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Gulf State Park Adds New Pool, Campground Facilities

By DAVID RAINER

After Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina left Gulf State Park a shell of its former self earlier this decade, the Gulf State Park campground and facilities have been made whole again. Actually, it’s a whole lot better than whole.

The new facilities – which include a renovated camp store and laundry facility, new nature center and expansive swimming area with 5,000-square-foot pool and kid’s splash pad – rivals anything available on the Alabama Gulf Coast.

Hugh Branyon, who retired earlier this year after serving 35 years as Gulf State Park Superintendent, returned for the unveiling of the project started under his tenure.

“We’ve wanted this pool for years and years, but we couldn’t get the money,” Branyon said. “This is great. This will be the nucleus for the overnighters in the park. Whether they’re in the cabins or in the campground, they can come to the laundry mat and don’t have to go hunting a place to do their laundry.

“Some of my fondest memories are kids catching their first fish, seeing their first bobcat or first fox squirrel and how excited they get,” he said. “Now I see folks bringing their kids and grandkids that I ran into over the year. They’re coming back because it’s a special place.”

Mark Easterwood, State Parks Division Director, agrees that the campground area will become the centerpiece of the park on the north side of the beach road.

“We really think it’s something visitors are really going to enjoy during the summer and stay with a little longer,” Easterwood said. “A lot of people don’t know that there’s a lot more to Gulf State Park than just the beaches. We’ve got a lot more to offer here, including the campground and nature center. Our naturalist, Kelly Reetz, does programs for adults and children. She takes children’s groups on tours. We’ve got the (Hugh S. Branyon) backcountry trail, in association with the City of Orange Beach. It’s a great place to walk or bike. So there’s a lot going on in Gulf State Park other than our beaches, which are magnificent, too, as well as our fishing pier.

“The business we’re in, which is providing recreational opportunities to the public, in order to be successful, a lot of people have to into play into that. The more people involved in what we’re trying to do, the more successful we are. People on the coast love this park and have a deep interest in what it’s about. I think what they’re doing with the concerts and boat races are making a difference this fall. I have to commend these people in what they’re doing to bring things back to the Alabama Coast.”

Because negotiations have stalled concerning the rebuilding the convention facilities on the beach, Terry Boyd, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Chief Engineer, decided to pursue money for the campground renovations.

“One thing I’ll mention that most people don’t realize is that when the lodge was destroyed during Hurricane Ivan, through a little finagling, we were able to convince FEMA to move the pool over here,” Boyd said. “When Ivan hit and tore everything up, that was our lemon, but I think we’ve been able to make lemonade. With the oil spill, with some potential BP money, maybe our next lemonade will be to get that lodge back on the beach.”

Easterwood complimented the park staff and volunteers for making the best of the lemons for an extended period.

“If it weren’t for the people on the ground, I wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything,” he said. “I’d really like to give the credit to the people who are getting it done.”

Herb Malone, executive director of the Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau., said the facilities have not only been renovated, they’ve been modernized.

“Major components of a great facility like Gulf State Park starts with the natural assets – its beaches, lakes and woodlands,” Malone said. “When you add modern, customer-friendly facilities and amenities to that, you have a balance that complements those natural assets. As Mark said, you can have all the great facilities you want, but to have a great park you’ve got to have a great staff. Through our office and the feedback we get is the great friendliness and helpfulness they get from the staff at Gulf State Park. And I know where it started, that man right there (pointing to Hugh Branyon).”

Gulf State Park’s 6,150 acres spans the city limits of both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. The Hugh Branyon Backcountry Trails gives visitors access to both cities. And those cities realize what an asset the renovations and new facilities mean.

Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said everyone understands the economic impact the BP oil spill had on the Gulf Coast and it’s going to take a massive effort to get numbers back up where they were in 2009, when 4.6 million people visited the Alabama coast. Craft thinks the campground renovations and new facilities will have an impact on that goal.

“This facility as a state park and the complement it adds to Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Foley as we work together to get people back down is enormous,” Craft said. “The new state pier, the pavilion and these facilities begin to build another layer for us to recapture what we had in the past and what we have to have in the future. We’re glad to have this facility rebuilt and built to this level.”

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon added: “This is a jewel between the two cities. It really is a complement. It adds so much.”

Easterwood said the $4.5 million project includes the huge pool and splash pad, as well as dressing areas and restrooms in the swimming facility. Both the swimming facility and nature center were raised above the flood plain. The campground store and laundry facility were renovated and a large roof added to cover both, which forms a pavilion area between the buildings. Boat docks and boat slips were also renovated on Middle Lake.

“We’re going to get rental boats, pontoon boats and jon boats with motors and rent them out,” Easterwood said. “I believe this will be a hopping place, especially during the spring and summer. And, we’re going to add on to the nature center with a classroom where they can teach school groups.”

Branyon said there’s no other place he’d rather be than Alabama and Baldwin County and a quality state park makes it that much better.

“This park is a wonderful place,” Branyon said. “I’ve always preached to these two mayors that if you keep the children happy, they’re going to bring momma and daddy down here. But if you don’t have something to keep the kids happy, you can forget it.

“This (swimming) facility is going to be great. It’s going to keep people coming down and coming back.”

PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) A new 5,000-square-foot swimming pool and a nature center that replaced the one destroyed by Hurricane Ivan are part of the campground renovations recently completed at Gulf State Park.

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