Friday, May 25, 2007

Big Season Anticipated at Gulf Shores Beaches

Published by Mobile Press Register
Friday, May 25, 2007
By RYAN DEZEMBERStaff Reporter

GULF SHORES -- Will high gas prices keep visitors from flocking to Alabama's beaches this weekend for what is traditionally the start of the summer tourist season? No way, tourism officials said.
Lingering doubts about the state of the beach in the wake of the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 have done more to deter vacationers over the past two summers than high fuel prices, they said. With a lack of storms last year, officials expect this season to top the beach's banner year of 2004.
"We think it's going to be
the best summer ever," Gulf Shores Mayor G.W. "Billy" Duke III said. "We think it's going to set all records."
Strong advance bookings at area condos and hotels combined with good weather -- highs in the 80s with little chance of rain -- a slate of big events and millions spent on marketing have locals expecting one of the busiest summer kickoffs ever.
"I'm not seeing any downturn because of gas," said Marie Curren of the real estate conglomerate Brett/Robinson. "I think if you're coming down to spend a few thousand dollars, $30 is not going to make you cancel."
Curren said her firm has the weekend booked for all but a few of the 1,929 hotel rooms and condos it manages.
"We're turning away people for Memorial Day because we don't have any rooms left," she said late Wednesday. "We're at about 98 percent occupancy, which is about as high as we can go."
Meyer Real Estate of Gulf Shores, which manages more than 2,000 condos and some 300 beach houses, has had to forgo the standard Saturday-to-Saturday weekly rental requirement in order to accommodate the droves of customers who want to spend the holiday on Baldwin's beaches, corporate relations director Sarah Kuzma said. She advised anyone looking to make a late reservation to call ahead. "We're down to just a handful."
Across Mobile Bay, Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier said he expects a flock of visitors this weekend drawn by new rental units, the town's public boat launch and, of course, the beach.
"It's already been busy before the holiday weekend," Collier said Thursday afternoon. "The public beach has been running over with people."
Like Curren and Kuzma, others in coastal Alabama's tourism trade don't see prices at the pump, which floated above $3 per gallon this week, threatening business since most of the area's visitors come from within a 1,000-mile radius. At 20 miles per gallon, an additional 50 cents per gallon on a 2,000-mile round trip would add $50 to the cost.
A family could make that up by staying in for dinner one night or scrimping in another way, said Herb Malone, president of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Visitors Bureau data show that while fewer tourists traveled to south Baldwin County last summer than in 2004, those who did come -- about 505,000 -- collectively spent nearly $3 million more than the 543,000 tourists of 2004.
An event-filled holiday weekend should help Baldwin maintain the banner-year pace it set this spring. The events include:
The Mobile Big Game Fishing Club's annual Memorial Day Tournament in Orange Beach.
LuLuPalooza, a free daylong concert Saturday at Lucy Buffett's LuLu's at Homeport Marina in Gulf Shores, headlining the Wes Loper Band and Mac McAnally.
Hank Williams Jr. and Lynyrd Skynyrd in Orange Beach on Saturday night at The Wharf's 10,200-seat amphitheater.
"It looks like it will be a sellout, but we hope that there will be a few walk-up tickets so people won't be disappointed," The Wharf's Beason Wilkes said. "We're just totally excited because traffic has been surging all week long and we can see that summer season is upon us."

Friday, May 18, 2007

Orange Beach To Purchase Bayfront Lots

Orange Beach Council agrees to pay $3.45 million for bayfront lots

Published By Mobile Press Register
Thursday, May 17, 2007

By RYAN DEZEMBERStaff Reporter
ORANGE BEACH -- City officials expect to close a $3.45 million deal for five waterfront lots by the end of the week, giving the city a launch point for its long-desired bridge over Wolf Bay.
The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to pay $3.45 million for the property, and in a separate resolution voted 6-0 to take out a short-term, fixed-rate loan with Vision Bank to buy the 2½ acres.
"This is the first really major step toward building that bridge," Mayor Pete Blalock said.
In early March the council voted to initiate condemnation proceedings against owners of the property, which had previously rejected offers of $2 million. City Attorney Wanda Cochran said the $3.45 million agreement precluded her from filing condemnation papers in Circuit Court.
Once slated for a condominium project, the property is owned by investors working under the name Baldwin County Development LLC. According to Baldwin County Probate records, the limited liability company paid $3.5 million for the property in April 2004.
The owners face foreclosure on the property and have asked that the deal be closed on Friday, city officials said.
Negotiating a sale of the property outside of court keeps the city on its timeline for building the bridge, the mayor said. City officials have said that completion of a bridge is probably about 10 years away but could come about sooner.
A recent city-commissioned study found that a bridge over Wolf Bay and a road linking it to a major east-west highway could cost between $80 million and $110 million, depending upon how far the northbound road extends.
The study also found that if the span were a toll bridge, it could generate enough revenue to entice private investment.
Such a span would create an additional hurricane evacuation route from Baldwin's beaches in addition to linking Orange Beach to thousands of undeveloped acres and miles of pristine waterfront.
City Administrator Jeff Moon said that municipal officials are pursuing a plan to build the bridge with private funds and that if such a deal were struck, the city could ask to be repaid for the 2½ acres.
Otherwise, city officials will probably have to decide whether to extend the loan from Vision Bank when it expires next May, or roll the cost into a future bond issue.
Under terms of the financing agreement the council approved on Tuesday, Orange Beach will have to make quarterly interest payments at a rate of 7.75 percent but will not be required to pay the principal until the loan expires, Moon said.
In a memo to council members, Moon said the 7.75 interest rate is subject to the city depositing $6.6 million, which it plans to collect in a coming bond issue and use as a base for a permanent reserve fund, at Vision Bank for six months.
Moon said he had no problem with that plan because the savings interest rate Vision has offered, 5.15 percent, beats rates other banks have offered the city.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Orange Beach Highway Plan Draws Complaints

Officials, residents discuss proposal to extend Beach Express
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Published by Mobile Press Register
By GUY BUSBY Staff Reporter

ROSINTON -- A proposed new highway and interchange met with opposition from some central Baldwin residents who told officials the road will destroy homes and farms and bring congestion to rural areas.
Officials with the Alabama Department of Transportation met Tuesday night with area residents for a public meeting to discuss state plans to build a new exit on Interstate 10 and a road to link the interchange with the extended Foley Beach Express.
The road is intended to relieve traffic stress on Alabama 59 between Loxley and Foley as well as provide a new evacuation route when hurricanes threaten the Baldwin coast, said Jackie Glasgow, a highway department spokesman.

Some residents, however, said the new road will cut into farmland that has been in families for generations and disrupt the rural nature of the area.
"They're taking every structure on my land, my home, my arena, my barn," said Theresa Brown, whose nine acres will be split by the corridor. "This is all I've wanted my whole life. It took us two years to find it and it will take no time at all to destroy it."
She said she and her husband, Paul Brown, were told that they would be paid for the land condemned as right of way, but the road would divide their property, leaving them inadequate space for their five horses.
"They told us the value of the remaining property would be enhanced by the road, but that's not going to do us any good," she said.
During the two-hour session, participants came and went after looking over maps and talking to highway officials. About 50 residents were in the Rosinton Elementary School auditorium during most of the meeting.
A.B. "Sonny" Hankins, a Rosinton resident and former Baldwin County commissioner, said extending the Beach Express up the current route of Baldwin County 83 to where it will link with the state corridor is a poor choice of locations.
"When I was on the County Commission, we did everything we could to enhance Baldwin County and provide it with the best opportunity for growth and I believe the commissioners who have come along since then have done the same thing for the most part, but Baldwin County deserves better than this," he said. "They're going to take 83, which was built 55 years ago as a farm-to-market-road and pack a four-lane highway onto it. If they're going to spend $50 million, they could do better than this."
Hankins said a better alternative would be to take a road to the east -- Baldwin County 87 -- and widen that route. That plan would provide north-south access in two different areas of the county, rather than have Alabama 59 and the Beach Express within a few miles of each other.
He said using 87 would also allow access to Interstate 10 at an existing interchange at Wilcox and a route north to I-65 along Baldwin County 112, which hurricane evacuees could use.
"With this, all they're doing is shuttling them up to I-10," he said. "They'll still have to come to 59 to get to I-65 and you'll have the bottleneck all over."
Michael Collins of Lillian also said a road farther to the east would serve residents in that area. He said that with the route up highway 83, residents in Orange Beach and the east side of Baldwin would still have to use roads such as U.S. 29 before a hurricane, when that road would also be jammed with evacuees from Pensacola.
Glasgow said state transportation officials looked at all possible routes before deciding on the current plan. He said a more eastern corridor would require more homes to be removed and be more expensive. Glasgow said other routes would also have more of an impact on wetlands.
He said a route through Wilcox would be much more expensive than the proposed road.
"We would have four bridges to build instead of two," he said. "We understand that nobody likes to be moved out of their homes and we'd rather not ever have to do that, but if you look at all the alternatives, this is the best one."
He said the current plan will require the removal of three homes, which is the lowest number of any possible route.
Current plans call for the state to build the interchange and corridor south to link with the extension of the Beach Express being built by Baldwin County.
The projected cost of the interchange and corridor is about $10 million, according to reports. The 13-mile Beach Express extension from Foley to Rosinton is estimated at $50 million.
Officials said work on the state project could begin within a year if the proposal is approved and that the first phase of the county extension, from Foley to Baldwin County 32 in Summerdale, could start within four months.

Gulf Shores Approves New Medical Facility

Retail, medical facilities approved

Thursday, May 17, 2007
Published by Mobile Press Register
By RYAN DEZEMBERStaff Reporter

GULF SHORES -- In separate votes this week, the City Council approved architectural designs and a $20 million revenue-sharing agreement that will lead to development of a medical center and outdoor mall on a tract north of the Intracoastal Waterway.
The deal with Colonial Properties Trust is the second the council has agreed to in the last three years with the publicly traded Birmingham company. The plan calls for a 60,000-square-foot medical complex and 255,000-square-foot shopping center.
The first, approved by a Baldwin County Circuit judge in late 2005, led to the partially completed 270,000-square-foot mall called Colonial Pinnacle at Craft Farms on the north side of Baldwin County 4. In that agreement the city essentially bought for $10 million much of the developer's land and leased it back to the company.
Now, in a deal similar to the one that spurred development of AIG Baker's The Wharf in Orange Beach, Gulf Shores will allow Colonial Properties to recoup up to $20 million of the sales tax generated by the proposed mall, called Colonial Promenade. Starting as soon as the first retailer opens, the company will be refunded 75 percent of the sales tax the development creates annually up to $2 million a year.
The deal will expire when either 10 years have elapsed or Colonial has recouped $20 million.
On Monday the council unanimously adopted a resolution outlining the main components of the deal. According to the resolution, the $43 million development must be of a similar quality, both in architecture and tenants, to the Target- and Cobb Theater-anchored Colonial Pinnacle project across the street.
A committee of three council members -- Carolyn Doughty, Philip Harris and Steve Jones -- will work with the developers to craft the final agreement and monitor leasing to ensure that the company lives up to its promise to deliver top-tied national retailers, Mayor G.W. "Billy" Duke III said.
"The good thing about it is it's all new tax, tax we don't already have," Duke said. "They're not exempt from property tax, they're not exempt from permits."
Paul Glascock, Colonial Properties' developer on the project, said his company would like to begin construction on the mall early next year and have retailers open by summer 2009.
"We're very bullish on Gulf Shores right now," Glascock said. "We feel we are a creating a very substantial retail center and what will be a big employer, a big economic engine and a sales tax generator."
The property, 37.5 acres arranged in a backward "L" shape at the southeast corner of Baldwin County 4 and Alabama 59, sits at the nexus of northern Gulf Shores. The medical center is planned for a four-acre parcel at the tract's middle while retailers will be arranged around it, Glascock said.
Colonial Properties sold the four acres to Birmingham's Johnson Development, which will build the $15 million medical center and lease the facility to Sacred Heart Health System, said Mike Burke, a Sacred Heart spokesman.
The Pensacola hospital, part of the nation's largest nonprofit healthcare provider, Ascension Health, plans to break ground on its facility later this month and open it early 2008, Burke said. The facility will feature physicians' offices, labs and diagnostic imaging services and be similar to other medical centers Sacred Heart operates in the Panhandle cities of Destin, Pensacola and Pace, according to a news release.
And if Sacred Heart wins state approval, the facility will also include an 8,000-square-foot outpatient surgery center. Sacred Heart and eight local surgeons have applied with the State Health Planning and Development Agency to build the surgery center.
They may face difficulty proving to state regulators though that the facility is needed after a Montgomery County judge in April cleared the way for Mobile's Infirmary Health System to move one of its Eastern Shore surgery centers to Gulf Shores.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Gulf Shores City Council Renews Condo Debate

Originally approved in 2005, developers say their projects aren't feasible under new rules, request 2009 deadline

Published By Mobile Press Register
Friday, May 11, 2007
By RYAN DEZEMBERStaff Reporter

GULF SHORES -- The City Council is scheduled to vote Monday to set a date for developers of nonconforming condo towers to either start construction or recast their designs to fit new zoning rules.
In March 2005, on the eve of adopting new zoning guidelines that limited density and building heights along the beach, the council gave approval for 12 condos that were already being planned. At the time, elected officials said they didn't want to do fiscal harm to landowners who had bought land at prices that reflected development potential under the old rules.
Since then, city approvals granted for two of those projects -- the East Beach Lifestyle Center and West Shore -- have expired. The remaining 10 projects have essentially run out the time extensions that the council typically grants.
To that end, a group of developers representing five of the 10 projects, all originally approved in 2005, has asked the council to set a deadline in May 2009 for them to start building.
Developers of some of those 10 projects say that because they bought their property when the coastal real estate market was at its peak, and because costs have soared and prices plummeted, they won't likely be able to build under new, more restrictive zoning rules.
"All we're trying to do is stay alive," said Michael Weber, one of the developers for the 90-unit, 12-story Armada Pass project. "We've been 24 hours away from having our property sold on the courthouse steps three times."
Former Gulf Shores Mayor David Bodenhamer, who has been asked to represent the developers of five of the projects, told council members during a work session on Monday that, "With the exception of one of these five that are represented, I would warrant to you that it is highly possible, not necessarily probable, but it is highly possible that the current ownership, if we can't work this out, will not develop those properties at all under the new guidelines because the numbers will not work given when the property was acquired and what the impact of the reduction in the density does to that price.
"In another day, in another time, at another price, that would be another story."
Bodenhamer, who sometimes works as a consultant to developers, said that he has no financial interest in any of the five projects -- Armada Pass, Majestic, Wave, Laguna Cay and Crystal Breeze -- and is not being paid to represent the developers of those projects.
"I'm simply here to do what I told them I would do, and that is to present their case as to what I think is a reasonable approach for the city to consider to try to resolve this issue once and for all," the former mayor said.
For months the council has debated whether to give the projects, because they now fit outside of zoning rules, extra time to start construction.
Gulf Shores' current mayor, G.W. "Billy" Duke III, said that if all 10 developments are built -- a prospect he called "not very realistic" -- it would add a total of about 340 condominium units to what could be built under the new rules.
"In the overall scheme of things, I don't really know if that makes a heck of a lot of difference," Duke said.
The new zoning, a product of the Envision Gulf Shores planning process after 2004's Hurricane Ivan, was aimed at limiting the development potential of Gulf-front parcels to prevent unworkable traffic congestion and a canyon of condo towers, as well as to create more open space and a pedestrian-friendly downtown area.
While many parcels were "down-zoned," city officials compromised with 12 developers who had bought land and were in the midst of planning projects under the old rules.
"When we granted these people certain development rights because they had already purchased the project, our concern at that time was to not hurt anyone financially in that process," Duke said. "And I still struggle with this today because conditions have changed so drastically."
Some council members said they were concerned about setting a precedent with such long site-plan extensions. It has been the city's policy -- dating back before the 1980s, Bodenhamer guessed -- to offer a maximum of two six-month extensions.
"I don't want to send a message to every site plan that comes in here that you're guaranteed this 36-month extension or whatever it is," Councilman Philip Harris said. "So I want to be careful that we package this in a way before we take action on it that we're clearly addressing the circumstances in these special projects here."
Councilman Robert Craft said he supports a hard deadline for all of the grandfathered projects to come out of the ground, but "May '09 is a little further than I thought.
"But that, to me, is what this is going to come down to: What is that date and how long are we willing to sit out there with basically nonconforming projects?"
Duke said the council will be presented on Monday with a resolution specific to the 10 developments, with a blank date. The council can further debate the exact deadline before the measure is voted on, he said.