In years past Baldwin County has relied on its sun-toasted beaches to help push a booming tourism industry. But with a large amusement park and entertainment complex currently under construction a few miles north in Foley, officials are excited about adding even more attractions to entice visitors.

The Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ OWA development is under construction at the intersection of the Baldwin Beach Express and County Road 20 and expected to open this year. County tourism officials are excited about the future of the project, which includes a 14-acre amusement park.

“From where we sit, it’ll have a huge impact on new visitors,” said Lee Lawson, president of the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance. “It’ll add diversity to the tourism base that wasn’t there before.”

Herb Malone, president and CEO of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, said the development would help the region gain visitors.

“Tourists who think of going to a different beach might think of coming down here for the beach and an amusement park,” Malone said. “We’re very excited about what the added attraction brings to our region of South Alabama.”

OWA amenities
The amusement park buildout will be one of the first tasks completed, OWA Director of Marketing and PR Kristin Hellmich wrote in an email. Initially slated for Memorial Day, the opening has been pushed back because of construction delays.

“When the OWA vision was announced last November 2016, we realized the timeline was very aggressive given the magnitude of the project,” she wrote. “While our construction teams pushed hard for a Memorial Day opening there were factors outside of our control, like Mother Nature and her rains.”

Now, Hellmich wrote, a 150-room Marriott TownePlace Suites on the site is slated to open this month, with the amusement park coming online in mid-July. The development’s shopping and dining areas will follow in phases.

“OWA will be announcing its official open date and pricing for The Park at OWA, the 14-acre amusement park, in the coming weeks,” Hellmich wrote.

The park will consist of 21 themed rides, she wrote.

“One of those rides is our signature steel coaster, Rollin’ Thunder. Rides are geared toward the young and old alike, whether they seek a classic amusement ride or high-thrill adventure on one of our three coasters.”

The park will also include family rides and kids’ rides, according to a fact sheet OWA provided. The facility will also include a 14-acre lake with a 1.5-acre island, complete with a 400-seat amphitheater and boathouse. The island also will feature boat rentals and fountain shows.

Developers have ambitious plans following the opening of the first phase of the park. These include a 16-acre amusement park expansion, a 170-slot RV park and two more hotels, one of which will include an indoor/outdoor waterpark, Hellmich wrote.

“Timing for construction will depend upon market demands,” she wrote. “Preliminary growth indicators reveal that construction on several of these amenities could begin within the next 12 months.”

Other amenities, such as shopping and dining options, have already been announced. Last month it was announced Wahlburgers would open its second-largest U.S. location at the OWA complex in late summer. It will be the restaurant’s first Alabama storefront.

“We are excited to announce Wahlburgers will be opening at OWA this summer, along with several other significant tenants who have signed on to join us in this exciting endeavor,” Stephanie A. Bryan, tribal chairwoman and CEO for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, said. “We are proud to continue building partnerships that will create jobs in the hospitality industry, helping to grow a strong economic future for the state.”

Other future tenants announced in May include: Sunglass World, Fairhope Soap Co., Alvin’s Island, Hershey’s Ice Cream Shop and Utopia.

The entire OWA buildout represents a 520-acre resort and a $500 million investment by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, according to information from OWA. The first two phases of the project represent a $240 million investment, with total buildout scheduled over the next five years. According to a fact sheet OWA provided, the project will help increase Baldwin County’s economic output by $244 million and add $78.5 million to the region’s payroll.

The city of Foley and the state believe the OWA development will be successful, as each has provided incentives to help developers defray the costs of related infrastructure and other expenses.

The state is giving OWA developers a 1.5 percent investment credit, which is not to exceed $10 million, Alabama Department of Commerce Deputy Secretary Angela Till wrote in an email message.

The credit, which maxes out at 1.5 percent, is used for qualified capital investment expenses for up to 10 years and is taken against the state’s income tax liability, according to information from the Department of Commerce’s website. To receive the credit, a project must create at least 50 new jobs.

In addition to the state incentives, a local cooperative district, which includes the OWA property, voted to levy a 2-cent fee on the total sales tax charged within the district up to $175 million or for 20 years, whichever comes first. The Foley City Council then voted to give that additional money to OWA to help pay for capital expenses, Foley’s Economic Development Director Jeff Rouzie said. The $175 million is a cap, which he doesn’t expect will be reached, he said.

The additional fee would only be added to goods and services purchased within the district. It would not add to the sales tax rate in other parts of the city, Rouzie said.

The fee will be added to hotel rooms within the district as well. The sales tax on rooms is at 11 percent now and breaks down to 7 cents to the city and 4 cents to the state.

The cooperative district borders Juniper Street and Pride Drive and extends out to the beach express to County Road 20, Rouzie said.

In addition to OWA, the district includes a city-owned sports complex featuring a 91,000-square-foot facility that can accommodate 12 volleyball courts or six basketball courts. The district also includes a soccer complex with 16 state-of-the-art soccer fields built to drain huge rain accumulations, Rouzie said.

The area also includes the Graham Creek Nature Preserve, which Rouzie said could attract ecotourism. The district could be a huge draw for tourism of all kinds once OWA is completed, Rouzie said.

“This will have a huge impact on Foley and the region,” he said.

Return on investment
Dr. Christopher Keshock, associate professor of sport management and program director in the Department of Health, Kinesiology and Sport at the University of South Alabama, wrote in an email that there are several factors to consider when determining whether the state or city will get a good return on investment from the OWA incentives.

While the project is certain to bring in additional tourism dollars, Keshock said, those dollars can only be considered an economic gain for the city and state if the intent of the tourists is to come to the park in the first place.

“Otherwise, visitors who already planned a trip to the Gulf Shores/Orange Beach area and happened to go to the amusement park while here are considered casual visitors,” he wrote. “In other words, they would have come to the impact area even if the amusement park was not built.”

The increased revenue must also be weighed against factors such as additional traffic congestion, crime and law enforcement presence in new areas of the city. The quality of the attractions to locals should also be considered, Keshock wrote.

“The OWA facility provides another entertainment option for locals to enjoy instead of traveling to distant places to experience amusement parks,” he wrote. “It would keep locals home … where they would keep their leisure spending here instead of spending at an amusement park in another state.”

All in all, Keshock wrote OWA will be an asset to the region, but it may be too early to tell how valuable it will be.

“The OWA facility will add to the already-great tourism demand existing in Baldwin County, and the symbiotic relationship with the adjacent Foley Sports Complex will provide greater group travel opportunities, which extend beyond single-family beach vacations,” he wrote. “Only the Foley residents may be able to answer whether the OWA facility is worth it since they will face the impact of added visitors. If the sales tax generated by tourists while in the area pay for or improve the community, then residents typically accept new ventures, while also having a modern amusement park to enjoy in their own backyard.”

Jane Nicholes contributed information to this story.