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Owa: Destination Foley

Owa: Destination Foley Tourism: It’s what propels the economy on the Gulf Coast. From sandy white beaches to shopping outlets and restaurants, tourism in South Alabama is paramount for businesses of all kinds to succeed.

And soon, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians — working through its economic development branch, Creek Indian Enterprises Development Authority (CIEDA) — and the City of Foley will introduce a new entertainment destination that not only will benefit local and nearby residents but also the entire country.

Foley Holdings has been created by CIEDA to establish a multi-million-dollar development that will put Foley, Ala., on the map as a vacation destination and attract tourists from around the country looking to experience a little Southern charm.

“From the beginning, we knew we wanted to be a part of something big in Baldwin County,” Martin said. "When the City of Foley approached us in 2012, the original initiative was a joint venture on sports tourism. The economy in Baldwin County was hit hard after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but sports tourism was the only sector not affected. After a few discussions, it also came to light that many things were lacking for those tourists who come for sports tournaments, such as retail, dining and entertainment options close to the venue.

“That’s when we saw the continued value of this development and said we're going to get fully involved and take it to a higher level by creating a mega sports and entertainment destination.”

In conjunction with the integration of the sports fields and event center planned by the City of Foley, CIEDA’s concept for the project is to create a family-friendly retail, dining and entertainment destination, targeting individuals of all ages. It is anticipated the destination will attract visitors from a 400-mile driving radius who will choose to stay either overnight or plan a day trip.

The development sits on more than 400+ acres at the intersection of the Foley Beach Express and Baldwin County Road 20. The Tribe originally only provided the financial backing for the project, but the opportunity arose to take control of the entertainment piece of the project. The City of Foley retains sole ownership of the sports complex.

Martin describes the project as spectacular, reiterating that the Tribe knows the value in producing top-quality developments.

“Look at what we’ve done in the past,” Martin said. “It will be that level of quality.”

Tourism and entertainment growth is positive
Proving the existing tourism market was viable was very easy. Numbers don’t lie. In the past year alone, Foley/Gulf Shores visitor spending reached $3.5 billion. Multiple feasibility studies performed for the Tribe by nationally known firms show the average visitor to the area has a high income and will spend accordingly.

Despite the oil spill initially affecting vacationers coming the beaches on the Gulf Coast, Alabama gained national and international attention as the place to vacation. However, even though tourism numbers continue to grow exponentially, the retail, dining and entertainment (RDE) opportunities for this region has not. The Foley/Gulf Shores area is currently an underserved market for family entertainment when compared to similar destinations, such as Pigeon Forge, Tenn.; Destin, Fla.; and Myrtle Beach, S.C.

CIEDA sought out six nationally recognized research firms and had each one conduct an independent study of the market. All six returned the same results: 6.1 million people visit the Foley/Gulf Shores area every year and that number is projected to continue to grow.

Based on the positive results, CIEDA was convinced and began to swiftly move to capitalize on getting the development started, beginning with a master plan design for the entire 400+ acre campus that would fully integrate the City's sports assets.

Maintaining the Poarch Creek standards
Because the Tribe has a history of developing high quality properties, CIEDA took every precaution with designing the layout and land-use possibilities. This involved working with many people to ensure a high-quality resort would be built. City and state officials were consulted and a public-private partnership was formed as a commitment to get the project incentives up and running.

The State of Alabama has provided funds for constructing roadways and widening existing ones for traffic to flow effortlessly. Foley Beach Expressway was completed as part of phase 1. It was expected the roadway would carry 8,000 to 9,000 cars per day, but current estimates show traffic is already reaching 12,000 cars per day.

“Once we realized the demands in our existing tourism market, along with the need for superior design plans to attract these visitors, a more refined retail, dining and entertainment plan was required,” CIEDA Greg Rawls said. Therefore, CIEDA brought in additional firms to evaluate, study and validate a resort level destination. These firms have worldwide experience, most notably Walt Disney World, Gaylord Entertainment, and Six Flags, and returned the same data to confirm the concept for a 180,000 square foot space for retail, dining and entertainment.

“Through the feasibility studies, all consultants agreed visitors to the area are drawn here for specific reasons — to experience the beauty and culture of our area,” said Kristin Roberson, marketing and PR rep for Foley Holdings. “As a result, Foley Holdings will continue to hit the mark on these known consumer desires, making it a financially viable investment for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.”

Fast track to the future
In order to capitalize on the market, CIEDA and the City of Foley hit the ground running in 2015. The development was broken down into three phases:

  • Phase 1: Completely funded and underway, with some parts already finished and operating. This phase laid the groundwork for the project. It calls for 16 outdoor sports fields (open and tournaments are being played now, funded by the City of Foley), a 90,000 sq ft indoor events center (construction underway, funded by the city), a 150-room Marriott TownePlace Suites hotel (construction underway, funded by Foley Holdings) and road expansions (completed by the state, with a connector to I-10 and a newly built four-lane highway through the property that connects to Highway 59).
  • Phase 2: This phase is the heart of the master plan and the current phase CIEDA has begun. Foley Holdings will construct 180,000 square feet of RDE space centered around a 14-acre lake. A 14-acre themed amusement park is being put together and will play a key part in fulfilling the entertainment needs of regional visitors. It will include 20 custom designed rides ranging from a major rollercoaster and high thrill teen rides to kiddie rides for small children. Additional roadways will be constructed to accommodate the anticipated foot traffic and flow of guests. This will be completed by May 2017. A downtown district and warehouse district will be built within the RDE space and will provide guests with a small-town, Southern-charm feel. The entire RDE section will be fully constructed by winter 2017.
  • Phase 3: This phase is for future expansions based on the current visitor demographics. It includes a 200+ space RV park, indoor and outdoor waterpark with a hotel and expansion of the existing theme park. The entire development, with all three phases, is a five-year plan, based on market statistics for future growth and tourism in the Foley/Gulf Shores area.

Putting South Alabama on the map
The beaches of South Alabama are the main draw for most vacationers to the area. Although the beach brings in a vast of economic boom, there are very few other options to entice guests to spend time and money in the area.

Tanger Outlets is also a huge draw for local and regional visitors. But again, the closest waterpark or theme park is Waterville USA in Gulf Shores and The Track in Destin, Fla. Therefore, the Foley Holdings resort development will be the only entertainment park of its size in the region, which further validates that this project will be successful. Guests will easily be able to recognize the elevated family entertainment experience as a result of the sheer volume of rides and quality of options offered. Feasibility studies show the development will be affordable and in current ranges of competition sites, such as Pigeon Forge or Six Flags.

“This development was thoughtfully and carefully planned,” CIEDA Chief Financial Officer Chad Klinck said. “It is not intended to compete with the beaches for tourism but actually to complement that market. We aren’t trying to get people from going to the beach. We are trying to include a range of options for people who spend a good amount of time down here. Right now, people come to the beach and travel elsewhere for entertainment. We want them to stay locally in the region to occupy their time and keep them busy.

“When you look at places like Myrtle Beach or Destin, the people who go to these vacation spots are looking for more than just laying out on the beach all day, every day,” he said. “They want good food, good shopping and good entertainment, to go along with a good few days at the beach. That’s what we are providing here in Foley.”

The resort also will keep locals local. Visitors considered as “regional locals” include those within a two-hour driving distance.

“These people currently have to drive a considerable distance to experience anything of this magnitude,” Martin said. “We want to be the place people come to from Pensacola, Mobile, Fairhope, Brewton and all points in between. We want to put a big star for South Alabama on the map and provide guests with an experience they’ll love and want to come back to again and again.”

By Jen Peake
CIEDA Marketing Specialist

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