Sara Beth Sennett enjoys a lazy day at Alabama's sugar-white sand beaches more than anyone else. But with an energetic 4-year-old son, the Orange Beach mother is looking for other things to do.
"We usually go to a basic beach with nothing," Sennett said. "But the fact there is a green field here and a play area, it's really nice."
Sennett's son, Corbin, was running around the sandy playground that is a featured part of a $15 million makeover to the Gulf Shores public beachfront. A ribbon cutting ceremony on Thursday officially unveiled the public park, which is the second phase of the overall project, that now anchors Alabama's most visible beach.
The unveiling comes just one month before the start of the busy summer traveler season that fuels Alabama's $13.3 billion tourism industry.
"This is the first major redo of what we've had in this area in well over 50 years," Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said.
Said Lee Sentell, the state's director of tourism: "What people remember primarily as a parking lot at the south end of Highway 59 has been transformed into a pedestrian-friendly beach destination where families can play together close to the surf."
Indeed, the changes are noticeable than what visitors have encountered before. The new park greets visitors to the main entry-point of the city's beach and includes green space, a 20-foot-wide beachfront boardwalk, shade structures, the playground and new landscaping featuring plenty of palm trees.
"This project really showcases what we have here in Gulf Shores," said City Councilman Jason Dyken. "I believe this open space and what we have created here, that it will become a new city central area on the beach."
The newly-unveiled portion is located in the most visible stretch of the city's public beach area, just west of the iconic Hangout restaurant at Alabama 59 and Beach Boulevard. The area is a hub for shopping, dining, festivals, and sightseeing attracting 350,000 visitors annually, for an annual estimated regional economic impact of more than $100 million.
As city spokesman Grant Brown has said, "it's probably the most traveled place in the state."
Dyken said the city's beachfront is poised to continue adding new development. In the works, he said, is a new full-service hotel and conference center that will be built across West Beach Boulevard from the newly-minted park. "It will be a jewel here on the coast," he said.
Other future projects include more retail and residential development, and a parking deck.
Meanwhile, there have been upgrades to West Beach Boulevard that include a center median, bike lane and wider sidewalks. The project, city officials have said, was aimed at improving pedestrian and cyclist access which had grown difficult in recent years as traffic congestion through the area has increased.
"The main focus was improved access to the beach," Craft said. "As much as we aware of the economic return on investment, we are aware that our citizens need a safe and easy way to get to the beach."
The project was split up into three phases. The first phase, completed about one year ago, includes new landscaping, expanded parking, renovated restrooms, new seating and shade structures and a new beach safety headquarters.
The third and final phase will begin in the fall and will open in about one year. It will include the further extension of the beachfront boardwalk past the Phoenix All Suites condominiums. A new parking lot and a new beachside police station will be added.
Find the complete article and photos at al.com.