By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Matt Young may not have been dreaming about his current situation when he started his first parks job as a lifeguard in his native southern California. However, Young insists his role as Southwest District Superintendent with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ State Parks Division is his dream job.
His new position encompasses overseeing Gulf State Park (GSP) in Gulf Shores and Meaher State Park on the Battleship Parkway in Spanish Fort.
After a stint in the U.S. Army, Young earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Arizona and a master’s degree in recreation and park administration from Eastern Kentucky University. Young previously served as Assistant Director of Recreation and Cultural Affairs for the City of Gulf Shores since 2015.
Sitting behind the desk that was once used by former GSP Superintendent Hugh Branyon, Young said he didn’t get to work with the late, beloved Branyon, but he is very aware of the former superintendent’s impact on one of the most popular destinations on the Alabama Gulf Coast. The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail winds 15 miles through the park.
“Gulf State Park is such a unique place,” Young said. “The partnerships with the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, local governments and local businesses, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s not that we can unilaterally run this park. We depend on our cities, Baldwin County, local businesses and concessionaires. A lot of moving parts make Gulf State Park work. It’s a pleasure to be a part of that. We are able to provide excellent services to our guests because of that.
“When I first got to Gulf Shores, with the State Park overlaying both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, we worked together on just about everything we did, event-wise. A lot of the trail systems in coastal Alabama intersect the State Park and the cities. Very early on, I was involved with events and development dealing with the State Park.”
In the spring, Alabama voters overwhelmingly approved a bond issue to provide $80 million to State Parks for a variety of projects, one of which is to expand the campground facilities at GSP.
“The proposal is to add 200 luxury RV sites,” Young said. “That would encompass what is our old golf course area. We might have been able to expand in the current campground, but you don’t want to take away from the visitor experience. When you come to a state park in an RV, you want to have that green space around you for involvement with nature. We think the golf course area will still have that luxury RV feeling in a beautiful green space.”
The current campground with 500 luxury RV sites stays busy almost year-round. Young said the occupancy rate rarely falls below 90 percent.
“When you look at the folks who visit the Alabama Gulf Coast, it’s generational,” he said. “A lot of these folks have been coming down for multiple generations. You know, when John Mellencamp sings about vacationing down at the Gulf of Mexico, he was talking about coming down here. A lot of the folks from Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan have been coming down for generations.
“That in itself is a draw. Of course, you can’t beat the white sands, the southern hospitality and the proximity to the amenities. Most campgrounds have a swimming pool and a tennis court. We also offer that, but we are also in close proximity to the beach and our expansive trail system. That has been a big boon for the RV industry. Now you park your RV and right out the front door you have 27 miles of trail systems to access. You can hop on your bike, or you can rent a Segway. We’re on the birding trail, so a lot of folks come down to bird. Wildlife experiences and observations are huge here. As the communities continue to grow around us, it’s becoming more of a resource at the park. For the wildlife, it’s a sanctuary.”