An inspired exercise in sustainable economic development, Alabama Black Belt Adventures is capitalizing on a wellspring of outdoor recreational resources and cultural tourism. Some of Alabama’s biggest names in outdoor sports are contributing their enthusiasm.
Montgomery businessman Thomas Harris sees untapped black gold in Alabama—not in hidden oil deposits, but in the enriched coffee-colored earth unique to the Black Belt region. His vision two years ago to share his appreciation of Alabama’s natural resources—from monster bass to trophy bucks—has led to a movement designed to re-brand the state’s Black Belt as a hunting and tourism destination, drawing revenue to a region long lacking much-needed income. An initiative for Alabama Black Belt Adventures aims to reel in the dollars currently being lost to other states that have more aggressively promoted hunting opportunities.
Harris says for the Black Belt area, which lacks the workforce necessary to support industry, such as an automotive plant, it’s crucial to use target marketing in aiming for the state to bag its share of the $76 billion spent on hunting and fishing in the nation.
Just as the Robert Trent Jones golf trail draws golfers to its links, Alabama Black Belt Adventures anticipates the green fields, old growth forests and lakes and ponds will attract outdoorsmen. The 23-county area encompassed by the Black Belt already has more than 50 commercial lodges, and Harris anticipates that number will grow as other landowners realize the state has taken its marketing of Alabama’s outdoor assets to a national level.
“Hunters and fishermen travel all over the world for sport,” Harris says. “We want to become a quality destination for outdoor recreation. We’ve got deer, dove, duck, quail and a hunting season in Alabama that lasts seven months out of year. That’s unique in the country. And we have fishing virtually 12 months out of the year.”
Through conversations with the Alabama Wildlife Federation and the Alabama Department of Conversation, as well as the Black Belt Commission, Harris was instrumental in forming a team of business, political and educational leaders to investigate the potential.
“We had focus groups and met with land owners,” Harris says. ‘We did a lot of research to make sure our idea was something we could deliver. When you rebrand a region of the country, that’s no small effort. It takes time, but we’re off to a really good start. I just got back from the southeast wildlife Expo in Charleston, and we had hundreds and hundreds of people coming to our booth to learn about this new initiative. I think our commercial hunting lodges are going to start seeing a business uptick soon. I think this is the best thing we can do for the Black Belt, and it doesn’t take a lot of money to do the marketing for outdoor recreation.”
Harris says “every job is important in the Black Belt if we are to preserve the rural landscape. The eco-tourism dollars that flow through these areas have greater multiples of impact than metro areas. You also don't have to build the expensive infrastructure of super highways, water and sewer, plants and schools.”
Harris says incentive dollars to brand and promote the Black Belt are negligible compared to those required to lure an automotive plant to the state. Already, Alabama Black Belt Adventures is being actively advertised and reaching the consumers who will bring their dollars to the state.
Harris credits the support of Retirement Systems of Alabama CEO David Bronner in giving a boost to marketing through Raycom Media and Community Newspaper Holdings, two RSA-invested media chains, which are spreading the word about the initiative through TV and newspaper advertising. He also credits the contributions of legendary sportsmen Ray Scott, founder of Bass Anglers Sportsman’s Society (BASS), and Jackie Bushman, of Buckmasters.
Scott, a board member, knows quite a bit about branding, having elevated bass to big game.
According to Scott, when Harris, “the daddy of the whole darn thing,” approached him about Black Belt Adventures, his immediate perception was that the idea tapped rare natural resources that were being under-utilized.
"This soil produces wild life, because the plant life they eat is so rich," says Scott. "It not only works for wildlife, but for fish, because the ponds and lakes are more productive if they are built in that soil compound. The Black Belt has been a sleeper, but now we’re attracting people in, and we have a state full of all sorts of fascinating sites to see.”
“We intend to highlight other tourism potential, such as Gee’s Bend, unique boutiques, Southern cooking fare restaurants,” says Pam Swanner, project manager for Alabama Black Belt Adventures. “This project will have a domino effect. We will bring business in to stay at hotels and lodges, to spend their money at restaurants and stores. They will need to buy fuel, shotgun shells, any items they need for the recreational activity they are going to engage in.”
“There’s so much to see, but we’ve got to create an attraction for them to get off and spend time and money,” Scott says. “That Hwy. 65 is an industry, but you’ve got to put a saddle on it. I’m excited as heck about it. If we put a saddle on it, it will ride and ride, and we will take this state to glory. We have hunting and fishing as good as any where in the world.”