TYLER - The Alabama Black Belt Adventures hopes to lure business leaders and decision makers to the state as part of a unique economic development project.
NEAL WADE, who as director of the Alabama Development Office is the state’s top economic developer, said, “We are going to have executives and business leaders from all over the world who are going to come here to hunt and come here to fish. They are going to use the resources here (in the Black Belt) and they may (have never) been in the state before. It introduces people to the state.
“And when they get ready to expand their business or when they get ready to move a business somewhere in the Southeast, they are going to remember Alabama in a positive way and that’s going to help us create jobs in this state.”
That’s right - utilizing the natural resources of the Black Belt will be a money-maker for the region and surrounding regions.
This is a different type of economic development as Wade noted during a news conference launching the Alabama Black Belt Adventures.
“What we are trying to do in this state is redefine the definition of economic development,” Wade said. “It’s not just recruiting industry, but it is trade; it is tourism; and it is growing jobs using Alabama’s great natural resources. We are going to seek out an area of the state that is hurting right now and this is going to be a very positive thing for us.”
The initiative will also preserve jobs, according to THOMAS HARRIS, chairman of Merchant Capital and the driving force behind the project.
“These counties are really hurting and I think we can at least stop some of the bleeding with an organized marketing effort, a communications effort and an education effort,” Harris said. “I think we can turn this around and make it into a positive and preserve the rural landscape of the Black Belt.”
Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, said, “The Alabama Black Belt Adventures will make Alabama one of the top destination points in America to hunt, fish, to hike, bike ride, ride horses, bird watch and enjoy our many other outdoor recreational opportunities.”
Commissioner of Conservation Barnett Lawley said, “We are going to market this area (Black Belt) and the use of a natural resource is going to have an economic impact to every community within the Black Belt region. The abundance of land and natural resources in the Black Belt is truly unlike any other in the world.”
The state marched out its heavy hitters in the outdoor arena for the news conference - Ray Scott, founder of Bassmasters, and Jackie Bushman, founder of Buckmasters - both leaders of Alabama-based organizations.
“We are taking something that is so obviously evident and put the saddle on it,” Scott said. “People need to know about it first of all, and second, they need an invitation and then open the doors - they will come.”
Bushman said: “It doesn’t get any better than this. Where can you hunt something seven months out of the year? Some states have eight or nine days of hunting.”
Harris said there are substantial economic impacts with South Dakota’s pheasant hunting season; duck hunting in Stuttgart, Arkansas; quail hunting in south Georgia; and deer and quail hunting in south Texas.
“We’ve got a chance to have more velocity in the recreational dollars than these other areas that are proven successes,” Harris said. “It’s going to all be about the execution and implementation of our mission.”
Another advantage the Black Belt has is being in a populated area; plus, it is easier to reach the area than some of the other hunting regions in the country, according to Harris.
He expects Montgomery Regional Airport will see an increase in passengers coming to the Black Belt for outdoor activities.
And then there’s the marketplace - a very large marketplace, according to Ed Mizzell, executive vice president of Birmingham-based Luckie & Co., who is directing the marketing campaign for Alabama Black Belt Adventures.
“We have 18.5 million hunters in the United States who are passionate about their sport,” Mizzell said. “There is a $30 billion economic impact, so this is a sizable marketplace and we have the product here. We wanted to create a brand that would represent all the outdoor resources and the opportunities that we have to build tourism and stimulate economic development in this region of the country.
“Obviously, this is an abundant hunting and fishing destination and this could be a catalyst for economic development in this state and make a real difference in this area of the country.”
Luckie & Co. has developed a Web site, www.alabamablackbeltadventures.com, to promote the project. The site has four categories: The Black Belt, Hunting & Fishing, Outdoor Recreation and Attractions & Events.
Mizzell said his goal is to fill up the rooms at the 50 lodges scattered throughout the 23-county Black Belt. More visitors mean more dollars spent in the region and surrounding areas. More visitors mean more opportunities for new businesses and for existing businesses to expand.
The lodges already have a dramatic economic impact in the region. An official with Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge said his company spends around $200,000 a year on land leases, supplies and equipment. He said that $200,000 does not include wages.
“There are no shortage of natural resources and outdoor opportunities within the Black Belt,” Lawley said. “The resources are continually flourishing because of the soil. There is no other place in the world that has the rich nutrients that this soil produces every year.”
The Black Belt gets its name from the dark soil.
Now officials have banded together with a $350,000 helping hand from the state Legislature to boost tourism and create jobs in the state’s most depressed regions.
“My goal is simple,” Knight said. “Take the God-given natural resources of the Black Belt and use them to help all the people of the Black Belt.”
But regions outside the Black Belt will also benefit. The Web site lists attractions throughout the state, including dozens of sites in Montgomery.
“If we can get everyone that came to hunt and fish in the Alabama Black Belt to stay over one extra night, they can see some of the destinations or attractions we have,” Mizzell said.
Harris, who said the key figures behind the program are Knight, Wade, Lawley and Tim Gothard, executive director of the Alabama Wildlife Federation, hopes to have 50 facilities listed on the Web site within one year. He speaks from experience. Harris helped develop the Alabama Quail Trail, which began about six years ago with 12 facilities; now there are 40-plus facilities.
“This is essentially the same type of initiative - marketing the assets that are already here,” Harris said. “We knew we could do it if we could just put all the pieces together. This is just so much bigger and involves a bigger product mix.
“The Black Belt is 11 million acres so it’s a really big playpen,” Harris continued. “The climate is good; the fishing is year around and it’s spectacular. And the hunting in the Black Belt region lasts for seven months and that’s very unique. This is the perfect example of public and private partnerships.”
The next step may be marketing the Alabama Black Belt Adventures with the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Harris said he has already had talks with David Bronner, chief executive of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which built the golf trail.
Harris said he talked to Bronner about a “Bird and Birdies” package.