Families driving to the Alabama Gulf Coast on their vacations this year will notice a new landmark at the corner of County Road 20 and the Foley Beach Express.
One thousand construction workers have labored since late 2016 to turn what was a dirt field into the $240 million OWA, a family-oriented resort developed by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, which is scheduled for a midsummer opening. (OWA is an Indian word meaning “big water.”)
“The idea was to create a destination where people could stay, shop and enjoy entertainment,” said Kristin Hellmich, OWA’s director of marketing and public relations.
Phase I of the project includes a 14-acre amusement park with 21 rides, a retail shopping and entertainment center called the Warehouse District and a 150-room Marriott Towneplace Suites hotel. A 14-acre lake with fountains, boat rentals and an island with a 400-seat amphitheater will be at the heart of the development.
Foley’s sports complex includes 16 turf grass fields for soccer, football and lacrosse that opened last year and a 90,000-square-foot event center for volleyball, basketball, gymnastics and other indoor events that will open this summer.
The OWA hotel will be the first to open, coming on line in June. The amusement park is scheduled to open in midsummer and the retail shopping and entertainment center set to open in phases beginning in August and running through early fall.
OWA officials expect the sports complex and OWA together to generate 3 million visitors a year. Not all of those will be new visitors to the area. The development has a good base from which to draw.
“We already have over 6 million visitors that are built in that come here to visit along coastal Alabama,” Hellmich said. “These visitors typically come in the spring and summer months.”
Sports tourism in Foley generates 1 million visitors a year and helps give the area more of a year-round draw. Last year, during October and November, with nothing on the OWA property, the sports complex generated an average of 8,000 to 10,000 visitors every weekend.
“If you couple a first-class destination with the Tanger Outlets and the beaches … I really believe the future is bright,” said Don Staley, Foley executive director of sports.
While operating the sports complex, Staley has seen the impact adjoining attractions can have on each other.
“Oftentimes mom will drop dad off to watch the kids and then come back several hours later with the back of that SUV filled with shopping bags from the Tanger Outlets,” Staley said. What he calls the “Tanger effect” will only be multiplied with a major attraction like OWA on the adjoining property, he said.
Staley believes OWA can help give the sports complex an edge over competing venues. He hopes to offer OWA packages with tournaments to promote Foley’s complex.
Hellmich is optimistic about the future of sports tourism and its impact on OWA. Many of the groups that came last year have signed multiyear contracts, she said.
“All of the teams and the tournament organizers that have come so far, they love the area, they love the climate, they love the convenience of being in one location,” Hellmich said.
The sports complex’s first year was a learning experience, Staley said, and the feedback with regard to improvements centered on two things. First, the facility needed more parking areas. But he was also told repeatedly that more on-site hotels would be a plus.
A percentage of sports tourism visitors will always want to stay at the beach. However, other visitors would prefer to stay on site and drive to the beach a couple of times during their stay, Staley said. That was particularly true for events booked during the summer and on holiday weekends when the rates for coastal accommodations are at their peak.
OWA might assist there. The project’s master plan has spots on the property for six more hotels along with an RV park and a water park. The developers want to see how successful the first phase is before making a commitment to additional phases, Hellmich said.
“It could become a place where people decide to make a vacation and stay here four or five days and visit the beach while they are staying in the market,” Hellmich said.
OWA officials don’t yet know what the average visitor will spend there. But they do know that people who vacation in the Gulf Shores market spend roughly the same amount of money on vacation as visitors to Destin, Florida; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
“They’re open to spending,” Hellmich said. “They’re open to having a good experience. And they’re truly looking for a destination that offers something all in one location like the markets at Myrtle Beach, Pigeon Forge and Destin.”
Currently in the Gulf Shores market, visitors who want to dine, shop or go to an entertainment venue must drive. OWA will be different.
“Everything can be done in one location,” Hellmich said. “So, that automatically gives us an immediate attraction to a lot of visitors coming here because they get in the car and stay here for several hours and enjoy many different events and experiences.”
OWA officials haven’t yet settled on the prices for day passes or annual passes. But Hellmich said it will be priced competitively with other area entertainment attractions.
“It’ll be something a family can do and enjoy more than one time a year,” Hellmich said.