Coastal cities in Alabama are up and running for the spring season, and that means increased revenue and tourists through the end of summer.
While Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Ft. Morgan are popular tourist destinations, the city of Foley is also a big draw for Baldwin County. The city is full of restaurants, such as Lambert's and Paula Deen's Family Kitchen, popular shopping centers like the Tanger Outlet Mall, and family entertainment venues like OWA Parks and Resort and Tropic Falls Indoor waterpark.
Foley Mayor Ralph Hellmich said the city doesn't have much of an off-season anymore because of all the options families have year-round.
"We do see a bump that comes during this spring season," Hellmich said. "Traditionally, it has been that way, but it used to be very quiet during other times. Then a few years ago, we started seeing more of a bump in the fall and winter. This economy has evolved and become more mature and sports tourism has filled a lot of the gaps. There really is not much of an off-season."
Preliminary economic data shows that March revenue will exceed the monthly budget for Foley. Hellmich said those profits would be re-invested in the city. He said Foley welcomes visitors because many businesses are focused on hospitality.
"It is a very positive thing because they bring money to our businesses, and we are a service industry-oriented economy, and to have that, tourism is a boom for the local economy," he added.
Retail sales typically reach around $1.3 billion annually, making Foley the retail capital of Baldwin County, Hellmich claimed. With an estimated population of 24,000, he said the number of people in town more than doubles during some periods, especially during sporting events. He said that leads to residential numbers increasing over time.
"When those people come down, a lot of them may be experiencing south Baldwin for the first time," Hellmich explained. "I have met many people who say that's why they came here. They came down for vacation or came with their kids for whatever season and said, 'Hey, this is a nice place' and ended up moving down here."
Along with revenue from sales, the city also focuses on receiving grants totaling $8 to $20 million annually.
"For example, with an ATRIP (Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program) grant, we needed to upgrade County Road 12 intersection, which is at a U.S. highway," he explained. "Two years ago, we received a $2.5 million grant from the federal government, administered by ALDOT. We had to match $1.2 million so that $1.2 million was able to do $2.5 million worth of work."
Hellmich said public safety is an important part of operating and planning for the city, and that is why its public safety departments are the largest funded citywide. Again, he said retail sales and grants help the city make up the difference.
"Our city is outsized," said Hellmich. "We punch at a much higher level. We have more restaurants. We have more service industry. We have more banks. Our city has the business equivalent of a city of 100,000. So, we perform as if we were a city of 100,000. So, we're able to fund those services mainly through having 10 million cars a year down Highway 59, six million visitors at Tanger and all of the other trades we have being a central location in south Baldwin County."
Foley Police chief Thurston Bullock said the police department is able to increase patrols when needed. The department also assists surrounding agencies when necessary.
"The Foley Police Department is always proactive, and heavy travel periods are no different," said Bullock. "We are used to having a higher tourist population in our city most times throughout the year. When we see a need, such as with spring break, we plan ahead and bolster our available personnel accordingly."
Bullock added that it was important for officers to be visible within the city and "readily available to the public while keeping them safe."
While city leaders and administrators appreciate the growth, some residents have voiced concerns about overpopulation and traffic woes. However, State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Josephine) told 1819 News there was still plenty of land mass available in the county, and he has worked with state leaders to ensure the county receives funding for improved roadways.
"We're adding 8,000 people a year to Baldwin County," he said. "... It is never-ending. There is always a need for improvements, and we will always continue to see that happening … We are the top recipient county of state transportation dollars right now."
Elliott said Baldwin County still has room to grow, with a large amount of land mass remaining.
There are currently 15 projects waiting to go to bid for transportation in Foley, and Hellmich believes that will make commutes easier for everyone. Record revenues are also being invested in a new public works complex, a new $20 million library and other amenities.
Hellmich said the city was still in the process of improving the quality of life for residents and visitors. Improvements have been made in public housing regulations and other areas, but he said the job would never be complete.
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