While a restaurant closure and rumors of plans for a casino at the OWA development in Foley have many concerned about the project, those in charge remain positive about the future of the family-friendly enterprise, which is expected to be a total investment of $414 million by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI)
The 520-acre destination already includes a Marriott TownePlace Suites hotel, several shops, a water park and a theme park. There are regular entertainment events offered at the location, and recently the PCI announced the development of an indoor pickleball court that will have 24-hour access to members.
However, there have been some setbacks. Paula Deen’s Country Kitchen was the latest sudden closure, less than a month after the closing of Cinnabon and Auntie Anne’s. While some visitors to the Gulf Coast have ventured over to OWA, the winter draw has been slim.
“There was no crowd,” said Jessica Scott, who traveled from Detroit, Alabama with her family to stay in their Gulf Shores condo before Christmas.
They went to see Santa at OWA and ate at Paula Deen’s during their trip. They said they enjoyed their visit and didn’t have to wait in line to do anything.
“We weren’t surprised by the lack of a crowd because we had gone in 2022 and it was not crowded then,” Scott added.
Despite the smaller crowds and closures, PCI’s director of external communications Kristin Hellmich told 1819 News the story at OWA is a positive one. She said OWA is part of a much larger operation nationwide that will continue to invest in Alabama.
The City of Foley has also supported OWA by joining in with PCI on a $18 million residential facility to house hospitality workers under the J-1 visa program.
Foley Mayor Ralph Hellmich told 1819 News the city provided the land for the facility but did not provide funds for the building. The city is also putting in infrastructure, such as sidewalks to link OWA to Tanger Outlets, South Juniper Street and the Foley Event Center.
State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Josephine) said even the state has invested in OWA. From the beginning, the development was able to take advantage of incentives because it was a large owner, developer and operator, Elliott said.
However, he said he does not believe OWA will need any of the benefits from the latest Jobs Act passed by the Legislature, even though the development was the topic of debate during discussion over the bill.
“Would it be available to OWA to use if they had a specific project? Maybe,” Elliott said. “But it would have to fall within some pretty specific parameters and as big as OWA is, the vast majority of it has already been built. So now, at this point, we’re talking about $25 or $50 million projects, which are pretty sizeable projects, and I think there are some mega projects that are in that $75 million range, but those are big projects so what I see that being used for are more along the lines of city docks in Guntersville or whatever goes in place of Bama Bayou in Orange Beach but larger, new developments.”
Elliott said OWA was on the right track and had the ability to self-sustain. He also dispelled rumors of the PCI eventually building a casino on the grounds.
“That is completely inconsistent with what they’re trying to do at OWA,” Elliott told 1819 News. “I just cannot see them taking what is envisioned to be a very family-friendly environment and throwing a casino in the middle of that.”
“That just doesn’t make sense practically,” he continued. “PCI has told me it is not their intention to do that and frankly, depending on how the [much-anticipated gambling] bill is drafted, because if it is drafted like it was the last time, you couldn’t do that with it because the locations were specifically enumerated in the legislation.”
The pedestrian-only streets inside OWA take visitors back to a simpler time of old-time ice cream shops and offer a sense of community. Elliott said he doesn’t think those in charge of the operations there want to change that by building a casino.
“It’s certainly not something that I’m interested in and I don’t think that’s where I’m headed either,” he said.
OWA has plans for a new attraction in 2024 to take the place of Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen. Paula Deen's Family Kitchen was independently owned by OWA.
“We look forward to the positive impact this new attraction will bring to our collective success,” Kristin Hellmich said in a press release.
1819 News requested an interview with Kristin Hellmich but was denied.
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