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David Rainer: Repairs begin to make Gulf State Park pier whole again

Lamar Pendergrass had a dream several years ago when he became the South Region Operations Supervisor for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) State Parks Division.

Pendergrass’s goal was to restore and upgrade the Gulf State Park Pier in Gulf Shores with durable materials that would stand up to the salty environment of the Alabama Gulf Coast. He accomplished that goal with one day to enjoy the work. Just as one of the Gulf of Mexico’s premier piers was set to reopen in 2020 after a $2.4 million renovation, Hurricane Sally made a direct hit on the Alabama Gulf Coast, and the pier was significantly damaged. A 200-foot section near the octagon on the end of the pier collapsed.

Work has started to remove the pilings that fell in the 200-foot stretch near the end of Gulf State Park Pier. (Billy Pope/ADCNR)
“When I first took this job, one of the major projects for me was the renovation of the pier itself,” Pendergrass said. “I met with (ADCNR) Commissioner (Chris) Blankenship and Deputy Commissioner (Ed) Poolos and walked the pier. I told them it wasn’t going to do anything but get worse. Because of the saltwater conditions and the sun beating down on it, it was in need of repairs and upgrades.”

Commissioner Blankenship is the Lead Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) Trustee for Alabama. He worked with the other NRDA Trustees to acquire the $2.4 million in funding to totally renovate the Gulf State Park Pier in 2020

Pendergrass added, “We went with ipe (pronounced ee-pay) wood for the decking and railing, which was more expensive but a lot more durable.

“About the time we got ready for the reopening, here came Sally, which put us where we are now. The concrete pilings that hold the decking and boardwalk up, once they started collapsing, it was kind of a domino effect out to the octagon. Basically, we have an open gap of about 200 feet from what we call the nub to the octagon now.”

Pendergrass now has a new dream that will hopefully be fulfilled by late summer 2024. Bids to repair the hurricane damage came in much higher than expected, and ADCNR had to go through a lengthy process to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to agree to provide funds for the repairs. The job was awarded to MD Thomas Construction, which had done the previous renovation, at $13.6 million.

Because of the extensive work to be done, the pier will be closed for the duration of the repairs. The pier closed at 5:30 p.m. Sunday.

“The parking lot will also be barricaded because we have to treat this as a construction zone,” Pendergrass said. “The pier area will not be an access to the beach for anyone. There will be no public restrooms here.

“MD Thomas started mobilizing on Monday with plans to have a barge moved into the pier area when the weather allows. From that point, we just hope to see work beginning and the pier to start to take shape again.”

While the pier is closed, park visitors can access the beach at Cotton Bayou, Alabama Point, Shell Beach and Beach Pavilion, and the Romar Beach access will soon be open with improvements.

Pendergrass said the first task for the contractor will be to remove the concrete pilings that collapsed and have been underwater since the hurricane. Pendergrass hopes the removal of the debris will take a couple of months, but he knows the weather will be a significant factor in the timing.

“In addition to taking away what’s down, they are going to be repairing some of the standing pilings that had a little bit of damage,” he said. “They will send divers down to do repairs on those as well.”

Although the octagon survived Sally, Pendergrass said the improvements were pretty much gone.

One angler took advantage of the last few days the pier was open to catch numerous bluefish. (David Rainer/ADCNR)
“From what I’ve been able to tell, the octagon was pretty much stripped,” he said. “The deck seems to be intact. There is also an elevator out there that we really have no idea what shape it’s going to be in. Once the repairs are made out to the octagon, we’ll have to evaluate what we have and start making the deck panels. A lot of the handrail and decking on the octagon are going to have to be replaced or repaired.

“The entire lighting equipment for that 200-foot section and the octagon will have to be replaced. There’s a lot to do, but we’re very optimistic about when we’ll be able to open back up.”

One angler who was taking advantage of the last few days of fishing at the pier said he was “excited” about being able to fish the entire pier sometime in 2024 after being limited to the area just past the nub. He was taking advantage of what he called a wolfpack of bluefish cruising past the pier and said he had been able to catch many of the usual species hooked on the pier with the exception of tarpon.

“For the most part, I think everybody is excited,” Pendergrass said. “They waited to hear the information and are probably a little disappointed that it didn’t come sooner. When you’re dealing with a government bureaucracy, things don’t move as well as we would like. We’re just proud to get this project started.

“I know the fishing on the pier changed after Sally. The anglers weren’t able to target some of the usual species. This season, I know that sheepshead was one of the primary fish we saw being caught out there. Recently, there was a big run of sheepshead on the pier, and they were pulling them in as fast as they could put something down to catch them. There’s also been a lot of redfish caught and several good flounder. We even had red snapper caught, which surprised a lot of us, and several were legal (16-inch minimum) size.”

Although Gulf State Park Pier is known for its fishing, it also provides educational opportunities and has abundant traffic from sightseers. Pendergrass said that 34,100 fishing passes were issued in 2023, while 82,000 sightseeing passes were sold.

Pendergrass said the decision to stick with ipe wood for the railings and deck panels was a no-brainer because of the way the South American sustainably sourced wood has fared on the portion of the pier that was reopened after Sally.

“We’re very satisfied with the way the ipe has held up as far as the foot traffic it has received,” he said. “People were saying that ipe would sink and not float, but we found most of the panels after the hurricane. If the pier had been intact, we could have probably put 90 percent of the pier back together with the panels we found. We have a substantial amount of salvaged ipe if we need it.”

Commissioner Blankenship said he also was excited to get the work started to restore Gulf State Park Pier.

“The pier provides quality recreational fishing for thousands of anglers each year,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “A walk out on the Gulf State Park Pier is a time-honored tradition of locals and visitors alike. A trip to the Gulf is not complete without experiencing the sights from the pier. When the work is completed, anglers and other park visitors will have full access to one of the premier fishing and sightseeing destinations on the Gulf Coast.”

Pendergrass added, “I do want to say that I appreciate everybody’s patience, not only the residents of Alabama but also those who come to visit to use and fish the pier. We do hope for a quick turnaround. In a perfect world, we’re looking at eight months. I think if we can reopen in August, which is a more realistic date, we’ll be happy, and I know the people who fish it will be happy.

“What I said between three and four years ago still goes. Once the repairs are completed, the people of Alabama will again have a pier that they can be proud of.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

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