Part 1 of a series

Coastal Alabama Partnership brings counties together for growth

By John Underwood / john@gulfcoastnewspapers.com
Posted 11/24/16

MOBILE, Alabama — The sugar white sands and blue waters of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have long been an attraction, bringing in visitors to Alabama from across the United States.

“We’re …

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Part 1 of a series

Coastal Alabama Partnership brings counties together for growth

Posted

MOBILE, Alabama — The sugar white sands and blue waters of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach have long been an attraction, bringing in visitors to Alabama from across the United States.

“We’re proud of our tourism industry and we all know that it brings in $4 billion every year for our state,” said Wiley Blankenship.

But for legislators in other parts of the state, who want to bring global industry into Alabama, Blankenship has a message.

“We are proud of our tourism industry, but for many who aren’t familiar with our area, that’s all they see and that’s not what we’re all about,” he said. “There’s so much more to offer here than just tourism.”

Blankenship admits when he moved to the area from Decatur several years ago, he himself didn’t know all that the coastal area had to offer.

“You come down I-65 and get off the interstate headed toward the beach, what do you see? Nothing,” he said. “You don’t see any tall office buildings. You don’t see a major port. You don’t see industries such as Austal and Airbus. You see a lot of small towns, which is great, but if that’s all you see, you would think our economy here is soft. Nothing can be further from the truth.”

But if you drive less than 40 miles down I-65, you will see all of those things and more, he said.

“That’s the beauty of this area,” he said. “We have all of those things. You have the white sands and beautiful waters of the Gulf, but the greatest asset that Baldwin County has is that just a short drive away, there’s Mobile, with all the industry.

“We have a great tourism industry that brings in $4 billion a year, but our port brings in $18 billion, by far the largest industry in the state. Tourism is barely in the top 5 (in terms economic impact in the state from the two counties).”

The problem is, Blankenship said, particularly within the state of Alabama, no one outside of Mobile and Baldwin counties seems to know that.

“We are great at a lot of things, but we have not done a very good job of telling our story,” he said. “It’s either that we want to protect what we have and don’t want anyone else to know about it, or we assume everybody already knows about us, so we think we don’t need to talk about it. I prefer to think it’s the latter.”

That’s where the Coastal Alabama Partnership, better known as CAP, comes in. In 2012, CAP was formed with a basic idea.

“What if we could bring the two counties together to show the rest of the state, and in turn the nation, what this area has to offer,” Blankenship said. “And what if we could improve on some of the things that are needed to attract industry to this area.”

One of its first actions was to develop a series of five initiatives designed to address common challenges and issues facing the two counties, bringing together corporate and regional leaders.

“We are not the experts,” Blankenship said. “What we have been able to accomplish is to develop a platform in order to bring the leaders and the industry experts together in order to affect change for our area.”

Policy & Planning Initiative

The Policy & Planning Initiative was developed to bring together public and private sector leadership, bringing in stakeholders to focus on issues of regional importance.

Through this initiative the group is working on developing a regional strategic plan in partnership with Goodwyn, Mills & Cawood, expected to be completed in late 2017 or early 2018, and created the first ever Regional Legislative Agenda for Coastal Alabama to present policies promoting regional economic development and growth.

CAP also brought together city and county leaders representing mayors and commission chairman from all of the coastal cities and the two counties. In May of 2014, Blankenship said, 26 of the 32 local leaders met to discuss what could be done.

“We asked a simple question,” he said. “Are you willing to work together?”

The answer was a resounding yes.

From that came another initiative.

Infrastructure Initiative

“From there, we asked another question,” Blankenship said. “Can we all come together to accomplish one goal that would improve the infrastructure of this area?”

The leaders agreed and formed a coalition to promote the I-10 Bridge and Bayway Widening project.

“Everyone saw a need to improve the traffic congestion along I-10,” he said. “This is not just a problem of people coming to Mobile to work and spend money. If people coming to the beaches from Texas and Louisiana get stuck in traffic, they will eventually choose somewhere else to go. This is one thing that benefits everyone.”

In September of 2014, CAP led a group of local and statewide elected officials to Washington to talk with national legislators and government officials about issues concerning Coastal Alabama.

“I think our national leaders were very impressed that we were able to bring them together,” Blankenship said. The result was that the project has been fast-tracked and is en route to being accomplished in the near future.

“It’s not something that is going to happen overnight, but it is on track,” Blankenship said, “and it would not have happened if those two groups had not come together.”

Insurance Initiative

Another initiative CAP has focused on is bringing together state and regional partners to identify and resolve the issues of insurance in the coastal areas.

“It’s no secret that the coastal areas pay more than our share of insurance when compared to the rest of the state,” Blankenship said. “The question is, what if we could present incentives to builders to have better structures, bringing about better rates and, by creating better structures, decrease the amount insurance companies would have to pay out in a disaster?”

The result was a partnership with the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety to help promote the IBHS’s Fortified building method, developing bronze, silver and gold standards for builders. CAP also created The Alabama Coastal Insurance Shopper’s Guide, in partnership with Smart Home America and the Alabama Center of Insurance Information and Research, helping consumers decide what the best coverage is for them.

“It really creates a win-win situation for everyone involved and is another example of how the two counties can work together to affect change,” he said.

The final two initiatives are ones that go hand in hand along in the coastal region, Blankship said.

Tourism Initiative

Obviously one of the major attractions in bringing the two areas together is in identifying strategies that highlight the destination’s potential and maximizing marketing of the region.

“We have done a great job over the last few years in promoting tourism in this area,” Blankenship said, “that is due in large part because of BP funds that were spent in marketing. But what happens when that money runs out?

CAP partnered with the leaders in the two regions to form the first Coastal Alabama Regional Tourism Council, bringing together the eight tourism entities representing the two counties.

They also created the first Coastal Alabama Regional website for tourism, VisitCoastalAlabama.org, which was able to bring the assets of the two areas together as one.

Launched in 2015, the site has over 8,140 likes on Facebook, 729 followers on Twitter and 3,095 followers on Instagram as of August 2016 and has reached over 1.5 million Facebook users to date.

Along with the attractions of the beaches and the historical attractions that both counties can claim, one attraction brings both tourism and industry into play.

“When visitors, come here they want to go to the beach, they want to see all the attractions, but overwhelmingly they want one thing,” Blankenship said. “They want to eat seafood.”

Which brings us to the final CAP initiative.

Seafood Initiative

Through its seafood initiative, CAP’s mission was to identify resources and regional partners to provide assistance and guidance to ensure the survival, growth and prosperity of the industry.

“I don’t think he’ll mind me saying this, but Mayor Robert Craft told me that when we started this journey, he knew he had a lot in common with areas like Dauphin Island,” Blankenship said, “but up until then, he had never spoken with that city’s mayor or any other officials until CAP developed those communication lines. Just by developing lines of communication, we were able to bring the two areas together to affect change.”

In the end, the initiatives proved that by bringing the two counties together, CAP was able to allow the identification of and accomplishment of common goals.

“The bottom line is that our two counties are stronger together and can accomplish so much more together,” Blankenship said. “We are no longer just Mobile County and Baldwin County, two separate entities. Together we are Coastal Alabama.”