Quarterly revenue reports show spending along the Alabama Gulf Coast is up significantly over previous record years. Although the BP oil spill is not forgotten, tourists are back.That’s good news for the coastal businesses, but state officials note this doesn’t mean BP is off the hook. Brigid Elsken Galloway has this report.
At King Neptune’s in Gulf Shores, hungry patrons slide into booths to order blackened shrimp with heaping sides of hush puppies and dirty rice. A year ago, King Neptune’s, like other coastal businesses, struggled to keep its doors open. But today, the “King” Al Sawyer has one word to describe this season.
“As Tony the Tiger would say, “Great!” Yeah, it’s been one of the best years we’ve every had.”
Up and down the Alabama coast, the story is the same: Business is booming. The numbers have the area’s tourism president, Herb Malone, down right tickled pink (and that’s saying something for a South Alabama native who’s 6’4″!).
“Right now our tracking for 2011, shows that we’re on pace to have a record year. We’re ahead of 09 ahead of 07 and the people have come back and it’s just great.”
Malone says the comeback is due to speedy clean-up efforts, loyal Gulf coast fans and a lot of marketing. His group received grants from BP and the state of Alabama that tripled pre-oil spill advertising and marketing budgets.
“In May of last year we coulda sat down and quit marketing and folded our arms and waited for a check from BP. That’s not the nature of the people on the coast. We worked and scratched and clawed to get every piece of business we could get throughout the entire process. We’d much rather earn our money than have BP send us a check.”
Even with that resilient, coastal can-do attitude, some business owners didn’t get through the oil-spill crisis unscathed. Al Sawyer had to close his second restaurant, which he just opened in 2009.
“I was forced to close that business, only because I didn’t know when they were gonna reimburse us. They (BP and Ken Feinberg) were not talking to us and letting us know when our payments would be coming in. We were just basically at their mercy.”
BP still hasn’t paid many Alabama businesses for their losses. And Cooper Shattuck’s watching. He’s the governor’s legal advisor and Alabama’s go-to guy for all things BP. Shattuck is pleased to see the coast doing well this season, but notes the economic upswing doesn’t tell the full story.
“Even those that survived had a difficult time in doing it. Some who had built up reserves or contingencies were able to survive but how much better would they be now if they hadn’t had to suffer that for the last year?”
Shattack says it will be months before a full estimate of economic damages is complete. Meanwhile, back in Gulf Shores, Al Sawyer holds court outside King Neptune’s. He’s just grateful the coastal economy is bouncing back.
“You know, my prayer was that the summer would be a very good summer, and it’s been answered. Thank God.”
If the tourism trends hold, the Alabama Gulf Coast may be sending up a collective prayer for staying in the black-despite last year’s set backs.
~ Brigid Elsken Galloway, August 17, 2011