s musical roots were as Southern as any of you are. And if you’re a student of Southern musical culture, it must always be noted she might have never become a superstar had she not come “home” to the South.

She’d known it forever
David Hood, known most widely as the bass player in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, played on “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” — but not the bass. He played trombone in the horn section. Hood would later add soulful bass lines to dozens of Aretha’s performances on record and on the stage, but he remains grateful the ’bone got him into the session.

“There was a problem in the booking of the horns,” Hood recalled earlier this week. “The ones they wanted, they couldn’t get that day. And so, I got on the session that way.”

He remembers Aretha as a shy young woman who didn’t tell the musicians what she was going for, and instead just showed them.

“We’d been talking to Jerry Wexler. People were recording her wrong, and he wanted to bring her to Muscle Shoals,” Hood said. “It was to get her a little bit more funky style, but also to have her play the piano while she sang. There are some technical problems when doing something like that, but it was great. It helped the musicians find the style and get the feel that she wanted, and I think that’s what made the difference. On nearly all the best cuts she ever did, she was playing the piano on as well as singing.”

In other words, she was doing the same things she’d done in church since she was a teenager: playing and singing the gospel.

“You could just pick up the feeling from her piano,” Hood said. “She grew up in a church and had that piano style and vocal style. And that’s what Jerry wanted, and that’s what everybody picked up on, I think.”

“I expect that was a style y’all would have felt pretty much at home in,” I replied.

“Yes,” Hood said. “Very much so.”

Aretha’s apple had not fallen too far from the tree.

Yesterday, after Aretha’s passing was confirmed, I spoke with another player on “I Never Loved a Man” — the legendary keyboardist and songwriter Spooner Oldham.

“Her dad had been a preacher — a Baptist preacher — and she sang at church as a child prodigy,” Oldham told me. “I guess he’d stack her up on the pulpit or whatever, lift her up where you could see her. So, coming to Muscle Shoals probably resonated the Southern experience in her brain, even though she had been gone forever. And then, when she was allowed to turn loose with all that Southern expression, we just played our hearts out, because we were used to that stuff. I mean, we weren’t used to her — because she was top of the heap — but she brought it all out of us. I was curious because I knew she hadn’t been around the South much, but she was belting that stuff out like she’d known it forever.”

And the truth was, she had known it forever. But Oldham didn’t know for sure they had recorded a hit album until Wexler called the Muscle Shoals crew to New York to put finishing touches on “I Never Loved a Man” a month after the Alabama sessions.

Between the sessions, Oldham said, “Aretha had been practicing at home with her sisters and family, singing those backup things. And then, when I first heard that re-re-re-respect, just-a-little-bit, sock-it-to-me-sock-it-to-me thing, all of that was brand new. It had never been done before. I knew something was going on then, you know. I knew it was going to turn the world around.”

Soul heaven
Aretha Franklin did turn the world around, starting with that album’s release in March of 1967. On the first cut, she transformed Otis Redding’s pleas for a little respect from his woman into a monumental anthem for all women, who got precious little respect in those days.

For 20 more years, she consistently put singles at No. 1 on the charts, making us dance, sway, even cry: ”Baby I Love You,” “Chain of Fools,” “Sweet Sweet Baby Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Think,” “Share Your Love With Me,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Day Dreaming,” “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” “Something He Can Feel,” “Break It to Me Gently,” “Jump to It,” “Freeway of Love,” “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me.”

For those of us who grew up on soul music, these and many other of her songs are landmarks, caches in which we hide our own memories, touchstones we all go back to repeatedly because they inspire us, comfort us, make us dance as we did in our youth. No voice ever dominated a genre of music as completely as Aretha’s. The Queen of Soul title has no hyperbole in it.

Hood told me a story about the last time he played with Aretha, in 2011 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

“I was part of the stage band,” he said. “We were doing a tribute to Aretha show, and she was not supposed to play or sing or anything. And they had all these other artists to sing her songs — Jerry Butler, Cissy Houston, I can’t even remember all of them. But at the very end of the show, she decided she would sing. She did ‘A Song for You,’ and, my God, I just stood there behind her and tried to find what she was doing and play along with her. I didn’t have a chart or anything. That was a great moment.”

In the video from that night, you can see Hood struggle a bit as Aretha sits at the piano and renders a highly improvisational and profoundly church-like version of Leon Russell’s classic tune. You can also see a giant smile plastered on his face in that moment, as if he knew his own notes didn’t matter much because the Queen had the crowd in the palm of her hand, all on her own, even in this utterly unrehearsed moment.

But the thing David Hood remembers most about that night was how much Aretha Franklin had changed in the 34 years between his first meeting with her and that evening in Cleveland.

“When she came into the theater, we were backstage, eating and hanging out,” he remembered. “And when she came in, it was like the queen of England had come in. Everybody was so in awe of her presence. That was entirely different from the way it was in the beginning, when she was just a young, young woman who was very shy.

“But when she came in that last time I saw her, it was like Queen Elizabeth walking in the room.”

When I heard that, I found myself wondering what the vibe must be like in heaven today — now that the Queen has just arrived.

For the complete article please see

Lynching memorial draws tourists to a new kind of Deep South
From the article by Sarah Enelow-Snyder on

In Montgomery, Alabama, the Equal Justice Initiative’s memorial and museum honoring the victims of lynching — the first undertaking of its kind — is the newest crucial addition to Deep South tourism and black heritage tourism alike.

Despite that EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice (and its accompanying Legacy Museum) confront a harrowing topic from which many people recoil, EJI and the Montgomery Convention and Visitor Bureau are successfully feeding off one another. The former collects rave reviews as a groundbreaking attraction that forces the South to confront its ugly history, and the latter rides a wave of recognition as an up-and-coming destination.

EJI is bringing varied tourists to Montgomery, but also has specific implications for the black travel movement. As the movement flourishes on Instagram, the content leans heavily international, often including heritage trips to Africa. But as history marches on, some black Americans also want to connect with the Deep South, and not just on an exhaustive tour of old statues.

Three months after its April opening, EJI’s memorial receives up to 1,000 visitors on a weekend day and up to 500 on a weekday, according to its box office, and total visitation has topped 100,000, according to EJI Senior Attorney Sia Sanneh. The museum requires timed tickets in order to prevent overcrowding, while the open, outdoor design of the memorial allows for more concurrent visitors.

New Civil Rights attractions at a glance
Two years ago, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington, D.C. to rave reviews, so popular it continues using a timed ticket system in which free passes get booked up three months ahead. The “Blacksonian” arguably set a gold standard for new cultural museums in the U.S.

High praise for the new civil rights museum in Mississippi came next. The U.S. then inaugurated its first National Civil Rights Trail in January, followed by the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, honored this year in Memphis.

The site of King’s death, the Lorraine Motel, is now the National Civil Rights Museum, which underwent a $27.5 million renovation in 2013 and 2014. Other civil rights museums in the south have also opened or undergone significant renovations in the last five years or so.

Ever since six million black Americans fled the violent Jim Crow South during the Great Migration between the 1910s and 1970s, families have been making trips back to the South to see family, educate younger generations, and pay homage to civil rights sites. Today, according to the census, the four cities with the largest black populations are all in the north: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit.

The EJI experience can dominate a trip
EJI’s memorial and museum offer an arresting, attention-grabbing, immersive, photographic, educational experience that’s hard to come by elsewhere. A visitor can easily spend five hours at both combined (just shy of the famously long average dwell time at the Blacksonian), knocking other attractions down on the priority list.

The memorial and museum opened in April to glowing reviews, backed by a massive research report in which EJI chronicled over 4,400 lynchings throughout the South. EJI’s mission lies outside of travel — its founder and executive director, Bryan Stevenson, created the nonprofit legal and civil rights group in large part to get innocent people off death row.

The memorial sits atop a grassy hill overlooking downtown, and features eerily hanging, person-sized, oxidized steel columns that represent the 4,400-plus victims. Each has a companion piece meant to return to the site of the lynching. A docent said many counties have pledged to take their pieces, but none have actually taken them yet, as legislative approval may take some time.

Jacksonville, Florida, may soon be among the cooperative locations. The city is discussing claiming its piece of the memorial and incorporating it into a new downtown monument in a public park.

Many memorial attendees were searching for specific columns, if not specific names. I myself found a family name on the column for Yazoo County, Mississippi, where my maternal family resided for decades. Docents were trained to help people find their family members, which would be difficult without assistance.

Local resistance to the project remains — some in the community are resentful about EJI “stirring up” this damning era of history, according to Jim Yeaman, owner of The Lattice Inn in Montgomery. Yeaman said that some unimpressed locals asked, “What do you do after you read the names?” to which Yeaman responded, “Get on your knees and pray for forgiveness for our predecessors who caused this atrocity.”

Visitors enter the memorial at the bottom of a hill, reading plaques with history that is both brief and written for those unfamiliar with the topic. At the top of the hill begins a giant shaded spiral of hanging columns. As the visitor descends, the columns hang further off the ground, allowing visitors to stand beneath them and metaphorically feel their weight. Toward the bottom, a waterfall represents unidentified victims, and in a bed of soil collected from lynching sites, a tiny green plant sprouted spontaneously — without any water, according to a docent.

While the memorial is theoretically wheelchair accessible, pathways are covered in gravel and make navigation difficult.

The museum, a 15-minute walk from the memorial, begins by covering slavery and Jim Crow, which many other museums do just as well — its real strength is the topic of mass incarceration, which few institutions focus on. The museum feels more traditional than the memorial, but still immersive, with memorable video interviews with currently and formerly incarcerated people.

EJI’s interactive map personalizes the experience for many visitors, allowing them to look up individual lynchings. The organization also just released a map of confederate monuments, highlighting a hot topic: the dichotomy between monuments honoring slavery and monuments honoring the enslaved.

A gift shop and Starbucks Cafe serving pastries from a local bakery further secure the experience as a major downtown attraction, and allow visitors to come down from the experience, not unlike the calming atrium at the end of the Blacksonian galleries in Washington, D.C.

Yeaman said he was booked up for EJI’s opening weekend and expects to keep seeing more domestic and international visitors coming to Montgomery specifically for EJI. Civil rights tourism is especially popular among visitors from Europe, who also tend to book longer trips.

EJI ups everyone’s tourism game
The EJI memorial and museum are in large part responsible for some of Montgomery’s recent good press about being a destination on the rise. Montgomery made the 2018 places-to-go lists in The New York Times and Lonely Planet, both citing EJI specifically.

The state of Alabama already has a well-developed and well-promoted civil rights trail, one of the most robust in the South. The director of the Alabama Tourism Department, Lee Sentell, also took a leading role in creating the first National Civil Rights Trail.

It’s too early to tell if EJI is causing an uptick in tourism to the broader state of Alabama, said Brian Jones, a spokesperson for the Alabama Tourism Department, but he sees potential for EJI to bring repeat visitation.

“For someone who visited Montgomery five years ago or even three years ago, this gives them a reason to come back because it’s brand-new and it’s just striking in its message,” said Jones. “It’s done incredibly well and it tells a story in a way that it does really get to you.”

It remains to be seen whether EJI could join the new National Civil Rights Trail. The Alabama Tourism Department has expressed that the EJI project lies outside the date range on which the trail focuses, 1954 to 1968, though its topic is arguably very relevant. Regardless, the trail has already boosted heritage tourism interest to the state, according to Jones.

“Even a lot of family reunions have called asking for information,” he said.

The economic impact from EJI’s opening week totaled $20 million, according to Dawn Hathcock, vice president at the Montgomery CVB. Year to date, about 40,000 additional room nights have been sold from January through May compared to last year. Since the opening, the city also saw a 33 percent increase in lodging tax revenue (totaling $2.3 million) compared to the same period last year, as reported on Alabama Live.

Hathcock attributes much of this to the splash of EJI’s opening and she plans to capitalize on that visibility.

“We are absolutely looking at some rebranding. We’re in the early stages of that,” said Hathcock. She also noted that many visitors cite The New York Times and Lonely Planet places-to-go lists as their inspiration for visiting Montgomery in 2018. She also said that while some Montgomery attractions were nervous about visitors coming solely for EJI and not doing anything else in town, visitation to other attractions has held up.

Montgomery will also receive its first downtown boutique hotels in the next couple of years, both near EJI: one independent property near the memorial and a Marriott Autograph Collection Hotel near the museum. Montgomery has also received praise for its blossoming restaurant and bar scene.

Restaurants and attractions are even incorporating EJI into their employee training. Many EJI visitors have a deeply emotional, sometimes paralyzing experience, and then they move on to have dinner or patronize another business. Some visitors are returning to Montgomery for the first time since the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, and are even more overwhelmed.

Those businesses now “train their employees to recognize that this visitor needs a little bit more TLC,” said Meg Lewis, director of brand development at the Montgomery CVB. She also said these businesses will send employees to EJI to understand the experience firsthand.

“They’re pleasantly surprised that Montgomery is facing its past,” said Hathcock of many visitors.

For the complete article please see

Fly over Dallas with Sweet Home Alabama
The Alabama Tourism Department will take to the streets of Dallas to show people what a trip to Alabama’s Gulf Coast could be like. Park-goers can take a mini-vacation on Saturday, Aug. 25 from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. as they experience what it is like to parasail over the turquoise waters and sugar-white sands of Alabama’s beaches, all while remaining only a few feet off the ground on a virtual reality simulator in the center of Klyde Warren Park.

“We love to bring some of Sweet Home Alabama’s magic to the unsuspecting tourist,” said Lee Sentell, director of the state’s tourism department. “Everyone’s looking for that perfect vacation; the kind where you return refreshed and rejuvenated. The sugar-white sands of Alabama can be your perfect vacation, whether your goal is to lie on the beach or experience an adventure on the surrounding bays and lakes.”

Adventurers walking under a parachute canopy will be treated to a beach scene and invited to take a seat on a device that simulates what it would feel like suspended under a parasail. When riders slip on a pair of virtual reality goggles, they are instantly transported to flying over Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, with a custom-designed chute streaming above emblazoned with “Sweet Home Alabama.”

“The heatwave Dallas has been experiencing makes Alabama’s beaches the perfect location for a fun escape like this.  Relaxing with your toes in the crystal clear Gulf, a breeze blowing and the hypnotizing sounds you only find at the beach will make memories of the Dallas heat a thing of the past,” said Herb Malone, president and CEO of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism. “Not only does the interstate take you right from Dallas to Alabama, but there are several non-stop flight options from Dallas to the nearby Pensacola International Airport. The ease of getting to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach makes our area a great beach option for Dallas residents.”

The Dallas activation experience is a complement to the award-winning “Take It All In” campaign, aimed at educating potential tourists about what truly makes the Alabama Gulf Coast a place you can take in all the sights, sounds, smells, flavors and sensations. Visit Alabama.Travel/GulfCoast to learn more.

Gulf State Park Lodge rebirth on schedule
Gary Ellis was adjusting to retirement when a call from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) promptly changed his plans.

Instead of a life of leisure, Ellis soon found himself embarking on one of the most fascinating challenges of his career. “I’m flattered to be asked to lend my talents on what I believe will be a historic project for the state of Alabama,” Ellis said.

Ellis, who retired in 2016 from Compass Media, a company he founded 1986, was hired as the Director of Community Relations and Administration at Gulf State Park. His challenge is to support the implementation of the Gulf State Park mission statement:

Gulf State Park will be an international benchmark for environmental and economic sustainability demonstrating best practices for outdoor recreation, education, and hospitable accommodations.

This nearly 5-year vision is nearing completion with an extensive revival of a new lodge and state-of-the-art facilities that are scheduled to open later this year.

“This is not just a premium hotel on the beach,” Ellis said. “The entire entity of Gulf State Park – including The Lodge, Living Campus, the Interpretive Center, the new trails and improvements – will be a game-changer for the state. We all can recall the reputation enhancements that occurred when the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail was built. That was a game-changer. It changed a lot of perceptions about Alabamians and what we’re about. Mercedes was another game-changer in what people believed and expected about our state.”

“I believe Gulf State Park will rank in those categories as enhancing the image of Alabama and further communicating what wonderful resources we have. I’m excited to see that. The new lodge should draw not only from Alabama but all over the United States. We’ll also be appealing to international visitation. The work and strategic thinking that have gone into this will put us in a different playing field other than just a resort hotel on the beach. This is much bigger when you bundle all of this together and you think about the magnitude of the experiences available.”

The official name of the hotel and conference center is The Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel. Obviously, Hilton will handle The Lodge booking. Valor Hospitality was hired to open the hotel and manage the new park enhancements, the Interpretive Center and Learning Campus. Ellis’ role is connecting the surrounding communities and Gulf State Park together with the new lodge and enhancements as well as managing the other facets of the 6,125-acre park.

“I just had lunch with the general manager and regional director for Valor Hospitality,” Ellis said. “They are moving along quite rapidly. It’s a full-court press right now. We are projecting an opening for Nov. 1.”

“We’ve been getting a lot of interest and a lot of good feedback that people are excited to replace the old lodge and bring on the fresh new opportunity for leisure travelers as well as the meeting and convention travelers.”

When Hurricane Ivan destroyed the old lodge and convention center in 2004, the Alabama Gulf Coast was left lacking facilities large enough to host any sizeable conventions or conferences. Ellis said Alabama soon should get a great deal of that business back.

“During the time we didn’t have a lodge, we had the campground, cabins and cottages,” he said. “Those were our only accommodations. What we were missing out on was that conference and convention business that had gone elsewhere. And it was not elsewhere in Alabama. We lost a tremendous amount of business to northwest Florida, places like Sandestin and that area.”

“I don’t think anybody was comfortable with Alabama state associations meeting out of state, so this gives them an opportunity to keep their money at home and invest it in our own neighborhoods. A lot of the state associations rotate locations around the state. We just didn’t have the accommodations for the scale and size of those meetings, but now we will.”

The Lodge will accommodate up to 1,000 people for conferences and conventions with a 350-room hotel that includes 20 suites. The beach-view ballroom is 12,160 square feet with an adjacent 7,500-square-foot outdoor terrace, and several other smaller meeting and conference rooms are available. A Gulf-front pool will have a pool bar and grill, while a Gulf-front restaurant will have terrace seating and a private dining room that will serve house-prepared dishes sourced from regional suppliers, including fresh Alabama Gulf Seafood.

Obviously, a 350-room hotel is not large enough to house a 1,000-person convention, but Ellis said that was by design so that the hotels and condominiums in the surrounding communities would benefit from the overflow.

The Lodge, Interpretive Center and Learning Campus are being constructed under LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) protocols. The Interpretive Center is pursuing certification under the Living Building Challenge, a designation currently afforded to only 16 buildings in the world.

“The thing so unique about Gulf State Park is it’s being built on a smaller footprint than previously existed,” Ellis said. “They are using every environmental standard possible from design and construction work but also from the operation perspective, such as some of the principles they are using for recycling water.”

“One thing I found intriguing is the day I went by the construction site where they were busting sheetrock, grinding it up to be trucked to farms in middle Baldwin County to be used as lime supplement. This practice not only minimizes waste, but also makes use of reclaimed materials. Not only is it following LEED principles, it’s also doing something the Alabama Gulf Coast has never seen before.”

Ellis said the new facilities will benefit the Alabama Gulf Coast economy during the traditional so-called “shoulder seasons” that fall outside the normal summertime peak usage.

“This will help us with our seasonality challenges,” he said. “For about 75 days out of the year, we’re doing really well; everybody’s happy. But that leaves a lot of other months that we need to balance out our seasonality and build towards a year-round economy. We should appeal to the niche environmental groups that travel, young couples and individual travelers. A lot of them like to travel in the spring and fall.”

“The new and improved Gulf State Park and all its entities will hopefully help smooth out those ebbs and flows in business.”

Ellis said The Lodge is designed to meet the needs of families on vacation, corporate travelers and convention delegates, with a soft opening planned for sometime in November. A visit to shows that Hilton will start accepting reservations “on or after” January 1, 2019. Visit for more information about other opportunities at the park.

With its 3 miles of sugar-sand beaches, Gulf State Park was recently recognized as the 2019 Attraction of the Year by the Alabama Tourism Department.

“Gulf State Park is one of the jewels of our entire Parks system,” said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “We’re honored to receive the award from Alabama Tourism, and we expect next year will be even better with the opening of the The Lodge at Gulf State Park.”

Ellis added, “There are lots of awards, but when you are recognized by your own state tourism industry as being Attraction of the Year, you’re in pretty good company. When you consider the Space and Rocket Center, Bellingrath Gardens and the USS Alabama Battleship, The Civil Rights Institute, we are thrilled to be recognized, and the timing is great.”

State Parks Director Greg Lein pointed out that the Alabama Tourism Department award isn’t the only recognition Gulf State Park has received.

“Gulf State Park has been recognized by its customers for its excellent service through certificates awarded by,” Lein said. “Gulf State Park was inducted into the TripAdvisor Hall of Fame for receiving such awards for five consecutive years.”

Ellis said he has been impressed with what the Gulf State Park staff has accomplished since he joined the team.

“The team I’ve inherited has done a lot with limited resources,” Ellis said. “I’m amazed at this team. They have worked under challenging circumstances to deliver excellent service.”

With the new facilities coming online soon, Ellis finds it difficult to subdue his excitement.

“There’s nothing but a bright future ahead of us with many wonderful things coming,” he said. “It’s a great honor for the staff here. Bundled together, we have some incredible experiences that we can deliver – from nature, hiking and biking and great beaches all the way to luxury lodging, honeymoons and weddings as well as regional and national conferences.”

“This is something Alabama will be very, very proud of.”

How to spend 24 hours in Montgomery
From the article by Carla Jean Whitley in Birmingham Magazine on

The nation’s attention has been on Montgomery recently, thanks to the high-profile opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and The Legacy Museum. Alabama’s capital city has embraced the opportunity to reflect on how its history as the cradle of the Confederacy and the birthplace of Civil Rights has affected the country. Drive south on I-65 to learn how Montgomery is reconciling its past and celebrating its present. Hotels are affordable, so make an overnight trip and explore the enticing food and beverage options in town, as well.

9:00a.m. Fuel up at Prevail Union
You may have had your first cup of coffee before leaving Birmingham, but you’ll want to recharge at Prevail Union. It’s a satellite location of the Auburn-based craft coffee roaster, which earned the title of Alabama’s Best Coffee Shop in a 2015 contest. The shop is located in the mixed-use, newly renovated Kress on Dexter, so take a moment to check out the building’s other tenants, as well. Slurp down your joe or take it to go, because you’ve got a full day ahead.

9:30a.m. Pay tribute to the past
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is just over a half-mile walk from Prevail Union — and you may prefer to travel on foot so you have time to reflect after your visit. Equal Justice Initiative battles mass incarceration and racial and economic injustice, and the 29-year-old nonprofit opened the memorial and its companion museum as an extension of its mission. As you enter the memorial, you’ll pass text panels that explain the history and practice of lynching. More than 4,400 people died in America by lynching between 1877 and 1950. The massive memorial evokes that experience with its human-sized steel columns. Each is transcribed with a county and the names and dates of those who died there. As visitors continue through the memorial, they descend and the columns suggest individuals hanging above. The memorial is surrounded by several thought-provoking pieces of sculpture, and the green space offers plenty of opportunity for you to contemplate the country’s dark past.

11:30 a.m. Lunch at Shilla Korean Restaurant
Take a break for lunch at one of the city’s increasing number of Korean restaurants. Montgomery’s Korean population has been on the rise since Hyundai began producing cars there in 2005. As a result, Montgomery is now home to about a dozen Korean restaurants. Shilla offers a wide variety of cuisine including Korean barbecue and other traditional dishes, in addition to sushi and Japanese selections.

12:30 p.m. Take in literary and jazz-age history
Whether you loved “The Great Gatsby” or just can’t get enough of the jazz age, The Fitzgerald Museum is a must-visit site. The museum, located in the last home the Fitzgeralds shared as a family, is a memorial to the lives of literature’s F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The pair and their daughter, Scottie, lived in the home from 1931 to 1932, while Zelda wrote “Save Me the Waltz” and Scott wrote “Tender is the Night.” Make your Montgomery visit especially memorable by reserving The Fitzgerald House for the evening. For $150 a night, you can sleep where these literary greats wrote. It’s the world’s only museum to the couple.

2:00 p.m. Complete the EJI experience
The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration continues the story of racial oppression introduced at The National Memorial. The lobby display offers context for both the country and Montgomery’s history of racial strife. The city was a hub for slave trading, thanks to its proximity to the rich soil in the Black Belt and the Alabama River, which made transporting slaves easy. The museum begins by educating visitors about the slave trade, then carries the narrative into the 20th century. This history of racial oppression continues to play out, and visitors will be confronted with thought-provoking facts, quotes, and artful displays. A row of pictures and accompanying text along one wall invites readers to contemplate how this history plays out in modern society. Plan to spend several hours here, as there’s a lot to take in.

4:00 p.m. Taste the local suds
Unwind before dinner at Common Bond Brewers. The downtown taproom — Montgomery’s only one — highlights Common Bond’s flagship ales. The four traditional recipes are American classics: an amber, a pale ale, a blonde, and an IPA. Look also for rotating draft offerings and installments of the brewery’s hop workshop series. The latter allows brewers to play with unusual hops and get creative with hops in a variety of styles.

5:00 p.m. Dinner at Central Restaurant
Farm to table is the norm these days, and you’ll see it done well at Central Restaurant. Gulf seafood and locally raised meats combine with local vegetables in the restaurant’s open kitchen. Central offers a casual elegance in an 1890s warehouse space, and it’s steps from all sorts of evening entertainment.

6:35 p.m. Take me out to the ball game
Stroll to Riverwalk Stadium and wrap up the evening by cheering on the Biscuits. Montgomery’s minor league baseball team surely has one of the most unusual mascots, with a butter pat for a tongue, and one of the most enviable stadium settings. The ball field is steps from the Alabama River, Riverwalk Amphitheatre, and Riverfront Park.

10:00 p.m. Late-Night Craving
Head to Taste for dessert and a specialty cocktail to cap off your night. The tapas restaurant offers wine flights, craft beer, and specialty cocktails. We recommend “The Dessert Experience,” which includes one dessert and two port samples. Choose from options like Salted Almond Chocolate Truffle, Pecan Praline Bread Pudding, or Turtle Cheesecake.

For the complete article please see

Sidewalk Film Festival celebrates 20 years
Editor’s note: The 2018 Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham runs from Aug. 20-26.

From the article by Chris Davidson in Birmingham Magazine on

If you recently spotted a Hawaiian shirt-clad John Travolta or a car-chasing Aaron Eckhart downtown, you probably can’t wait to see these scenes of the Magic City play out on the silver screen. While the increasing number of movies being filmed in Birmingham as of late can be considered a result of the city’s revitalization over the past few years, the interest in film can be traced back to the early days of Sidewalk Film Festival.

In 1998, three Birmingham-based filmmakers (Wayne and Kelly Franklin and Eric Jambor) saw other film festivals happening around the country and knew that their local community deserved and could support such an event. With significant support from people such as former MTV video jockey and Alabama resident Alan Hunter (who became Sidewalk’s first board president), Sidewalk incorporated as a nonprofit that year and held its inaugural festival in 1999.

“The very first year of the festival, they were utilizing the Alabama Theatre on Third Avenue North, as well as two vacant storefronts across from the theatre,” says Chloe Cook, Sidewalk’s executive director since 2009. “These places are now Wheelhouse Salon and Shu Shop. And I think they were using the Carver Theatre as well, and also had a tent where they showed films outside. And the vacant storefronts were as you would imagine-folding chairs, screen projectors, very DIY.

“For the first few years, the major event of the festival was not a brand new independent film, but a screening at the Alabama Theatre of “To Kill A Mockingbird,” with some members of the original cast present. However, as interest in the festival grew and more venues became available, Sidewalk evolved into a three-day event featuring more than 250 films, 10 screening sites (including the aforementioned Alabama Theatre, the newly reopened Lyric Theatre, Red Mountain Theatre Company, and Alabama School of Fine Arts), the SHOUT Track (LGBTQ filmmakers and content), numerous parties and events, filmmaker Q&As, industry panels, 700 yearly volunteers, and thousands of devoted attendees. The festival also has garnered some major accolades from publications such as MovieMaker Magazine (“Top 25 Coolest Film Festivals”) and TIME Magazine (“Top 10 Festivals for the Rest of Us”).

“There’s been some really special opening night kind of stuff that can be intensely nerve-racking, but also exciting,” says Creative Director Rachel Morgan, regarding her favorite festival memories. “I think the year that we screened ‘Little Bub & Friendz‘ was one of my favorites because it was sort of an unexpected opening night film. Our guest of honor was a cat, but people were going nuts over it.”

Cook and Morgan recount several similar stories about other films (which run the gamut from short films and feature-length narratives to documentaries and music videos) throughout the festival’s two-decade history. Despite the festival’s success and growth, organizers say they’re constantly solving problems and looking at ways to make the festival better each year.

“We’re often hosting parties in spaces that are not event spaces, like in the middle of the street, or the roof of a parking garage, or the middle of a field,” Cook says.

“And we’re often doing all of this with very little resources. It’s very stressful in the moment, but those are the memories and fun things that you think about looking back. I think it’s particularly rewarding for those of us who are festival staff to see the volunteers who work with us and contribute to that effort to make sure everything goes smoothly.”

In addition to hosting acclaimed regional and national filmmakers, Sidewalk Film Festival works to educate fledgling Birmingham writers, actors, and directors through contests such as the Sidewalk Scramble, which normally happens a few months in advance of the festival. The Scramble, a 48-hour “crash course in filmmaking,” takes 20-25 teams consisting of — according to Cook — “however many people you can convince to work with you” and gives them a theme that the participants must use to write, film, and edit into a short film in two days. Though the cash prize is enticing, the feedback from the jury and the ability to practice “real-world” filmmaking strategies within a limited time frame is what helps inspire future filmmakers to stretch their creative muscles in unique ways. The Jury Prize winner’s film also is shown during festival weekend.

Even though the 20th anniversary will be acknowledged over this year’s festival week (Aug. 20-26), Cook and Morgan are quick to point out that the overwhelming passion and excitement everyone has for the event is par for the course each year.

“There will be some aspects of the festival that will be turned up a notch, but all of the core elements — the venues that we use, the events that we’ve hosted the past several years — they’re all happening in the same way,” Cook says. “It’s always been a big party; it just might be a slightly nicer big party.”

In addition to the festivities, this year Sidewalk is introducing something Birmingham can enjoy all year long — and for years to come. “The biggest gift and way to celebrate the 20th year is that we’re opening a movie theater,” Morgan says.

Breaking ground later this summer and tentatively opening in the early part of 2019, the Sidewalk Film Center & Cinema will be located at the Pizitz building and will feature two 100-seat theaters showing a variety of new independent features and retrospectives. The space also will include a bar serving cocktails, craft beer, and wine; a concession stand; and several education spaces for filmmakers and media students. Both Morgan and Cook hope that the cinema, like the festival itself, will continue to entice residents to experience Birmingham’s cultural renaissance.

For the complete article please see

Alabama Tourism Department’s 2018 Fall Tourism Workshop 
The Alabama Tourism Department will host its semi-annual Tourism Workshop, Thursday, Oct. 11. The workshop will be in Montgomery at the Alabama Center for Commerce Building, 401 Adams Ave., from 10 a.m.–3 p.m. This workshop is designed for new tourism industry members, event organizers and anyone else interested in enhancing tourism in their area. Many of ATD’s staff members will be in attendance at this workshop and you will have an opportunity for one-on-one time with each of them. There is no registration fee. For additional information, please contact Rosemary Judkins at 334-242-4493 or via email atRosemary.Judkins@Tourism.Alabama.Gov

2018 Alabama Welcome Center Retreat set for Huntsville Marriott, Oct. 14-16
The Alabama Welcome Center Retreat gives the Alabama Tourism Industry the opportunity to showcase our communities with the devoted staff of the Alabama Welcome Centers. Each center closes so that all employees participate in this educational retreat. The industry trade show gives us the opportunity to share with the staff members of each center exactly what we have for them to share with their guests, the thousands of travelers stopping at Welcome Centers for travel advice! Hopefully, we will give them enough to entice their visitors to stop, see and stay a little longer with us!

The Registration Fee is $150 for all industry partners, with or without a table top. This fee includes a table top in the Tourism Partner’s Showcase and functions through Tuesday morning breakfast. Each additional partner pays $150 as well. This fee goes up to $175 on Oct. 1. There will be NO refunds after Nov. 1 as we will have given all guarantees to our sponsors and to the hotel by then.

For Details Contact: Patti A. Culp, Alabama Travel Council: or 334-271-0050

Registration open for the 2018 Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee Rural Tourism Conference
Registration is now open for the 2018 Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee Rural Tourism Conference, which will be hosted at the historic Pitman Theatre in downtown Gadsden on Oct. 22-24. The Pitman Theatre will be the site of all educational sessions and the host hotel is the Holiday Inn Express and Suites. Speakers will share their experience and expertise on a range of topics including social media training, agritourism and wineries, marketing to millenials, and tourism and the digital movement. Conference events will also be held at Noccalula Falls Park, Back Forty Beer Company and Gadsden Museum of Art. An early bird rate of $95 per person is available until Oct. 5. Registration is $150 per person after Oct. 5. To register for the Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee Rural Tourism Conference, visit

“Partner Pointer” for the tourism industry website
College football season is almost here. Go, team. Do you have a special event planned, or maybe your hours change on gameday? Get ahead of the game and update you Partner information to let visitors know.

Not a partner yet? Sign up today.



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