I thought we were dead with all that [oil] on there,” Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said of the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. “Visitors and locals couldn’t go fishing, you couldn’t go in the water, you were afraid to eat the fish and you didn’t want to walk on the beach because there was oil everywhere.”
But now the oil spill also giveth in the form of $37.3 million of Restore Act money to fund projects in Gulf Shores. There will be $5.9 million for the Little Lagoon restoration project, and the big one is $21.9 million for part of the project to widen Canal Road to five lanes from Gulf Shores to Alabama Route 161 in Orange Beach and other improvements along the roadway.
Perhaps the most unique and most closely related to the oil spill is a $9.7 million project to build the Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism and Sustainability. It will be developed with the help of Jean Michel Cousteau and the Ocean Futures Society.
Craft said he and city leaders saw one of the parameters for applying for Restore Act money was ecotourism, a growing segment of the tourist industry nationwide.
“It’s fostering more tourism through ecotourism and that’s become something that’s very important in the tourism world,” Craft said. “Growing our ecotourism is diversifying us.”
Craft’s daughter, Libby Erickson, works for the Cousteau Society and started with them on Catalina Island off the coast of California. She now does the same job with Cousteau in Hawaii, helping run an ecotourism camp there.
On Catalina, she was part of the Catalina Environmental Leadership Program working for Travis Langen. The city recently agreed to pay Langen $25,000 to come to Gulf Shores for the rest of the year to set up the plan, facilities and activities for the ecotourism center.
Part of Langen’s job, city documents say, will be to establish relationships with state park staff and Valor Hospitality, operators of the new state park lodge. The center hopes to utilize facilities in the park as part of its education programs until the center’s buildings are complete in 2020. Construction is underway now in Gulf State Park on a learning campus, and Gulf Shores officials hope to use its facilities to start the new program in fall 2019.
“We’ve got to go through the camp and let him figure out what are our learning opportunities and what are we going to teach,” Craft said. “And what is here that would be fascinating, interesting and informative to everybody who does this. He’s coming in to start exploring the park himself. He’s been through it multiple times with me.”
Craft said the oil spill made city leaders fully understand the importance of the environment to the coastal economy.
“When [the oil spill] happened, nobody came,” he said. “People come because of the beach, because of the waters, because of the fishing, because of the seafood. Primarily we are an environmental tourism destination if you look at it that way, and I do. And I really recognize how important it is to protect it better than we have.”