Monday, September 18, 2006

Baldwin County - Possible Motorsport Park

Friendly competition

Published By Mobile Press Register
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Real Estate Editor
Both Mobile and Baldwin counties want a proposed $624 million motorsports park to be built on their turf, but only one will win the race.

In 45 days, Gulf Coast Entertainment investors will choose the site for the Alabama Motorsports Park, A Dale Earnhardt Jr. Speedway, according to former Mobile Mayor Mike Dow, who is president of the investor group.

The group has options to purchase more than 2,300 acres on the Foley Beach Express in the Foley area, and 2,500 acres off Alabama 158 north of Saraland. Investors say a third, less favorable site is in central Baldwin County.

Construction on the four-track park would start by September 2007, with racing to follow in three years, according to Bill Futterer of PSE-3, Partners In Sports and Entertainment, a Raleigh, N.C.-based marketing firm that is handling the project.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of this year's top 10 drivers in NASCAR's Nextel Cup race series, is the most celebrated investor in the track, along with his brother, Kerry Earnhardt and sister, Kelley Earnhardt Elledge. Other investors include former U.S. Rep. Sonny Callahan, Hall of Fame sports stars, real estate developers and race team owners.

The Earnhardts will help design the 7/10-mile, lighted oval track. There will also be a 3/8-mile dirt track; a 3.5-mile road course and a 1/4-mile drag strip.

Mobile and Baldwin city and county officials are familiar with the project, but say they have not been asked about how they can help bring the race park to their town.

Dow says that's the next step: meeting with officials and studying the sites.

"Everybody has input," Dow said. "There's nothing underhanded or tricky about what we're trying to do here. Nobody is ahead of anybody," as far as preferred sites.

The motorsports park will be a positive thing for the region, "but the only negative is that I wish I was part of the process to help facilitate it," said Mike Dean, a Mobile County commissioner.
"I'm 100 percent behind the project, but I have not been approached by Mike Dow and I'm a bit concerned about why. I'm not going to be a part of pitting Mobile against Baldwin County. That's something we've never done before, even under Mike's leadership.

"If Baldwin County is the site they want, we'd help them and if it's Mobile I'm sure our Baldwin colleagues would help us."

Foley Mayor Tim Russell doesn't see it as a competition with Mobile. "We've worked so much on the EADS project with them," he said. "We view our area as a region now."

The team of Northrop Grumman Corp. and EADS North America are contenders to build Air Force refueling tanker planes, and if successful, they will build a 1,000-worker assembly plant at Brookley Field Industrial Complex.

Russell said he has talked with many of the investors about the track, mostly because he knows them personally. He also met the Earnhardt family prior to the announcement, he said.

"But the investors have not asked us for a single thing and the city has not done a single thing to entice them," Russell said. "The demographics for Baldwin County are impressive. I have many huge investors talking to me as mayor of Foley. It's getting to be routine for me."

Mobile County does have an advantage as far as land costs, Realtors say. The land in Mobile County would average $3,500 to $5,000 per acre, when buying it in bulk parcels totaling 2,000 acres or more, according to Realtors. That same acreage averages $10,000 to $20,000 per acre on the Foley Beach Express.

Still, investors have indicated that the land costs will not be a driving factor on a project that is projected to operate for many years and to have a huge impact on the local economy.

Investors said the park could be home to 200 events a year. And preliminary economic impact numbers estimate there will be 4,800 permanent jobs associated with the complex and $458 million a year from visitor spending, according to a report by Semoon Chang, an economist at the University of South Alabama.

Other facilities planned at the park include a 5,000-space RV park, space for five music halls ranging from 500 to 3,000 seats, restaurants, hotels and retail shops, a possible waterpark or theme park and a 7,000-seat arena.
Developers look at several components, such as utilities, traffic patterns and population, according to Greg Saad of Saad & Vallas Realty Group. "If it's a project that has a seasonal draw, it has to be in an area where the population is growing," he said. "And in Baldwin County that's happening everywhere. In recent years, the population has been reaching to the outlying areas of Mobile County.

"You've got to have the infrastructure and services, but beyond that, a project like this will be the anchor. It will be 'the everything' for tenants looking to come into the market."

Mobile County has the infrastructure for such a project, according to Dean. "We have an economic incentive package with a tobacco and lodging tax and a Pay As You Go (roads, capital projects and economic development) program," he said.

"We're willing to take a look at anything we can do to help them move it here," said Stephen Nodine, a Mobile County commissioner. "We have to stay focused on the other economic projects we currently have on the plate. But I think the interstate access is certainly a plus. The Gulf Coast region is highly motivated about NASCAR and racing in general."

Alabama 158 in Saraland had a traffic jam recently, but it wasn't caused by cars, it was wild turkeys crossing the road, said Henry Darnell of Century 21 Hope Downey Team in Mobile. Saraland "is unique," and off the beaten path, but it's not as far as people think, he said.

"I don't think people realize that you can get to places from Saraland a lot quicker than you can from west Mobile," he said, referring to the quick access to Interstate 65.

Foley can handle the addition of a motorsports park, according to Russell. Riviera Utilities serves eight cities and half of Baldwin County with some type of utility, according to Russell. Riviera serves 36,000 households in Baldwin County, and there are another 50,000 lots under development or review that would hook up to Riviera, he said.

"When you look at the total magnitude of this, the location is absolutely critical to this whole project," he said.

Gulf Shores does not have a site for such a huge project, but it does have the condominium units and hotel rooms to support track visitors, according to Robert Craft, a Gulf Shores city councilman.

"I do know that these investors are astute businessmen and if they are going into a venture and putting money into it, they know what they are doing," Craft said. "They don't make big mistakes."

"It's a business decision," Dow said. "There's no pitting the counties against each other. It will go to the best site. We're putting a phenomenal investment in our region; either site will be great for the region."

The investors will also have input as to where to build the park, said Rick Edwards of Point Clear, an investor in the park who worked to get the sites under contract. "So far we've been pretty unanimous in everything we've done."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., center, and Kerry Earnhardt appear at a news conference Tuesday, at the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center, where the siblings from the famous racing family announced plans for a coastal motorsports and entertainment park.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Developer Pitches Waterpark

Published By Mobile Press Register
Friday, September 15, 2006
Staff Reporter

DAPHNE -- The owner of Waterville, a 20-acre waterpark in Gulf Shores, is seeking a public-private partnership with Daphne to build an indoor waterpark at the city's proposed recreational complex.

Joe Warrington made his pitch Wednesday to the newly appointed Daphne Recreation Board. The board held the meeting to gather ideas for the recreational complex, which is being planned at a 123-acre site Daphne recently acquired for $1.9 million. The tract is behind Wal-Mart, east of U.S. 98.

Warrington said the indoor waterpark could feature slides, a surfing machine, a pool for water basketball and volleyball, a river ride and a wet deck. The all-indoor facility also could include a gymnasium/soccer field, Olympic-sized swimming pools and an ice skating rink, he said.

He presented multiple designs to the board, and said a first phase could include a 50,000-square-foot building to house the waterpark and a natatorium pools. The facility could cost between $8 million and $10 million, he said, and could be subsidized with user fees collected by the city.

"More and more municipalities are getting into the business of entertainment in an effort to offer kids more to do," Warrington said. "The waterpark is a nice cornerstone tenant, but it does not work at all without a lot of other things going there. I personally think that you could put enough things together at that complex to make the whole thing profitable."

Rapid growth along Interstate 10 and the Eastern Shore makes Daphne a perfect location for a waterpark, with a market extending to Pensacola, southeast Mississippi and Mobile and Baldwin counties, he said.

Warrington also is no stranger to waterpark development.

He has assisted in the development of a 50,000-square-foot indoor waterpark at Massanutten Resort in Harrisonburg, Va. He is currently assisting with the design of a multi-acre aquatic feature at The Wharf in Orange Beach for condominium and hotel residents, and also has played a part in the design of a waterpark in Williamsburg, Va., he said.

But the current trend in waterpark development is moving toward all-indoor facilities attached to hotels, he said, and it would help to have a hotel near the proposed project in Daphne.

"What hotels are starting to realize is that, instead of just having a pool, having more aquatic features drives occupancy," Warrington said. "That is the hottest thing going with hotels right now."

Public-private partnerships for such ventures are not uncommon either. Locally, the cities of Daphne, Orange Beach and Bay Minette have engaged in various, separate deals involving public financing of private enterprise projects.

Last month, city leaders in Mansfield, Texas -- a city of about 30,000 residents located 36 miles from Dallas -- heard a proposal for a $6 million to $7 million water amusement park that would include a 3,000-seat amphitheater and Texas' largest wave pool, according to reports.

Mansfield city leaders are considering sharing the cost with developers to build the park, dubbed Hawaiian Falls, the reports said. Voters in that city approved $5.1 million for an aquatic center to open in 2009, and the city has purchased a site for $1.3 million.

With his experience with waterparks, Warrington said his company could own and operate the facility for Daphne and collect user fees to pay off any investment the city makes in the project.

"I'd like to build and operate that waterpark space, and I think it would make sense for us to run that natatorium," he said. "I just want to get something there that the city would be proud of."

Recreation board member Eric Smith said the city needs a pool and having an indoor waterpark at the complex would draw more people and help make it a success.

"You can't just build a natatorium," Smith said. "You need a facility with multiple uses going on."

Warrington was not the only person at the meeting who suggested a multi-use recreational facility at the new complex.

Michele Heim told the board she has invested $30,000 in architectural plans for a facility that could house indoor volleyball, soccer, batting cages, a driving range for golfers, a kids' play area and an arcade. She said she planned to build the facility in another city before making the pitch to the Daphne board Wednesday.

"We're talking recreation for ages 3 to 83, all seasons, all year around," said Heim, a University of Mobile graduate with athletic and coaching experience.

Board Chairman Ed Nelson suggested Heim meet with the city's engineering firm, Hutchinson, Moore and Rauch, to share her ideas.

"We are going to tap people like you if we ever build that indoor facility," he said.

Several residents at the meeting supported the idea of a city pool. Others suggested the complex include soccer fields, a separate off-leash park for dogs and a shooting range.

Nelson said ideas for the complex are being gathered now to help city leaders decide which facilities it should contain.

Once that's decided, City Council members would consider payment options for building the complex and hire engineers to assist with the design, Councilman Gus Palumbo said. A timeline for the project has not been established.