Orange Beach, Alabama
is the place for families
Thriving coastal community offers much
By THOMAS LARK
ORANGE BEACH, ALA.––It’s a shining gem of a city on Alabama’s Gulf Coast.
It’s Orange Beach, and it’s the perfect place for visitors and residents alike. That’s the word from Ford Handley, Orange Beach’s city administrator and finance director. Handley, 36, recently told Business View more about this hidden jewel of the Gulf Coast and all it offers.
“The breeze is up, and it’s perfect!” he enthused with a smile, speaking from his office and citing the pleasant temps peaking at 76 degrees on a gorgeous May afternoon.
Orange Beach’s next-door neighbor, Gulf Shores, may be bigger and better known. But they actually complement each other quite harmoniously, sharing a bounty of opportunities for those seeking a high-quality family vacation or others just keen on a bit of beach-related relaxation, Handley noted.
“We like to say that we offer a unique product that we’re very proud of,” he said, “and I know Gulf Shores is as well. We’re very proud of what we do in Orange Beach and we work hard to live up to our motto: ‘Life is better here.’”
Mayor Tony Kennon often refers to the city as “Mayberry at the Beach,” because Orange Beach’s family-friendly brand is always protected, and public safety is a top priority.
“We hold the line on keeping the coastal feel of our city and not becoming a cookie-cutter town with no character or personality,” Kennon said.
This small city offers big fun, too. It’s well known as a water sports center. Situated on Wolf Bay, Waterfront Park has a fishing pier and picnic areas.
“We’re also home to the largest charter fishing fleet in the Gulf of Mexico,” Handley revealed. “That’s a major economic driver for us and for many of the people who live here.”
He added that Orange Beach, a relatively new municipality, is indeed a fishing mecca, founded by fishermen and incorporated in 1984. Nestled on the Gulf of Mexico, it’s the easternmost community on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Florida’s Perdido Key borders it to the east, according to the United States Census Bureau. Also according to census data, Orange Beach has a total area of 15.9 square miles, of which 14.7 square miles is land, and 1.2 square miles (not quite eight percent) is water.
It’s a community of many attractions, among them the Orange Beach History Museum, exploring pre-Columbian Amerindian life, fishing history and the community’s early days. Operated by the City of Orange Beach, it’s located in a former one-room schoolhouse.
“It has operated as a museum since 1995,” Handley said, “and it’s been a real attractor for us, especially since it was Orange Beach’s first-ever schoolhouse, dating back to 1910.”
To the west, the Wharf is a shopping area with a 10,000-seat amphitheatre.
“This is a 350-acre mixed-used development of both commercial and marina space,” said Handley, “the perfect complement to our vacation destination. We’re able to bring in many concerts of all different music types over the summer that draw tourists and residents alike. They get to see some great acts.”
Nearby is the Hugh Branyon Backcountry Trail, winding through Gulf State Park from Orange Beach to Gulf Shores, covering nearly 30 miles. Connecting the two cities, it was recently voted America’s number-one recreational trail.
Orange Beach is certainly very popular. In just 10 years, the population has boomed from some 5,500 full-time residents to about 8,500. The zenith of peak season comes during and around July 4, when the tourist influx swells the population to more than 100,000 on any given day, Handley informed.
“We have about 10,000 condo units in the city,” he added. “Tourism is a major economic driver.”
Nine years of progress
Handley has worked for the City of Orange Beach since 2014. He became its finance director in 2017, and he started his current positions in January.
For all the Gulf Coast, 2010 was an annus horribilis. That’s when the BP oil spill occurred off the Louisiana coast, causing a nightmarish impact upon wildlife and countless fishermen and others who make their living from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. As you’d expect, Louisiana sustained the worst effects from the spill, and Alabama, with its much smaller shoreline, was spared the brunt of this disaster but still had crude oil wash ashore, fouling the Gulf waters as well as tourism. BP-funded promotional campaigns, created to help entice visitors to the Gulf Coast, drove many people to discover Orange Beach, and as Handley observed, the city became an even more treasured tourist destination.
“This was one of the worst manmade disasters in American history,” he said, “and it really taught us the importance of balancing our economy and our environment. It put Orange Beach and Alabama on the map. We actually have beautiful beaches here. After everything was cleaned up, tourism really boomed for us.”
Still, much oil did wash ashore, closing the city’s beaches for some months. But today, normalcy has returned.
“One thing we started after the spill was the campaign to make sure our visitors ‘leave only footprints,’” he said. “Orange Beach invests a lot in cleanliness and maintaining first-class amenities for our residents and guests.”
The City makes use of volunteer beach ambassadors. They help protect nesting birds and sea turtles and ensure that the elimination of trash and collection of recyclable plastics are carried out properly. Tourists are encouraged to pick up their beach chairs and leave nothing on the beach after dark. The beaches are cleaned daily by the City’s coastal resources department.
“It’s all about good stewardship,” Handley said, adding that such environmental awareness helps make sure Orange Beach stays pristine and continues to attract folks for years to come.
Preparing for hurricanes
Hurricanes are annual factors, potentially causing untold billions of dollars in damage anywhere along the Gulf Coast and the Eastern Seaboard.
For Orange Beach, Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and Hurricane Sally in 2020 were the biggest such devastating storms.
“But each time a hurricane comes through, the city gets stronger and stronger,” Handley said, “not only as a community but also in that we rebuild to higher standards. Hurricane Sally left us with some $20 million in damage expenses. But we worked through the FEMA and the State of Alabama for reimbursements, and it turned out that we were eligible for a 90-percent reimbursement.”
If a hurricane causes damage or destruction, Handley said structures are rebuilt to the highest standards in order to withstand Mother Nature as best as possible.
“That was the big lesson we learned with Ivan,” he said.
Relatedly, in Sally’s wake, repairs are ongoing at the Perdido Pass Seawall Park. The result will mean expanding and improving the park as well. The repair portion of this effort is a FEMA project, awarded by the Orange Beach City Council. The contractor has up to 120 working days to complete it, according to the bid documents.
Generally, the weather in Orange Beach is warm and inviting. Handley extolled the beautiful autumn the city enjoys. Many folks walk around in T-shirts and shorts, even at Christmas. There is some cold in January and February, he said, and about three hard freezes a year. But that’s it. Indeed, the weather is so good that the city has practically no slow season at all. It’s possible to enjoy all it offers the whole year round.
This very family-friendly tourist destination focuses a great deal on public safety and cleanliness. Handley noted that the City’s police, fire and EMS departments are top-notch and big parts of the local infrastructure.
“Safety is the number-one priority for our residents and guests,” he said.
One new development of real significance was the breakaway of Orange Beach’s schools from the Baldwin County Public School System in July of last year.
“Our goal is to have high academic achievement for our local students,” said Handley of the Orange Beach City School System. “Our mission, vision and daily operations now fit the personality of our community. We’re very excited about that.”
Planning your summer vacation now? Think of Orange Beach.
“We are a 95-percent drive market,” Handley noted, as interstate drivers can reach the beach from Texas and even as far away as Michigan. “Families know that when they get here, they’re going to be safe. They’re not going to see trash in the medians. And it’s not just about our beaches. You have the opportunity to do many things. You have the trails. You have our bay system, and you have the shopping. In this day and age, we offer a little bit of everything to allow a family to come down here, to bond and to reconnect––to enjoy a break from whatever life they left back at home.”
AT A GLANCE
Orange Beach, Alabama
Where: Alabama’s Gulf Coast