Located in southern Baldwin County just 10 miles from the popular soft, sand beaches of the Alabama Gulf Coast, Foley has been transformed into a destination all its own in recent years, attracting tourists and new residents.
“Baldwin County is the fastest-growing county in the state of Alabama, and Foley is one of the fastest-growing areas in Baldwin County. So we are blessed with opportunities,” said Foley Mayor John Koniar, who served on the City Council for 26 years before becoming mayor in 2006. “We’re more of a destination now than just a pass-through. We want to show people that there is no shortage of opportunities right here in Foley.”
Recently opened attractions, such as the OWA amusement park and the Foley Sports Tourism Complex (which holds national and regional tournaments that bring in thousands of athletes and their families) are meshing nicely with older favorites, such as the Tanger Outlets mall. In addition, the downtown area underwent a major renovation, giving tourists a better first impression of the city.
Meanwhile, local officials have worked to boost the quality of life for a population that has expanded by about 20 percent since 2010 and is now close to 18,000. Bike lanes and nearly 30 miles of pedestrian paths have increased the connectivity throughout the town. A dog park recently opened, and all new residential subdivisions are required to have at least 15 percent green space.
“Growth is going to happen, but we want high-quality growth,” Foley Community Development Planner/Builder Miriam Boutwell said. “You do that with parks, biking and walking paths, wider sidewalks. That helps create a community.”
With assistance from the Alabama Communities of Excellence program, much of Foley’s current momentum began in the years leading up to the city’s centennial celebration in 2015. ACE worked with Foley officials to help identify the city’s strengths and weaknesses, and develop a comprehensive plan designed to spur economic development and community enhancement.
“ACE has a tough job in many ways because they come in and tell you that your baby is not pretty, and here are some things to do to make your baby more attractive,” Koniar said with a smile. “That was a great eye-opener, because we are so close to the situation, sometimes we don’t see the obvious in terms of what we can do better. So ACE did a great job in getting us going in the right directions.”
One of the first steps was to spruce up the downtown area, making it more attractive and accessible for tourists passing through on Alabama Highway 59 (as many as 50,000 vehicles per day during the summer) and the residents. With help from a $4.7 million federal grant, the city embarked on a $6.3 million downtown improvement project.
The most obvious change was the installation of a pedestrian bridge over Highway 59, connecting the downtown shops and restaurants with the green space of the newly created Centennial Park Plaza. A clock tower and pavilion were constructed near the bridge, providing a central location for concerts and outdoor activities. The city added new sidewalks and decorative street lamps.
The downtown businesses offer something for nearly every age and taste. There is a bookstore, a video-game store, a candy shop, a train depot and museum, a pharmacy with an old-fashioned soda fountain, a fascinating medical museum, a restored historic hotel and an arts center, all within easy walking distance of each other.
“We’ve invested a lot of money in trying to create a renaissance in our downtown area,” Foley City Administrator Mike Thompson said. “As a result, we’ve seen more businesses come into our downtown. We’ve also been able to connect a lot of residential areas around the city with pedestrian and bike paths into downtown.”
Two big pluses
While downtown was undergoing a facelift, a complete change to the landscape was taking place just to the southeast with the near-simultaneous development of the Foley Sports Tourism Complex and the OWA amusement park/shopping and dining center. Located next to each other just off the Foley Beach Express, these two additions have cemented Foley’s status as a destination city.
The sports complex came together in stages over the past three years. The $34 million project features 16 soccer fields (including a championship field that has lighting suitable for television broadcasts) and a 90,000-square-foot indoor facility with setups for 12 volleyball courts and six basketball courts.
In addition to soccer, the fields have been used for lacrosse, flag football, Ultimate Frisbee and even a K-9 police dog competition that attracted 1,500 spectators. The indoor facility is equally flexible, with events ranging from gymnastics and archery to graduation ceremonies and proms. On a busy week, more than 150 teams will compete at the complex in various tournaments.
“The intent is to drive the economy of Foley year-round,” Foley Recreation Director David Thompson said. “We’ve always hosted baseball tournaments in the summer, but now we’re looking for events we can hold September through May, so we don’t have that down season.
“This past February was one of our biggest months, and that’s usually a slow time of year (for tourism). We had a huge soccer tournament followed by a week of archery. So we’re really making an impact on the economy.”
The creation of the sports complex is one of the primary reasons that the Poarch Band of Creek Indians decided to become owners and operators of OWA (which means “water” in the Muscogee Creek language). The $240 million, 520-acre facility has a 14-acre amusement park with 21 rides, a 150-room hotel, a 14-acre lake with boat rentals and a 400-seat amphitheater.
“The tribe was interested in this project because the city of Foley came to the table and said they were going to put in the sports complex,” said Kristin Hellmich, OWA’s director of Marketing and Public Relations. “The biggest driver was the partnership with the city, and it is a true partnership. We coordinate with the Foley Sports Tourism Division to find ways to help market OWA to the teams coming in for these tournaments.
“It’s a community mentality. When opportunities come to the table, whether they come through the city or through OWA, we always coordinate and work together,” Hellmich said. “That’s anything from producing a special event here at the park, to an economic development project to attract a business to the city. Whether it’s to improve the local quality of life or the visitor experience, we have a true comprehensive approach and cooperative relationship with the city.”
Nature and business
Or course, many people head to the beach area to get away from large crowds, and Foley has something for them as well. Since opening in 2008, the city-owned Graham Creek Nature Preserve has steadily grown from a single canoe launch to an expansive 500-acre park complete with walking and running trails, children’s playgrounds, three disc golf courses and an archery range. Mountain biking trails are under development.
Like the sports complex, Graham Creek has been able to attract people to Foley through athletic events, including cross-country meets and disc golf tournaments. Since 2016, the Archery Shooters Association has held an annual tournament at Graham Creek that brings in nearly 2,000 competitors.
Foley already is popular with shoppers, thanks to the Tanger Outlets mall, which has nearly 100 stores. Koniar said the city is working to attract more national retail, such as T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. The city has an expanding manufacturing base, led by United Technologies, which recently opened an 80,000-square-foot assembly plant to go with its existing Foley facility, increasing the company’s total workforce in the city to about 1,100 employees.
Those are among the many reasons that people flock to Foley these days. Oh, and there’s also a nice beach just 10 miles away – if you ever make it there.