Melissa Nelson-Gabriel, The Associated Press, October 12, 2015
MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — Antebellum architecture, pre-Civil War Spanish and French forts, a rich history as a vibrant sea port and an emerging art and music scene make Mobile, Alabama, a great destination for tourists wanting to experience Southern culture and history.
But locals say their Gulf Coast enclave has long been overlooked by tourists lured west by New Orleans and east by the glistening beaches of the Florida Panhandle.
"We have had this reputation for many years as a city of perpetual potential because we haven't been able to put everything together to become a great Southern destination city," says George Talbot, longtime area resident and spokesman for the city's mayor.
Talbot laments that Mobile has never gotten the attention given to such Southern tourism hubs as Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina. But things are changing for the better in this city of towering magnolia and live oak trees, which bills itself as "The Birthplace of Mardi Gras."
Carnival Cruise Line just announced it is returning service to the city after pulling out of Mobile in 2011, the French Airliner Airbus opened a $600 million assembly plant here in 2014, and the region's steel manufacturing and shipping industries are doing well. The city opened the GulfQuest Maritime Museum, a museum dedicated to the maritime history of the Gulf of Mexico, next to the city's now-abandoned Alabama Cruise Terminal in September.
"What Carnival has said is that Mobile is a different city from when they left in 2011," Talbot said. "They are pleased to see our economy has picked up. There is a new economic vitality."
The 2,056-passenger Carnival Fantasy will begin offering four-and-five-day cruises to Mexican ports in November 2016.
The city decided to build the $20 million, 65,000-square foot passenger terminal in 2004 with hopes of luring cruise business to the region. Officials have said the city was losing about $5,000 a day in interest on the building after Carnival departed. In the absence of passenger cruises, the city rented the building for weddings, reunions and other events.
When Carnival left in 2011, the Gulf Coast was reeling from the massive 2010 oil spill, struggling with the national economic downturn and still recovering from the devastation brought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Nearly five years later, longtime residents say the city has new vibrancy due to a steadily improving regional economy and new investments in the region.
Musician Lisa Mills entertained a crowd gathered in Mobile's Bienville Square during a recent lunchtime benefit concert for a local charity.
"What we have here is a little hidden gem," she said.
Mobile offers a rich history, architecture and Southern charm that is similar to New Orleans but has a more authentic and relaxed feel, she said.
Mobile resident and audience member Julie Pittman agreed.
"Some of the best musicians on the Gulf Coast are here," she said. "For about the last 15 years we have seen a real emergence of the art and music scene downtown."
The A&M Peanut Shop has operated on Dauphin street in downtown Mobile since 1947. Owner Deborah DeGuire's father began managing the store in 1949 before buying it in 1963.
DeGuire had a steady flow of tourists and regular customers on a recent weekday. Things are looking up for downtown Mobile, she said, noting that the return of the cruise line is even more good news for an area that has seen new stores, restaurants and other businesses opening in recent years.
"When Carnival left in 2011, we saw about a 10 to 15 percent drop in our business," she said. Business has picked up with the ongoing revitalization of the downtown, and she anticipates things will get even better with the return of regular cruise ship departures.
"There will be a lot of disappointed people around here if the Carnival cruises don't work out this time," she said.
This article was written by MELISSA NELSON-GABRIEL from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.