Thursday, February 15, 2007

Gulf Shores - Orange Beach New School District ?

Published By Mobile Press Register
Thursday, February 15, 2007
By JOSH BEANStaff Reporter

Creation of a special tax district that includes Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and the unincorporated areas of Ono Island and Fort Morgan has been suggested as a compromise that would end the two cities' attempts to form a joint, independent school district.
Gulf Shores Mayor G.W. "Billy" Duke III, Orange Beach Mayor Pete Blalock and Baldwin County Public Schools Superintendent Faron Hollinger renewed negotiations this week in hopes of reaching a compromise and avoiding a split from the county system.
Attorneys are handling this newest round of talks, and officials stressed that no formal decisions have been made as they try to figure out the exact millage needed, as well as an educational "wish list" from Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
A special tax district likely could be created through a local vote, according to county school board officials and state Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Gulf Shores. McMillan provided copies of the state code that shows that the County Commission and county school board could work together to set up a special tax district for schools.
Blalock and Duke, meanwhile, said they believe legislative approval would be needed to create a special tax district but the mayors admitted that attorneys for the two sides could may find a way to avoid that process.
Referendums on a 7.5-mill property tax increase to fund the new school system are scheduled for March 13 -- less than a month away -- and the votes have not yet been canceled.
Officials from both sides said they hope negotiations move quickly and that a resolution can be reached.
"Our desire is to have this concluded by the end of the week so we know where we're going," Hollinger said. "We know there are a lot of factors and a lot of players, but that's our desire."
The county school board has scheduled a closed-door executive session for tonight, when special counsel Matt McDonald is expected to bring the seven-member board up to date on this week's negotiations. The board also will conduct its monthly meeting in Bay Minette after the executive session.
The next face-to-face meeting that would include the mayors and Hollinger could be held as early as Friday, Blalock and Duke said. Leaders from both sides have been tight-lipped about the contents of the negotiations, and said they are cautiously optimistic that a compromise can be reached.
Last year, Hollinger proposed an alternative plan to the beach cities' movement to break away from the county school system. It involves creating a special tax district for schools, and the two sides agreed to return to the bargaining table and discuss the proposal this week.
In October 2006, Hollinger told the Press-Register that most areas of the county could levy an additional 3 mills of property tax for schools by creating a special tax district. No legislative approval would be needed for a 3-mill increase, he said.
On Monday, Gulf Shores Board of Education President Joe Tucker said the new round of negotiations would explore whether a levy of "somewhere between 3 and 7½" mills would be satisfactory for both sides.
Negotiations, however, have included how to accommodate a property tax increase of more than 3 mills without needing legislative approval, according to officials. One such scenario would be to create two or more special tax districts that would affect the same geographic area, but could be earmarked for different uses.
For example, one special tax district could be created for Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and surrounding areas that feed into schools in the two cities that would levy 3 mills for capital improvements and construction.
A separate special tax district, which would also be for Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and surrounding areas, would levy 2 mills for enhanced and expanded academic programs.
This proposal would likely be constitutional and only require local approval, McMillan said, although he stressed that each district would have to be voted on separately.
State Sen. Bradley Byrne, R-Montrose, said he would be willing to help the two sides reach a compromise.
Special tax districts can include areas inside and outside municipalities, something Hollinger has trumpeted as a major advantage over an independent school system.
For example, a special tax district could be created that would include Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and the unincorporated areas of Ono Island and Fort Morgan -- all areas whose students eventually feed into Gulf Shores High School.
In contrast, the 7.5-mill proposal would only affect residents in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, not the neighboring areas that feed into the cities' schools.
Of greater importance, Hollinger said, is the fact that all funds generated by a special tax district would funnel directly into that area's local schools. A special advisory board could be created to help the elected school board decide how to use the additional money, Hollinger said.
"They get to keep all the funds," he said. "All of that money goes directly to those schools and programs for enhancements."
To set up a special tax district, the school system would work with the County Commission, county tax collector and Board of Registrars, said Jean McCutchen, the county school board's chief school financial officer.
First, the county school board must approve Hollinger's proposal and recommend that a local area vote on whether to create the special tax district. Then, the district must be identified, whether it's a municipality or an area served by one of the county's seven high schools.
The second step would involve the County Commission authorizing the vote, McCutchen said. If creation of the special district were approved by voters, she said, the tax collector would then be directed to levy the tax to be used only for schools in that area.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Gulf Shores - Postal Branding Effort Pitched

Veteran marketing man wants to sell investment potential of Alabama's coast
Published By Mobile Press Register
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
By RYAN DEZEMBERStaff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- Gary Gilpin, a Gulf Shores resident with a long career in resort marketing, has proposed a plan to brand Alabama's Gulf Coast in order to lure capital, permanent residents and government money.
"We're at a very important time in our history, a crossroads of sorts," Gilpin told the Orange Beach City Council on Monday. "We have the chance to take more control of our destiny than we already have by creating a strong single voice, a brand if you will, to market and create an awareness that this is a highly desirable live-work-play location in America."
While the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau focuses on attracting tourism and the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance works to draw businesses, Gilpin said the group he wants to create, Baldwin Coastal Marketing Alliance, would center itself on getting the word out about Alabama's beaches to those around the nation that can best help the area grow.
When he talks about the Alabama Gulf Coast, Gilpin said he is referring to not just Orange Beach and Gulf Shores but also Foley, Magnolia Springs and Elberta. And he wants a wide range of participants in the effort, from car dealers and developers to Realtors, bankers and elected leaders.
Advertising would not be general, "but rifle shots at the places that are going to influence our growth the most," he said. And it would be targeted to areas outside the six-hour driving distance that the Convention and Visitors Bureau has developed as the zone in which much of the area's tourism is drawn from. Gilpin said he wants to entice developers, investors and residents from Detroit, New York, Cleveland and Chicago.
"It's a great concept, because we need to get beyond these borders and talk about what's positive," said City Councilwoman Tracy Holiday, who also works in marketing. "But we definitely need to find out who the audience is, because it's not Birmingham, it's not Montgomery, it's not Atlanta anymore, it's way outside of that."
The organization's goal, Gilpin said following his Orange Beach presentation, would be to broadcast the story of Alabama's beaches so thoroughly that local developers and Realtors won't have to waste the first part of their pitch explaining what the state's Gulf Coast offers potential buyers, investors or lenders.
"It's an easier sell if people already know about the Alabama Gulf Coast," he said.
Besides having a combined voice in halls of government, Gilpin said he hoped the message would resonate in the financial world as well.
"We can go to the banking communities and be known and people will be a lot more ready to lend money down here than they are today," he said. "I don't know how many times I've heard, 'you want me to lend what to where?'"
Gilpin, who also worked locally with a group of developers and landowners with projects along the Intracoastal Waterway to market the budding resort district along the canal, said he wasn't sure yet how his proposed efforts would be funded. He didn't ask city leaders for money, though he indicated that he might in the future. He envisioned a blend of public and private funding.
"I'm just trying to build up a groundswell of support for this, trying to figure out if everyone else thinks it's as important as I do," he told Orange Beach officials. "And then I'll start thinking of a funding mechanism for it. I'm not going to say I have all those pieces and parts, because I don't."
Late last month Gilpin made his presentation to the Gulf Shores City Council, and he said Monday that he plans to takes his proposal to developers, private business interests and economic development leaders.
Reception at both city halls has been generally warm, but the mayors of both beach cities said they'd need to hear more before signing up for anything.
"I think we have to find out a lot more information," Orange Beach Mayor Pete Blalock said Monday. "One thing I don't want to do is duplicate what someone else is already doing."
Gulf Shores Mayor G.W. "Billy" Duke III, though, said he isn't worried much about doubling efforts because Gilpin has already run his plans by Convention and Visitors Bureau leadership.
"He's talking more about getting permanent people here, not just tourists," Duke said late Monday. "He's really talking about a market that nobody's looking at."

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Wharf to Purchase Golf Course

AIG Baker plans to purchase Gulf Shores club by Feb. 21, open course in May for owners, guests

Published By Mobile Press Register
Sunday, February 11, 2007
By KATHY JUMPERReal Estate Editor

Developers of The Wharf on the Intracoastal Waterway will soon have another perk for owners -- a golf course.
AIG Baker plans to purchase the Gulf Shores Golf Club on Clubhouse Drive in downtown Gulf Shores by Feb. 21, according to Alex Baker, president of AIG, which is based in Birmingham.
The newly renovated course will be renamed The Golf Club at The Wharf and open for play in early May, he said. Owners and guests at The Wharf off Canal Road in Orange Beach can take a shuttle to the golf course -- about a five-minute trek.
"We have the most comprehensive package of amenities on the Gulf Coast at The Wharf," Baker said. "But it was clear to us that golf was an important amenity, not just for the owners, but as a rental amenity."
As owners of the golf course, AIG Baker can control tee times, which can be difficult to reserve in resort communities, according to Baker.
The Wharf is a mixed-use project on 220 acres that includes retail, residential, entertainment and marina facilities. The amenities for its condo owners and guests also include pools, a mile-long boardwalk, fishing, boating and an amphitheater.
The golf course will be available when The Wharf's first condominium units open this summer at the 190-unit Levin's Bend, according to Beason Wilkes, project manager for AIG Baker.
The golf club members, whose average age is 66, had recently spent $5 million to reconstruct the 42-year-old course and pay off debt. They had planned to build and sell 168 condominium units on 10 acres next to the course, according to members.
Last November, the majority of the 274 club members voted to sell the course to AIG Baker. Under the purchase contract, each member can continue as a club member for seven years, or can be bought out by Baker for $5,000.
The purchase price will not be revealed until the deal closes, but members indicated the price will cover the $5 million debt and then some.
An overwhelming majority approved the sale, and most of the members are expected to stay with the club, according to Rea Schuessler, head pro and club manager.
Baker said he would like to develop some residential units on the golf course in the future, but will soon start construction on a new clubhouse and new golf cart and maintenance facilities.
Buying the golf course "is a smart move on their part," said Paul Wesch of The Mitchell Company, one of the developers of Bama Bayou, a development similar to The Wharf and nearby on the Intracoastal Waterway. "Tee times were one of the driving factors behind the Beau Rivage owners building a $30 million golf course in Biloxi. They wanted control of the scheduling so when high rollers came in, they didn't have to fight for a tee time."
Bama Bayou, a $300 million-plus project under construction, will feature Gulf World, a marine park with dolphins; a water park with exotic animals and sea life; 1,100 hotel and condo units; and a convention center.
"The Wharf is attempting to be an all inclusive, catch-all for all folks," said Kevin Corcoran, owner of REMAX of Gulf Shores. "When you don't have the immediate appeal of the Gulf, you make up for it in size or square footage and amenities. The Wharf's retail and attractions are strong, and they have a beautiful marina."
"The golf course has been well received by everybody who's seen it," since the renovations, Schuessler said. "We're ready to get people out here and enjoy golfing again."
The father-son course design team of Jay and Carter Morrish of Dallas renovated the course.
First to hit the redesigned links will be players in the Ken Stabler Alabama Celebrity Classic tournament on April 13.


Friday, February 09, 2007

Foley - Tanger Outlet Mall Plans Renovation

Foley outlet to add 30,000 square feet of shopping space, reconfigure central courtyard
Published By Mobile Press Register
Friday, February 09, 2007
Staff Reporter

FOLEY -- Work is set to start Monday on a $24 million overhaul of the Tanger Outlet Center, the second renovation since the retail complex was purchased in 2003, officials said.

The overall size of the outlet center will increase by only about 2,000 square feet, but the change will provide more covered access for shoppers and 30,000 square feet of new retail area, said Marla Warner, general manager.

The 557,000-square-foot outlet center, which opened with 35 businesses, now has more than 120 stores, she said.

Warner said the project will allow at least nine new stores to locate at the outlet center. She said Tanger officials are negotiating with retailers, but that she could not identify prospects until leases are signed.

Aspects of the renovation include:

-- Adding a 30,000-square-foot building on the east side, near the Juniper Street entrance.

-- Demolishing several free-standing buildings in the center court area.

-- Moving the food court, restrooms and some mall offices.

Warner said Thursday that contractors plan to begin demolition Monday on some of the oldest buildings in the central section. She said pedestrian barriers should be set up by today.

A previous expansion at the outlet center in 2005 added 21,000 square feet of store space, according to reports.
Donna Watts, chief executive officer of the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce, said the new project is an indication that Greensboro, N.C.-based Tanger feels confident about the region's retailing prospects. "When they're willing to invest that kind of money here, it means our future looks bright to them," she said. "This can only improve everybody's bottom line."

The demolition work in the central section will create an unobstructed view of the courtyard area, according to Warner, while also clearing away buildings that are past their prime. "The central portion was built in 1988 and those buildings are just getting older. With the new retail going in, we wanted to look our best," she said.

About five stores in the central buildings will be moved elsewhere at the center.

Part of the building that houses the WestPoint Stevens store will be converted to accommodate the food court and restrooms. WestPoint will remain, but the change will reduce its share of the building from about 32,000 square feet to about 24,000, Warner said.

The new food court is tentatively scheduled to open in May.

Warner said the entire project is expected to be completed in 2008. Because the renovation will take at least a year, work will be ongoing throughout the busiest shopping seasons, including Christmas and the summer tourist months, she said.

She said that growth in the area -- in retailing and visitor traffic -- led Tanger officials to go ahead and launch the overhaul.

The Tanger chain purchased the then-Riviera Centre in 2003, Warner said. Riviera opened in the 1980s with 35 stores, according to news accounts.

Warner said that shopping complexes such as Pinnacle at Craft Farms in Gulf Shores or The Wharf in Orange Beach are not considered direct competition for an outlet center like Tanger. Commercial expansion, however, will bring more visitors to the area, Warner said, and renovations will help attract and keep customers.

"We're not that worried about retail, but with our large percentage of repeat visitors, of people coming back to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, we want to be sure we're up to date so that people want to come back," she said.

Covered walkways connect most of the Tanger stores, but the free-standing "pod buildings" in the central courtyard are home to some of the original retail space as well as restrooms and the food court.

"In bad weather, those buildings don't get the foot traffic that other areas get because people can't get there," Warner said. "This will also improve the line of sight in the central area and provide improved parking and green space."

Warner said that Tanger also hopes to change the center's overall appearance, but needs approval for proposed changes from Foley city officials. Tanger representatives are scheduled to meet Monday with the Foley Board of Adjustments and Appeals.

The renovation plan includes construction of a 50-foot decorative tower, Warner said. Because the tower is higher than Foley's 35-foot height limit for buildings, Tanger must seek a city-approved variance.

She said that until the board decides on the Tanger request, the company will not have a final design for the renovated center.

Foley Mayor John Koniar predicted that the new-look Tanger center will provide another boost to the area's economy. "They're talking about spending $24 million," he said. "This should be a real boon to the local community in terms of expanding retail opportunities."

Koniar said the Tanger center also has offered space for a police substation on the property. "They've been very supportive," the mayor said. "That should help us as we increase the manpower of the Police Department."

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Gulf Shores - Elevated Roadway Proposed for Gulf State Park

By Jay Reeves
The Assosciated Press

GULF SHORES | Gov. Bob Riley’s administration is considering a proposal to build an elevated road through Gulf State Park -- the 6,100-acre crown jewel of Alabama’s park system -- to provide a new link between the beach and routes off the coast.

Speaking in separate interviews with The Associated Press, Riley and Conservation Commissioner Barnett Lawley said the idea was in the preliminary stages and far from a done deal.

But Riley said he asked Lawley’s department to review the proposal because new evacuation lanes are needed to get people off the beach as hurricanes approach.

“We’re looking at the potential environmental impact," Riley said Thursday. “No one has made a commitment on whether or not we are going to fund that or even allow that."

An environmental leader said a road itself might not pose much of a threat to the park, but its construction could be problematic.

“I would be more worried about the runoff, the rumbling trucks and the traffic from the construction itself," said Cheryl King, chairman of the coastal branch of the Sierra Club of Alabama.

King said the park provides a rich habitat for heron, alligators, rabbits and fish. But its landscape remains marred by thousands of dead pine trees killed by saltwater flooding during Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Lawley said the GUMBO group, a coastal coalition including business owners and developers, had proposed the road, which he said would be elevated in some way and could be lined by a fence to keep litter out of the park.

The proposal actually predates GUMBO -- which stands for the Gulf United Metro Business Organization, according to a member of the group, Herb Malone, president of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It’s an idea that’s been discussed widely on the island for years and through different administrations," he said. “I know there is a commitment to following the most environmentally friendly route."

Among concerns to be considered, Lawley said, is whether park wetlands could survive in the shade underneath the road, which would be more than a mile long and may follow the path of an old, closed road in the park.

“The last rendering I saw it was over on the eastern edge of the park. Most of it wasn’t even on the park property," Lawley said Friday. “We’re not talking about something running the width and length of the park."

The road could connect with Canal Road in Orange Beach near a massive condominium and retail development being built along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway at the Foley Beach Express toll bridge. Riley said the main idea of the road was to provide a hurricane evacuation route, however, not to link the beach with the development.

Eventually the toll road could be extended several miles to Interstate 10 and about 25 more miles to Interstate 65.

“The biggest problem I’ve got down there is that I’ve got to get people to I-10, I’ve got to get people to I-65," Riley said. “What I’m looking at is any way we can expedite that bottleneck that exists in the lower part of the state right now."

Lawley said he would likely meet with Transportation Director Joe McInnes to discuss the road, but the project had yet to get as far as the highway agency.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Gulf Shores - Ruling Designates Beach Mouse Habitat

Thursday, February 01, 2007
Published By Mobile Press Register
Staff Reporter

Responding to allegations that it was not doing enough to protect the endangered Alabama beach mouse, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has finalized a decision to designate 1,211 acres in Gulf Shores as habitat critical to the species' survival.

The ruling was published Monday in the Federal Register and takes effect May 1.

A 2003 lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity that charged the Wildlife Service was not working fast enough to expand the beach mouse's critical habitat, even though the agency had acknowledged in 2000 that doing so was warranted.

In 2004, a federal judge in Mobile ordered regulators to revise the habitat. Since then, the beach mouse and its habitat have become a divisive issue along the Fort Morgan peninsula, which, along with parts of Gulf State Park, is the only place the mouse is found.

Builders and landowners say their property rights have been held captive by some residents and environmentalists who've used the species' endangered status to prevent development along the slender spit of sand.

Environmentalists argue that the beach mouse is a bellwether species whose declining presence indicates impending ecological disaster on Baldwin County's last remaining natural beaches.

While the new beach mouse area includes only about 200 acres more than the 1,034 acres designated when the mouse was first classified as endangered in 1985, Wildlife Service biologist Rob Tawes said government scientists aimed to reconfigure the critical habitat using newer science rather than simply adding more land.

"We know a lot more about the mouse than we did in 1985," Tawes said Wednesday.

The critical habitat tag, for example, was placed on layers of dunes and scrub area north of the beach that had not previously been considered critical habitat, Tawes said.

Also, he said, the critical habitat tag was in many cases removed from land where habitat conservation plans are in place -- which range from portions of the Gulf State Park and the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge to large tracts slated for resort development -- as well as properties whose owners have been given permits absolving them from incidentally "taking," or harming, the mouse.
It is those exclusions that mar the Wildlife Service's ruling, said Robert Wiygul, a Mississippi lawyer who's represented the Sierra Club in its beach mouse-related lawsuits.

By not including land for large-scale developments, such as Beach Club West and Gulf Highlands, which were awarded incidental take permits earlier this month, as critical habitat, federal regulators are giving developers a free pass, Wiygul said.

"This is, frankly, a document that's more protective of the real estate developers than the Alabama beach mouse," Wiygul said Wednesday.

The 41-page critical habitat ruling is flawed, Wiygul said, in that it never explains what regulators plan to do to help the species recover or proliferate to a degree that it can be removed from the endangered species list.

"They absolutely won't tell you that," Wiygul said.

In the ruling, the Wildlife Service writes that this critical habitat designation, like others it has made for other species, is "driven by litigation and courts rather than biology."

The agency continues, writing that the money spent on critical habitat legal battles and the resulting plans consume limited funds that could be used for more effective conservation efforts.

Further, the plans often provoke a second round of lawsuits, the agency said.

Mike Groutt, a spokesman for the Wildlife Service's Daphne field office, said that language has been the agency's general stance for several years and doesn't necessarily reflect the regulators' opinion of the beach mouse plan.

Tawes, who worked on the plan using 20 years of data, field inspections, trapping studies, aerial photographs and new science about beach mice, said he feels the Wildlife Service has done a thorough job of identifying areas that have features essential to the mouse's survival.

Dog Park Proposed in Orange Beach

Fenced area would allow pet owners to let their dogs run free

Published By Mobile Press Register
Thursday, February 01, 2007
Staff Reporter

ORANGE BEACH -- With a dearth of places to legally take dogs on Baldwin's beaches, city officials here are pondering a park dedicated to man's best friend.

At the City Council meeting Monday, Phillip West, the city's coastal resources manager, said it would cost about $35,000 to create a fenced park for dogs on municipal property off Alabama 161.

The triangular, 2.25-acre plot West proposed for the park runs along the southern edge of the City Hall complex and would be linked to the Back Country Trail.

According to a proposal West presented to city officials, the park would include an acre of space at its center sodded with Bermuda grass surrounded by existing pine trees and clusters of sand oak.

Smaller trees and brush would be cleared out and replaced with centipede grass. The conceptual plan also accounts for sprinklers and water pipes and a water fountain for canines as well as benches and signage.

West said that some of the costs he calculated could be lessened if city employees in the Public Works Department could do some of the needed work, like clearing, hauling and landscaping.

City Councilwoman Tracy Holiday said that while the notion of a park where pet owners could turn their dogs loose in a fenced area had surfaced before, city officials recently began to reconsider it. She and West met with officials from the Alabama Gulf State Park, where pets are not allowed, and the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge -- which banned dogs from its beaches and trails last year as part of its new management plan -- to figure out where dogs were welcome.

"They want to do a brochure and basically when we looked at it should have basically just said no' because it was no pets on the beach, no pets on the wildlife refuge, no pets in the state park,'" Holiday said. "It pretty much said, No, you can't take your pet anywhere. Just leave it in your condo.'"

Mayor Pete Blalock said he's regularly asked by pet owners, both local and visiting, about where they can take their dogs.

"There's no place dogs can be let loose," he said.

While dogs are allowed on the city's Back Country Trail, they must be leashed, city officials said. All of the public beaches in town are owned and managed by the state park and therefore don't allow dogs.

The proposed space behind City Hall may not provide the ideal location or layout, but it will be cheap because no parking lot is needed with plenty of spaces available behind City Hall, and many of the materials can be moved if a better location comes up, City Administrator Jeff Moon said.

"You can reuse the fence somewhere else," Moon said. "There won't be a lot lost except maybe the sodding."

Sod is expected to be the largest cost at $10,000 for an acre of grass, according to West's proposal. Other substantial costs include 1,100 linear feet of 4-foot-tall vinyl-coated chain link fencing at about $7,660, and $6,750 for grubbing and hauling.

Long-term, Holiday said, the Canal Road tract that is currently home to the city's sewage-treatment plant could be used once the planned plant is built south of the current site. That would free up the land south of City Hall for a proposed civic center.

The mayor asked that the proposal be refined and more information be brought back to the council at its next work session, which is scheduled for Feb. 12.

"I don't want this to be dropped," Blalock said.