2 months ago

GSP’s Eagle Cottages gain National Geographic recognition

Already a beacon of sustainability, education and eco-tourism, Alabama’s Gulf State Park is again at the forefront of providing visitors with much more than the traditional “toes in the sand” experience.

In fact, the ultimate compliment has been bestowed on Gulf State Park’s Eagle Cottages by National Geographic with a Unique Lodges of the World designation, the only such recognition for any facility east of the Rocky Mountains in the U.S.

The Unique Lodges program is a highly selective process. Only 56 properties worldwide are included in the program. Only six other properties are in the United States, two in Alaska and four in the West.

Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said he always knew Alabama was special, but he’s glad that National Geographic will now draw the world’s attention to the biological and cultural diversity throughout our great state.

“I think this is very fitting that we are recognized by National Geographic,” Blankenship said. “This is a significant milestone for Alabama. This opens us up to about 730 million people through the National Geographic magazine or their digital network around the world. A good portion of those 730 million people don’t know that Alabama has such beauty and biodiversity. This will not only be good for the Gulf State Park and the Alabama Gulf Coast, but people also will learn that we have the largest artificial reef program in the world. They will learn how special the Bon Secour Wildlife Refuge and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta are. They will also learn that Alabama is No. 1 in aquatic biodiversity.”

Commissioner Blankenship further highlighted the great range of special places in Alabama, from the river shoals that feature the Cahaba lily in Bibb County, to the Red Hills salamander habitat in Monroe County, to the beauty of the Paint Rock River Valley in north Alabama.

“Working with National Geographic has been great. They did not realize what a wonderful place the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is until they came for some site visits,” he said. “Then they looked at other opportunities in the area that included the Grand Bay Savanna and Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. It was an eye-opening experience for them. We think it will be that way for so many people around the world once National Geographic starts to promote the Eagle Cottages. I can’t express how big this is for Alabama as a whole.”

Chandra Wright, Director of Environmental and Educational Initiatives at The Lodge at Gulf State Park, said the Eagle Cottages program is one aspect of the overall Gulf State Park (GSP) Project. The vision statement of Gulf State Park reads: “Gulf State Park will be an international benchmark for environmental and economic sustainability, demonstrating best practices for outdoor recreation, education and hospitable accommodations.”

“A typical National Geographic traveler is looking for property committed to taking care of the environment, taking care of the resources, taking care of the local communities and making sure we preserve those assets for the future,” Wright said. “It also includes immersing the traveler in the local culture. We’re targeting a slightly different traveler than we normally target in coastal Alabama.”

With the Unique Lodges designation, Gulf State Park will have access to National Geographic resources, including training to elevate the visitor experience.

“Our staff who undergo that training will be able to promote themselves as a National Geographic guide,” Wright said. “We’ll be working with National Geographic to bring additional programs to the park. It’s exciting to see what’s going to happen over the next few years.”

“The 11 cottages fit in the concept of a National Geographic Unique Lodge, which is focused on an international traveler who wants to really engage in the local community,” Wright said. “That includes local history, local nature, cultural heritage and really getting to know the community.”

Almost a year ago, a ‘freshening’ of the facilities started that included painting, adding new furniture and replacing artwork that better reflected the local environment and heritage.

“We established a theme that the communities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach grew up around, which was a fishing community,” Wright said. “So, we thought about the old fish camps that were up on stilts. That’s how the original structures were based. We had to figure out how to translate that concept to Eagle Cottages. We rebranded and made more of an authentic Alabama fish camp experience but also worked in some additional sustainability features. All the light fixtures were replaced with LED bulbs. Appliances are being replaced with more energy efficient models. We’re embracing some of the things we’re doing at The Lodge, but also we’re testing some concepts at the cottages that may translate later to the 350-room Lodge.”

One aspect that makes the Eagle Cottages so special is the goal of providing a personalized guest experience, Wright said.

“We’re putting packages together where we can get to know our guests on an individual basis,” she said. “When we find out what their interests are, we can steer them to some personalized experiences. One of the things we talk about is the amount of biodiversity on the Alabama Gulf Coast. We have relationships with outfitters in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, at Dauphin Island, down at Fort Morgan as well as Gulf Shores-Orange Beach. This allows us to get people out to have a more intimate experience through kayaking, fishing or going on Delta tours. If they want to know about our local artists and artisans, we can set them up with a tour of the Coastal Arts Center in Orange Beach and give them the opportunity to take a glass-blowing class or a clay-throwing class, so they get to know some of the local people and engage in a hands-on experience.”

Because of this enriched visitor experience, the GSP Project team reached out to Costas Christ, a National Geographic (NatGeo) travel editor who advises NatGeo on sustainable tourism.

A friend of famed biologist, naturalist, author and native Alabamian E.O. Wilson, Christ was somewhat familiar with Alabama but had no idea of the vastness of the natural wonders that make Alabama special.

“Costas didn’t really appreciate our wealth of biodiversity until we got him to come down in December of 2017,” Wright said. “He spent three days in coastal Alabama, and we tried to give him a crash course in everything we have to offer. We took him around Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan. We took him to Bird and Robinson islands. We took him to Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge to showcase our biodiversity, our Native American history, our Civil War history, and we convinced him that we were worthy of National Geographic coming into the park. He has been helping us on how to transition these cottages into something that would be worthy of National Geographic selection. Christ has visited coastal Alabama every four months since December 2017, and he explores a different section of coastal Alabama on each visit. We took him to see the Delta by boat. We took him to Mobile to see a portion of the African American Heritage Trail. He had no idea we had that amount of African American heritage in our area. That got National Geographic interested in finding the Clotilda (considered the last American slave ship), which was recently discovered. He was blown away by our natural biodiversity and our cultural heritage that people around the South, around the United States and around the world have no idea about. This gives us an opportunity to educate people worldwide on what we have to offer.”

One way Eagle Cottages’ management and Wright have reached out to visitors is through an afternoon manager’s reception at the Eagle Cottages office, called the Eagle’s Nest. Coastal Alabama-specific snacks, sweet tea and lemonade provided by the park’s Woodside Restaurant are served as Cottages manager Mark Larkin and Wright interact with the guests about what coastal Alabama has to offer.

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.

1 hour ago

Alabama postpones 50th anniversary tour over singer’s health

Country band Alabama says it is postponing the remainder of its 50th anniversary tour as lead singer Randy Owen battles health complications.

The group announced Wednesday that the 69-year-old Owen is suffering from migraines and vertigo, and doctors say he needs more time to recover.

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The news comes after a string of already-canceled shows due to the singer’s health.

Bass player and vocalist Teddy Gentry wrote in a statement that though he and the rest of the band are disappointed, Owen’s recovery is the priority.

The 50-city tour was scheduled through Nov. 23, where it would have ended in Salisbury, Maryland.

Rescheduled dates will be released in the coming weeks.
(Associated Press, copyright 2019)

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How Alabama’s Iron Tribe Fitness sets the standard for group workouts

Iron Tribe Fitness, founded in Birmingham, Alabama, is leading the way for workout programs across the nation. Ranked as one of the top five workouts in the nation, this 45-minute HIIT group workout class offers participants exciting and effective workouts in a time frame that works with any kind of schedule.

Recently, the gym hosted Coach 201, a weekend training session for their instructors in their downtown Birmingham corporate location. This session brought together all of Iron Tribe’s local coaching staff to review training guidelines and program goals.

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In hosting this training, Iron Tribe is living out their core value of delivering a consistent experience. Forrest Walden, Iron Tribe’s founder and CEO says this training session taps into the heart of what the program does — which is creating communities that change lives.

“It’s always great to see the entire team come together to fellowship and dive deep into why we do what we do every day,” Walden said.

During the training, Iron Tribe coaches were given the opportunity to learn more about the classes they teach and strengthen their relationships with each other. As a result, the coaches are empowered to return to their home gyms and lead their athletes with renewed skills and confidence.

“Kyle Sottung, our director of product development, is extremely thorough and talented at what he does. To see him lead our Birmingham coaches is always such a blessing. Our coaches are more empowered now than ever to pour into the Birmingham community,” Walden stated.

According to Walden, Iron Tribe is successful because the program is more than just a workout, but a way to strengthen the communities they serve.

“Iron Tribe stands on a list off essential core beliefs. These beliefs steer what we do every day, both inside and outside the gym. It’s our hope that by continuing to develop ourselves that we can be exceptional coaches and role models within our communities,” Walden said.

Ready to get in the best shape of your life? Learn more by visiting irontribefitness.com.

2 hours ago

Limestone County sheriff indicted, arrested on 13 financial theft, ethics charges

Attorney General Steve Marshall on Thursday announced that Limestone County Sheriff Michael Anthony Blakely has been indicted and arrested on several ethics charges.

Blakely, 68, surrendered to authorities and was later released on a $49,000 bond, according to the attorney general’s office.

The indictment includes 13 charges that cover a range of conduct over multiple years.

“Public officials are entrusted to perform their duties honestly and above reproach,” Marshall said in a statement. “When that bond of trust is broken, our society suffers undue harm. My office—working with our federal and state partners—is committed to ensuring that the violators of the public trust be held accountable under the law.”

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Specifically, the first four counts charge Blakely with four separate thefts from his campaign account that total $11,000.

Counts five through 10 charge him with theft or ethics charges stemming from his illegally taking money from Limestone County funds, including from the Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Fund.

Count 11 charges Blakely with soliciting a $1,000 wire transfer from a subordinate other than in the ordinary course of business.

Finally, counts 12 and 13 charge the sheriff with using his official position or office to acquire interest-free loans. Count 12 charges Blakely with using his official position or office to obtain interest-free loans in the form of a $50,000 cashier’s check and/or a $22,189.68 credit. Count 13 charges Blakely with using his official position or office to obtain interest-free loans by taking money from a safe that was used to store the Limestone County inmates’ personal funds.

“I would like to thank the Federal Bureau of Investigation for its investigative assistance in this case,” Marshall added. “Anyone with information regarding corrupt practices by public officials is encouraged to contact the Alabama Attorney General’s Office at reportcorruption@ago.state.al.us.”

The case is being prosecuted by the state attorney general’s Special Prosecutions Division.

“While the overwhelming majority of public officials serve honorably, those who corrupt the operations of government rob their communities—their friends and neighbors—of the fundamental right to honest government, and we must insist on absolute honesty, integrity and trustworthiness from everyone,” FBI Birmingham Special Agent in Charge Johnnie Sharp, Jr. commented.

“I want the citizens of north Alabama to know that if they have information about potential wrongdoing by a public official or law enforcement officer, the FBI wants to hear from you,” he advised. “If you have information, call my office’s Public Corruption Tip Line at (844) 404-TIPS, share what you know, and join in the fight against corruption.”

Blakely, as is the case with all indictments, is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.

UPDATE 1:20 p.m.

Blakely’s attorneys held a press conference emphasizing that he will plead not guilty to all counts, per WHNT.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 hours ago

NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace: Talladega Superspeedway renovations ‘a whole different level’ — Expect to see other facilities follow its lead

On Wednesday at the Talladega Superspeedway, former NASCAR great Rusty Wallace, the 1989 champion of the sanctioning body’s premier series, took part in a tour with members of the media that showcased the finishing touches being put in the facility’s “Transformation” renovations with its October fall race weekend fast approaching.

The $50 million “Transformation” project comes as Talladega Superspeedway celebrates its 50th anniversary. Among the improved amenities are the Talladega Garage Experience, which is made up of the Open Air Club. Also included are a new Race Operations tower high above the track’s tri-oval and the new Pit Road Club that offers race fans a close-up view of team pit stops.

On Wednesday, Wallace appeared on Huntsville radio’s WVNN to discuss the facility’s overhaul and other changes to NASCAR over the past few decades.

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“These guys have taken it to a whole different level,” Wallace said. “I got there today, and we’re talking about all brand-new garage areas and they made it so all the fans can come down in the garage and stand literally three-foot in front of the race cars, watch the race cars pull in, watch the drivers get out, watch them run their motors, watch all the behind the scenes stuff. And that’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in our sport at all.”

“It adds some aspects to the new builds – the Daytona build, Phoenix, Ariz., Richmond, Va.,” he continued. “And those are fantastic. But Talladega is probably the best I’ve seen. I mean, you literally – you’re a fan. You can stand right in front of that car. It’s neat having that much access.”

When asked how it compared to another time in NASCAR when things were much more accessible, Wallace explained this offered an organization that that era did not provide.

“What it does is it organizes a lot better,” Wallace explained. “There’s places to watch. There are ways to watch. They’re even telling the pit crews where they can put their big toolboxes that they operate out of so it won’t obstruct the view of a fan that has come down there to see these cars.’

Wallace also touted the new 35,000-square foot Talladega Social Club with its 41-foot television and 71-foot wide bar, which was adjacent to the garage area.

The 1989 champion said he expected other NASCAR facilities around the country to follow Talladega’s lead.

“I think you’re going to see all these facilities around the country trying to keep up the facilities and make them the best you can,” he said. “If you ask Rusty Wallace, ‘Hey, do you want it hard or easy to sit inside of a race track,’ I’m going to tell them I want it easy. Do I want to go inside with the air conditioner when it is 100 degrees outside, I’m going to tell you yes. That’s the reason I like these new facilities they’ve got.”

Access to drivers and internet access also compliment the new facility, according to Wallace.

The track, along with its parent company, International Speedway Corporation, announced last year it’s “Transformation,” an approximate $50 million redevelopment that is part of ISC’s long-term capital allocation plan and reinvestment into its major motorsports complexes.

Full completion of the modernized project is anticipated for October. For ticket information for the 1000Bulbs.com 500 and Sugarlands Shine 250 doubleheader NASCAR Playoffs weekend, October 11-13, visit www.talladegasuperspeedway.com or call 855-518-RACE (7223).

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV and host of “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN in Huntsville.

3 hours ago

Alabama-made ULA rocket powers another GPS satellite into orbit

Alabama rocket builder United Launch Alliance (ULA) conducted its 135th mission Thursday morning when it powered yet another Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite into its targeted orbit.

The GPS III Magellan, built by Lockheed Martin, will enable the U.S. Air Force to continue modernizing the nation’s worldwide navigation network with improved accuracy, better anti-jam resiliency and a new signal for civil users.

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GPS satellites are frequent payload into space. Today’s launch was the 73rd GPS payload powered by ULA.

Of the 81 Air Force satellites in orbit, 34 are GPS satellites.

This fact recently led former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson to quip, “The blue dot on your phone is not provided by your cellphone company; it comes from the United States Air Force.”

She elaborated that the Air Force provides GPS coordinates for about 1 billion people every day and enables an $80 billion piece of our economy. With its satellites, the Air Force takes pictures, gathers intelligence, facilitates global communication, monitors weather and conducts the critical task of providing timing signals for the New York Stock Exchange and every ATM in America.

This was the final flight for ULA’s Delta IV Medium rocket. The powerful Delta IV Heavy, with its three common booster cores, will continue to fly U.S. government missions.

The Delta IV’s main engine, manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne, consumed nearly a ton of fuel per second as it pushed the rocket in flight.

ULA’s 1.6 million square-foot manufacturing facility in Decatur is the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.

Watch the launch:

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer News