FOLEY - No one can deny the growth in Baldwin County. For the last decade, the county’s population has soared, new homes and subdivisions have been constructed, and the business community has …
FOLEY - No one can deny the growth in Baldwin County. For the last decade, the county’s population has soared, new homes and subdivisions have been constructed, and the business community has flourished. Not only has the permanent population grown, so too has the number of tourists and snowbirds coming to the area.
When COVID-19 came to our county and caused the shutdown in March 2020, no one knew what effect it would have on the continued growth. Would the tourists stop coming? Would our snowbird population decrease? How would our economy fare with businesses shut down? The answer turned out to be surprising. Not only did most municipalities make it out with minimal impact to budgets, some of the county’s largest projects only hit minor snags in development.
When reviewing Foley’s 2020/21 fiscal year budget last year, City Administrator Mike Thompson had this to say: “Even though we’ve gone through this year with COVID-19 and the closure of a lot of our businesses for weeks during the springtime, it looks like if you combine these four taxes [sales, gas, lodging, and rental] and compare 2020 to 2019, we’re going to be just about flat, maybe slightly above. We’re not going to hit our budget, but when we started analyzing these numbers at the start of the pandemic we were predicting to be about $4.7 million, $5 million down in these particular items, and we’re probably going to be about $1.4 million down from our budget. We’ve done substantially better than what we anticipated when the virus started.”
Despite the pandemic, visitors came. Restaurants and retailers stayed open. Overall, the county made it out with minimal business closures or dollars lost. One development that experienced delays, Phase 2 of OWA’s expansion, is back in action with bigger and grander plans.
“We did experience a temporary closure during the height of the shutdown following statewide orders, which lasted two months for us,” said Director of Marketing and Public Relations Kristin Hellmich. “We were able to quickly get everything reopened, starting with Downtown OWA, then attractions and entertainment, and finally The Park at OWA. We quickly saw a large influx of guests come into our destination, both vacationers and locals looking to get out of the house.”
She says higher attendance continued until Hurricane Sally hit the area. A slow month followed, but once the destination reopened a second influx in attendance occurred. Hellmich believes the large, open property and the precautions taken by OWA staff to keep guests safe allowed the high level of operations to continue.
The pandemic did slow down a few planned expansions, including the future indoor waterpark and RV Resort. Both projects are now going full speed ahead with projected openings in spring 2022. Construction on the waterpark has advanced, and the ground is expected to break on the RV Resort during spring or summer.
Hellmich says Downtown OWA will continue growing as well. Despite the pandemic she says individuals interested in leasing spaces and opening new businesses discussed future opportunities with OWA officials throughout 2020. Current new businesses include Murder Creek Distillery and a Coco’s Italian Ice projected to open in April. New fun is coming to the OWA island too, with a wakeboard component that will take guests back and forth across the lake.
“If we look for the silver lining in last year, we were able to take more time to look at new assets to put into the waterpark,” Hellmich said. “We’ve gone back and added an outdoor wave pool and a surf simulator. We were able to add a whole outdoor component which was something not in the original scope last year.”