FOLEY, Alabama — Plans are beginning to come together for a 500-acre entertainment development and city sports complex that could generate more than $100 million in annual sales and employ nearly 3,000 people in Lower Alabama.
If everything falls into place, developers connected with blockbuster comedians Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy and backed by singer Tony Orlando will root themselves in south Baldwin County by opening a complex that Mayor John Koniar describes as a mix of Branson, Mo., and Six Flags.
The development has been called Blue Collar Country and it would be home to performance venues such as an amphitheater, hotels, an RV resort, retail shops, rides, restaurants and other amenities. The first phase of the project would bring an estimated $175 million of investment into Alabama, create 450 construction jobs and 1,400 permanent jobs locally, according to county records.
For the city’s part, it has grand plans of its own, including a 100,000-square-foot indoor event center as well as outdoor sports fields, that the mayor said would complement and work in “synergy” with the Blue Collar group’s project.
A major hurdle for the Blue Collar effort was cleared within the last month, as the developers, BC Foley LLC, purchased more than 500 acres on the city’s south side from Woerner Beach Express LLC for roughly $12 million, according to city officials and county records. The property is at the northwest corner of the Foley Beach Express and Baldwin County 20, near where a lone McDonald’s now sits.
The property purchase came on the heels of another key element of the project, the state’s awarding of $12.1 million in federal road-building funds through the Alabama Transportation Rehabilitation and Improvement Program, or ATRIP. The money, in addition to a $4.4 million match by Foley, would lead to another connection of Ala. 59 and Juniper Street at the west side of the proposed development via the extension of Pride Drive next to Walmart.
City Administrator Mike Thompson said the city remains “cautiously optimistic” about the project.
“It’s going as well as can be expected,” Thompson said. “I think over the course of the month of May, we’ll see additional movement. I believe they’re going to be putting some facilities out there. You know sales and operations, stuff like that. I do know that they want to have a public announcement at the point that they’re prepared for that. I think that’s going to happen in May but they’re trying to coordinate that with the entertainers and the folks up in Montgomery and all that.”
In a special-called meeting in late March, the City Council in a unanimous vote gave the green light, with contingencies, for the road improvements to move forward as well as officially backing plans for the event center and building it within 2 years. The project is contingent on the city being able to acquire reasonable financing through the purchase of bonds and the developer must donate rights of way, property around a stormwater retaining lake and land for the city’s planned indoor complex.
“Tentatively, the developer would donate the footprint for the multi-use facility and then we would buy some land for ballfields,” Koniar said. “We’re looking at 12 to 14 additional ballfields to work with Gulf Shores and Orange Beach to be able to bring in bigger venues. Right now that’s our limitation, we just don’t have the ballfields to handle some of these tournaments.”
The project would add to south Baldwin’s ever-growing sports tourism industry. The area hosted 88 events in 2012, generating 64,076 room nights and $22.4 million in direct spending, according to the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Sports Commission.
In order for the indoor and outdoor complex to become a reality, the city must also received firm commitments for the construction of hotels near the property that would add at least 250 rooms for visitors to the city.
The mayor said the hotels were a key component to feasibility studies commissioned by the city.
“We still don’t have, in-hand, any letters of commitment from a hotelier or hoteliers so that’s still pending,” Koniar said last week.
According to a study by Troy University, financed by the city and the Blue Collar group, a conservative estimate of non-local sales revenue for the combined entertainment and sports complex, which includes a pending aquatic center, would be $176 million annually for the city level, $192 million for county and $174 million for state. Total tax revenue is estimated to hit $4.8 million for Foley and $3.8 million for the county.
The project is where it is today because of ongoing cooperation at the city, county and state level that began well over a year ago. During the 2012 term, Alabama legislators passed the Alabama Tourism Attraction Incentive Act to provide tax incentives for certain tourism attractions, including entertainment venues valued at over $20 million.
Koniar said the next step for the developer is to secure “vertical financing” for construction. In a recent talks with a Blue Collar partner, the mayor said the topic of a groundbreaking came up.
“I said a groundbreaking is lovely but I’m not going to be too excited about it until we do a ribbon-cutting,” Koniar recalled. “There have been lots of groundbreakings in Baldwin County that never resulted in a ribbon-cutting. I’m reasonably optimistic that it’ll happen but until it happens it hasn’t happened.”