Sugar white sandy beaches. A breeze comes from the waterfronts. Families flock for surf, sun and fun.
For most on the Alabama coast, it sounds like a picture-perfect day at Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, or Dauphin Island.
But it’s also a coveted future along Mobile Bay’s west shore, where there are no public beaches.
Two projects – Brookley by the Bay, south of downtown Mobile; and Bayfront Park, adjacent to Alabama State Route 193 near Coden – are under development and will offer a new beach experience in areas without one for the first time.
Of the two projects, a nearly $8.5 million reconstruction of Bayfront Park is the most advanced.
The little-known Pocket Park has been county property since 1921, with few improvements. But thanks to a cash injection from part of the 2016 BP oil-spill settlement, a 10-acre beach and adjacent park is on track to open sometime next year.
“We have beaches on Dauphin Island, Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fairhope, and it’s important that communities have access to the water,” said Chris Blankenship, commissioner for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, who played an instrumental Role in securing funding for the Bayfront Park project.
“In South Mobile County, Coden and the Fowl River area, this park will provide excellent access for citizens to enjoy the bay and nature,” Blankenship said. “The same goes for Mobile. It’s a good (distance) from Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, so with the waterfront in Brookley to get projects like this… that’s what makes life here on the coast so special.”
The county does not issue general fund monies for Bayfront Park.
However, the Mobile County Commissioners on Monday advanced the Bayfront Park project by approving an additional $3.9 million in funds allocated as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process. The money comes in addition to the $4.6 million in NRDA funds originally earmarked for the project in 2020.
The project was approved a few years ago by a group of trustees, including Blankenship, tasked with assessing and evaluating natural resource restoration projects that suffered losses as a result of the Deepwater Horizon 2010 disaster and subsequent oil spill.
Tina Sanchez, director of environmental services at Mobile County, said the NRDA money is intended to repair the damage caused by the oil spill by providing additional public access to the shore.
For Bayfront Park, however, the cost of building a new beach and adjacent park facilities has skyrocketed as overall construction costs have risen amid inflation and the struggle to ship supplies to the area.
Sanchez said the first phase of the project — the beach — was about $1.5 million over budget.
“We have a beach,” Sanchez said, referring to about 25,000 dry tons of sand that was hauled into Bayfront Park last year and built in front of the existing rock fill. “We must have all the amenities in the park to fulfill its intended purpose.”
The additional NRDA funds will be established to fund amenities, which include a new boardwalk, pavilions, restrooms and park office and parking lot, among others.
Blankenship said the boardwalk will also feature interactive learning exhibits, which will be added during the next phase.
Although the beach could be opened without the park features, “I think it would (miss) it,” Blankenship said. “When we do these projects, we have to do them right where we can all be proud of them. It will be there for decades to come.”
Blankenship said his fellow NRDA trustees — which include representatives from federal agencies like the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — agree that it’s important to “make good improvements to the park.” no compromises on the overall project.
“We didn’t want to cut out the project elements,” Blankenship said.
County officials believe the result will be a project that could become a beach destination north of the more touristy destination of Dauphin Island.
“It’s going to be a great park,” said Mobile County Commissioner Randall Dueitt. “People talk about Baldwin County and if you’ve ever been to The Grand Hotel (in Point Clear) you’ll see they have a similar pocket park. I am proud to say that we now have the most beautiful pocket beach in Mobile Bay.”
Bayfront Park will remain closed for the time being. It has been closed since last March when construction of the new beach began.
Sanchez said she’s not sure when it might reopen, but estimates sometime in 2024. She said bidding to build the park’s facilities would go out sometime in the coming weeks. Once a contractor is hired, a timeline for completing the park will be announced.
“We’re going to speed it up and see how quickly we can get the job done,” she said.
The project is expected to be completed ahead of Brookley by the Bay, the City of Mobile’s beachfront project.
Related: Brookley by the Bay: Mobile starts collecting dreams for park lots
The 98-acre park along the west shore of Mobile Bay, east of the Mobile Aeroplex in Brookley, is set to become the focal point of a city-owned and operated beach. It will be in close proximity to the new Mobile International Airport when it opens sometime in 2025.
A master plan for the city beach project is set to be released next month.
“I see multiple jurisdictions in Mobile County working toward the same purpose of improving public access to enjoy water near our homes,” Sanchez said.