Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Civil War brochure bringing visitors to Decatur

By Deangelo McDaniel

A place slaves called home in Lawrence County, a Civil War walking tour in Decatur and a Limestone County city union soldiers looted in 1862 are part of a new state tourism brochure.

In preparation for the 150th anniversary of the start of the War Between the States, the Alabama Tourism Department has released a colorful brochure called “Alabama Civil War Trail.”

The guide features 47 historical sites linked to the Civil War and is

expected to generate thousands of tourism dollars for local communities.

“I think the brochure is wonderful and will bring some people here,” said Pond Spring Site Director Melissa Beasley.

Pond Spring is the home of Gen. Joseph Wheeler.

A slave cabin on the 50-acre site is depicted in the brochure.

Tami Reist is president of the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau. She said the River City is already benefiting from the brochure.

Reist said a New Orleans couple recently visited the bureau’s headquarters on Sixth Avenue.

“They had one of the state brochures and wanted to get more information about Decatur and the Joe Wheeler home,” she said.

Reist said the couple got information about Decatur’s September Civil War skirmish re-enactment at Point Mallard and promised to come back for it.

“This is a great thing, not only for the state, but especially for the towns where these events happened,” she said.

The brochure encourages tourists to experience Decatur’s self-guided walking tour, which starts at the Old State Bank building.

The bank, which served as a hospital when Union forces fortified Decatur in 1864, is one of four buildings in the city that survived the war.

The tour concludes at Rhodes Ferry Park, where the 14th U.S. Colored Infantry repulsed a charge from troops in Confederate General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee.

Athens, like many cities in North Alabama, changed hands multiple times between Union and Confederate forces.

The horrors of war, however, visited Limestone’s county seat in 1862 when federal forces under Union Col. Basil Turchin committed acts that led to Turchin’s court martial.

During a two-hour period, he stood silent as his men raped a slave, scared a pregnant white woman who miscarried and died, and took or destroyed more than $54,000 in property, including 200 Bibles that were trampled.

Tourism officials also included Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Athens heroics in September 1864.

Although outnumbered four to one, he used a ruse to convince Union leaders to surrender at Fort Henderson.

In Lawrence County, the brochure includes Pond Spring, the home of Confederate Gen. Wheeler. The site has 13 historic buildings, including the general’s home, which freedmen constructed after the war.

The plantation also has a building U.S. forces used as a paroling office after the Civil War and a dogtrot slave cabin built in the 1820s.

The brochures are available in the eight welcome centers across the state.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Ingalls pavilion plans too expensive

Decatur to seek new bids in 2011
By Tiffeny Owens

It’s back to the drawing board for the Decatur City Council after all the bids submitted to construct the Ingalls Harbor pavilion came in over the $2.8 million budget.

The city rejected six bids, with the lowest being about $450,000 over budget, according to records. The bids were opened at 3 p.m. Friday.

Despite the setback, Councilman Greg Reeves remained optimistic about the project.

“We’ll revisit it again in 2011,” Reeves said. “It is a bit of a disappointment, but we’re going to take a fresh look at it and see what can be done.”

The council was to award the bid for construction of the pavilion at its meeting Monday but removed it from the agenda after all the bids came in over budget.

The city set a budget of $2.4 million to build the structure itself and a maximum of $2.8 million for the entire project.

“The drawings should have fit the budget, and the architects gave us guidelines,” Reeves said. “This was an unexpected surprise.”

With the issues that hampered construction of the new Decatur Animal Services building in the back of his mind, Reeves said he would rather delay the pavilion in order to make sure the design and construction were right than risk problems in the future.

“We want to make sure all our ducks are in a row first,” he said. “We don’t want to have to go back and ask for more money down the road.”

The pavilion is a project Reeves began coordinating more than a year ago in effort to bring more tourism and local activity to Ingalls Harbor.

Some of the issues that will have to be addressed early next year may be structural and aesthetic, said Wally Terry, director of general services.

“We want to look at what’s driving the costs issues,” Terry said. “There’s something embedded in the design that is driving the price out. ... I don’t think we can change the size and scope of the building because that would make it less than what the city needs in the long-term.”

The money to fund the pavilion was borrowed from the city’s excess reserve at the request of the local Hospitality Association and the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Hospitality Association has agreed to reimburse the city over time with funds raised by its $2-per-night room occupancy fee on local hotel stays.

Local architectural firm GBW Architects Inc. designed the plans for the 25,000-square-foot pavilion and other improvement at Ingalls Harbor.

The pavilion is intended to attract more interest to the city-owned harbor beyond its current use as a fishing-tournament destination.

The same firm has worked on other Decatur recreation projects, including the initial design for the Jack Allen Soccer Complex, Ingalls Harbor and parts of Delano Park.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

High hopes for Decatur tourism

Primed by past decade’s successes, officials have big plans for 2020
By Paul Huggins

Point Mallard’s water park and the ball fields at Wilson Morgan Park have served Decatur’s tourism industry well for decades, but both could be living in oblivion by 2020.

Decatur Parks and Recreation’s repeated pleas for upgrades for the J. Gilmer Blackburn Aquatic Center and building a new baseball/softball complex have yet to find a willing partner at City Hall to get the money for those improvements.

But local residents have cause to feel optimistic, tourism officials said, because the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau’s 2010 Tourism Development Agenda addresses the above needs, and that comes from the same group that succeeded in fulfilling most of its wish list in 2000.

Nearly everything on the 2000 agenda was realized: a conference center (partially), riverfront attraction, better signage for local attractions, a new boat launch and a re-distribution of city lodging taxes to go directly to those responsible for promoting the city.

“When Tami (Reist, visitors bureau president) gets behind a project and when the CVB gets behind a program, the track record is pretty darn good,” said Tom Chappell, Parks and Recreation assistant director and visitors board member.

Chappell has high hopes that the partnership between parks and recreation and the visitors bureau will produce as good or even better results in the next decade.

So what’s in store for the next 10 years?

A conference center; river boat; lazy river and more water slides at Point Mallard; a new baseball/softball complex; enhancements to Ingalls Harbor, such as a restaurant and museum; and upgrades at Jack Allen Soccer Complex with two more fields, playground and locker rooms.

Some of the minor wish list items include an expanded convenience store at Riverwalk Marina, adding wireless Internet throughout all parks, a restaurant behind the 15th green at the Point Mallard Golf Course and adding cabins along waterways or at Point Mallard Park.

The agenda appears loftier than goals listed in 2000, but tourism officials want to dream big considering how Jack Allen and Ingalls Harbor outperformed expectations.

“We have the leading edge on sports and recreation with Jack Allen and that was not even on our list in 2000,” Reist said.

Ingalls pavillion
Of the five top goals in 2000, only the conference center remains unfulfilled. But tourism officials can point to the 6,000-square-foot Ingalls Pavilion, which the city will accept bids for this week, as an interim facility. It can be enclosed and heated in winter and seat 600 to 700 at tables, double what Decatur can offer now.

Tourism officials worked with city leaders to buy the old Ingalls Iron Works property using money generated by a $2-per-night occupancy fee local hotels imposed on themselves. Then they built a boat launch that is heralded as the top facility for hosting major fishing tournaments in the nation.

“We get to pick and choose tournaments now, instead of begging for events,” said Wade Weaver, visitors bureau board treasurer.

The property also has proved a riverfront attraction ideal for the ever expanding Riverfest barbecue championship and still has room for a riverboat dock, museum, picnic pavilions and restaurant.

Another goal was installing way-finding signs to point visitors to key local attractions. Last year, the city installed the first phase of those signs for downtown attractions. More signs will go up this year, pointing to places such as Jack Allen and Point Mallard.

The visitors bureau also persuaded the city to share 75 percent of the city’s lodging taxes with the bureau, instead of 50 percent, with the added responsibility to more actively promote local festivals and events. The Wet Dog Triathlon is an example of one event that grew under the new arrangements. A record 600 participants competed this year in the race sponsored by the Decatur Jaycees.

Occupancy tax
The $2-per-night occupancy fee has generated more than $3 million since instituted in 2001, and that money has paid for Ingalls Harbor, as well as more than $300,000 in enhancements to Hospitality Park (formerly Day Park) for attracting birdwatchers, and another $96,000 for a press box at Jack Allen.

Reist said that fund is tapped out, but after current debts, primarily Ingalls Harbor, are paid, the bureau will look to add or enhance facilities that continue to draw visitors.

Chappell said the bureau may have to help the city and parks and recreation with some of its wish lists.

Chappell said the loss of the NAIA softball championship revealed Wilson Morgan was too small for such a large event, and Decatur needs a new complex with 14 fields that carries a price tag of at least $12 million.

To ensure Decatur maintains its grip on soccer tournaments at Jack Allen, Chappell said the park needs to keep adding to it, specifically, two more fields, a locker/changing room with showers and a playground/family area with picnic pavilions. Estimates for these enhancements start at about $2 million, he said.

“Just because you build it, it’s not done,” he said. “Other communities come and look at its strengths and weaknesses, build something better and take business away. When you’re on top, people are trying to knock you off.”

As for Point Mallard’s water park, it has long needed new slides and water features, Chappell said, and a lazy river would be the first on the list of additions, probably costing around $3 million. A new double-drop speed slide would add $250,000 more to the wish list.

“In the next 10 years, that’s got to be done or that asset goes away.” Chappell said.

The conference center, preferably with an adjoining hotel, remains the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau’s top wish.

Weaver and Reist said the bureau must hire a consultant to ensure the city builds what it can support and encourages hotel growth.

“That’s the first thing we need to do, determine what we need, not what we want,” Weaver said, noting the addition of the Westin in Huntsville and Marriott Conference Center in Florence will impact what Decatur can achieve

Decatur seeks to share operations of riverboat cruiser

By Paul Huggins

long-sought item on tourism officials’ wish list could be cruising into Decatur within a couple months if they can arrange for a way to share the Pickwick Belle riverboat.

Decatur sold out both its lunch and dinner cruises when the Cincinnati Belle stopped in Decatur for one day last month. That success got Pickwick Belle’s marketing director, Tanya Irwin, thinking she could book more cruises on her riverboat, if it has a regular presence in Decatur.

“We’re going to meet in early January to discuss how a sharing operation could benefit each other. We want to come up with something where both (cities) most benefit so it will be a long-term relationship,” she said.

Tami Reist, president of the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said she was optimistic a business agreement could be worked out, and had no doubts Decatur would support the venture.

“Just seeing it docked where people drive by and see it every day will generate interest,” she said, adding it would gain a lot of corporate meeting clients.

The Pickwick Belle is privately owned and has operated out of Florence since October 2007.

It’s about 90 feet long and 30 feet wide and is a true paddle wheeler. It has two decks, an open-air top deck and enclosed lower deck. It can accommodate 149 passengers and ideally seats about 80 for dinner cruises.

Irwin said the Pickwick Belle’s size makes it versatile for a wide range of affordable uses.

“We’ve had high school proms, we’ve had wedding rehearsals and weddings aboard the Belle, praise and worship services aboard the boat, school groups for educational cruises,” she said.

“The size of it, the way it’s set up, we can do a wedding cruise at 4 in the afternoon and be ready for a Jimmy Buffet-themed cruise, or like a pirate theme cruise at 7,” she added.

The Pickwick Belle uses local caterers for meals and local theatrical ensembles for theme cruises.

“It’s fun for the local people when they have special events, or corporate parties or church outings. But most of our customers come from outside our home port. Church groups and senior travel groups are our largest customer base.”

Reist said the riverboat could be moored at Riverwalk Marina or the special platform the city built at Rhodes Ferry Park. Ideally, the visitors bureau wants to have a permanent riverboat dock with ticket office/gift shop as well as parking on the west side of Ingalls Harbor.

The riverboat cruises year round, but Irwin said it would take some time off this winter for maintenance. The schedule shows a private Christmas party and Sweet 16 birthday party booked for December and Valentine’s Day dinner cruise in February. Weekly cruises return in late March, April and May. Thirty-six cruises are already set.

Prices range from $7 for educational cruises for school groups to $30 for lunch cruises to $69 for dinner theme cruises. Daily sightseeing cruises range from $10 to $19 depending on age.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Historic Decatur Christmas Tour

View 10 old homes, churches and buildings Saturday from 3 to 8 p.m. during the annual Historic Decatur Christmas Tour.

Throughout the Albany and Old Decatur historic districts you can tour the following:

■Hoy-Henry-Kienzle home, 618 Johnston St.
■Godbey-Poer-Haney home, 626 Gordon Drive
■Herron-Lemmond-Ruggiere home, 314 Canal St.
■Kelly-Wallace home, 824 Gordon Drive
■Frazier-Clarke-Richards home, 209 Church St.
■Harris-Roth home, 600 Ferry St.
■Old State Bank, 925 Bank St. N.E.
■Carnegie Visual Arts Center, 207 Church St. N.E.
■First Presbyterian Church, 701 Oak St. N.E.
■St. John’s Episcopal Church, 202 Gordon Drive S.E.
Programs: Two programs are planned at 3 p.m. at St. John’s. Local historian Phil Wirey will speak on the founding women of Decatur, while Kathy Gray-Clay will explain how to incorporate fresh greenery and flowers into your Christmas decor.

Music: The Huntsville Spiritual Chorale will perform at 5 p.m. at First Presbyterian.

Refreshments will be available from 3-7 p.m. at St. John’s. Many local restaurants and caterers donate refreshments. See a listing at the tour website.

Carriage rides are planned from 4-8 p.m. at the Carnegie and Delano Park. Cost is $10 per person.

Tickets are $15 per person. Purchase them in advance at the Carnegie, Jimmy Smith Jewelers, Trish Land Designs, Bank Street Antiques or the Convention & Visitors Bureau. On the day of the tour, you can also buy tickets at Old State Bank and St. John’s. Call 256-350-2028 for group tickets.

On the Net

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Decatur hotels seek interstate exit sign

By Paul Huggins

Motorists passing Exit 340 have long wondered what might lay beyond the two gas stations beneath the Interstate 65 off ramp.

It doesn’t look like the bright, electrified exits they’d see at Athens and Priceville. Nor does it have the Department of Transportation’s official blue Interstate Logo Panel, pointing out the businesses waiting to take their money in exchange for gas, food or a pillow.

Decatur’s Exit 340 has never had that blue sign because the hotels and restaurants lie beyond the distance DOT allows for such advertisements. Tourism and hotel officials, however, aim to change that.

They have requested a waiver from the Alabama Department of Transportation to have the Holiday Inn & Suites, Country Inn & Suites and Motel 6 listed on the blue logo service sign.

‘Lost in a bubble’
“Decatur is just getting lost in a bubble,” said Tami Reist, president of the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “If you’re just passing through and didn’t know what was there, you wouldn’t know to stop,” she said.

“We need to be listed on those blue signs so people would know that there is life ahead.”

According to the DOT’s Procedures For Specific Service Signing on Interstate Highway Systems, to qualify for placement of a “Lodging” business logo on a specific service sign, a hotel must meet six conditions.

One of which is being located not more than 3.5 miles from the interstate via an all-weather road.

The Holiday Inn, being the closest to the interstate, lies 4.7 miles from Exit 340. Motel 6 is a block farther and the Country Inn is about half a mile farther.

The hardship case Decatur hotels can claim is there’s a national wildlife refuge and 1.5-mile wide river between them and the interstate.

Reist and the general managers of the three hotels sent letters to Mike Welch, District 1 permit engineer, who has forwarded them to Montgomery.

Welch said the three hotels already meet the other five conditions.

Sean Mobley, who makes the final decision on logo service signs, said DOT has given distance waivers previously and each one has something unique to its situation, so there is not a specific precedent that Decatur can follow.

Walk-in business
Andy Safiano, general manager of Holiday Inn, said walk-in business is important enough for the hotel to have five billboards on the interstate and another one on Alabama 20 coming in from the West.

He said a logo sign at Exit 340 would be “very, very valuable,” even though the visibility doesn’t translate into a spur-of-the-moment decision to overnight in Decatur. Travelers will remember it the next time they pass by, he said.

Reist said getting a logo service sign also would serve the restaurants and gas stations near the hotels because travelers will associate those businesses as always being near a hotel center.

“I wanted to start with the lodging for the signs first because, typically, if you can get them to do the lodging, then we would have the opportunity to look at our restaurants like Waffle House, Louie’s at the Holiday Inn, Jack’s and others,” she said.

“If you can get the head in the bed, the others will follow suit.”