Waterfront Development Could Be Boon for Fishing Village

Wed August 17, 2005 - Southeast Edition
Garry Mitchell - Associated Press

BAYOU LA BATRE (AP) An overhaul of this quiet fishing village near the Alabama-Mississippi border into an upscale retreat by coastal developer Tim James has been embraced by local officials seeking to diversify its declining seafood-dependent economy.

Life in hurricane-vulnerable Bayou La Batre has long revolved around seafood processing and shipyard activity. In the early 1900s, however, the town had a thriving tourism economy, and James hopes to revive it by building picturesque oak-shaded housing and businesses.

James, the son of former Gov. Fob James, would build condominiums and a marina, demolishing the older section of town for a park. A Seattle-style fish market on boardwalks with restaurants and coffee shops would line the road.

The James group includes the French firm Charles M. Legler Architects. They hope to preserve the “Forrest Gump” ambiance of the bayou, chiefly its shrimp, crab and oyster boats plying narrow waterways and inlets.

Some locals also have suggestions.

“They need to build the foundations higher because of flooding,” said Dewayne Buie, flipping on a video camera that shows floodwater damages inside his Indoor Flea Market on Shell Belt Road, which leads down to the shipyards.

Buie’s small shop is one of the few businesses still open on this main street.

Mayor Stan Wright, who operates an oyster business, said the town — population 2,741 last year — has an annual budget of about $2.5 million.

“There are a lot of hardworking people here who need to diversify into something other than seafood,” he said, citing the high cost of boat fuel and current low prices for shrimp.

The James project, with a $200 million price tag, calls for the purchase of city-owned waterfront land appraised at $10.3 million, but while discussions continue there has been no agreement on that sale yet, the mayor said.

Edmond “Buddy” Eslava of Mobile, who appraised the land for the town, said the James project already has driven up some land prices.

“Not everything in Bayou La Batre is going to be affected,” he said. But he described the project as an “outstanding opportunity” for the town at a time when its shipbuilding and fishing industry have declined.

Eslava said James’ proposals are a “win-win for the city.”

“If he can pull it off, it will be one of the most staggering success stories to hit the Gulf Coast,” Eslava predicted.

James and his partner, Mobile attorney Braxton Counts, said the project can’t proceed without buying the city property, where some of the condominiums would be built on the empty landscape.

“That would be the anchor,” Counts said.

The deal also hinges on presales of the condominiums, Counts said.

James, of Greenville, a one-time gubernatorial candidate, is no novice to Alabama coastal development projects: With partners he built the toll bridge into Orange Beach. At Bayou La Batre, he also has pledged to build a new, city-owned sewage processing plant, a key to the redevelopment.

James said approximately 70 percent of the property for the overall project has been secured.

“We still have a few landowners who are very important to the project and we hope they come on board,” James said. “People get excited. Expectations rise. I have to be honest and look people in the eye and say it’s a tough project and by no means a done deal.”

More than 1,000 condos could be built, he said, but that number isn’t firm.

“It’s a function of land planning,” he said.

The mayor looks forward to the overhaul, describing the bayou as a “unique community.”

“We don’t have white sand beaches, but we have more to offer than barrier islands,” Wright said. The waterway’s channel can accommodate 100-ft. yachts, he said, a route to the Mississippi Sound and Gulf of Mexico. It’s also near an Interstate 10 exit.

The bayou of Bayou La Batre has a tidal stream about nine miles long and empties into the Mississippi Sound. In perfect weather, there are inspiring views from Lightning Point Park of wetlands and Dauphin Island. The annual blessing of the fishing fleet, which includes a colorful boat parade, is about the only time tourist come here in large numbers.

And gentle waves here can turn hostile during storms.

“Very few people stay in the bayou when it storms,” said 80-year-old Katie Samuel, who has lived here for 46 years and has a fishing heritage. She had heard about the James project, but knew few of its details.

But word about it has spread across the bayou like a rising tide.

Brett Dungan, vice president of the Bayou La Batre Area Chamber of Commerce, representing 70 businesses, said James has met with the chamber, which supports the project, hopeful it will enhance existing businesses.

Dungan, president of Master Marine, a shipbuilding and repair firm, also serves as chairman of the Alabama Shrimp Marketing Board. He said the area economy fluctuates with the price of shrimp and business leaders welcome a project that will diversify the economy.

Pete Barber, a spokesman for the seafood industry, said the downturn in the fishing economy may be fueling support for the James project.

“It’s kind of telling that in this town that’s very, very anti-change, the automatic knee-jerk negative few just aren’t there,” Barber said. “I think it’s because we’ve experienced a downturn in fishing and are looking for anything that would be positive economically.”

The project was aired at a public hearing that drew little opposition. A giant map of the bayou with the newly designed harbor areas remains on display at City Hall.

Shipbuilder Joey Rodriguez, who owns property tied to the James project, said businesses leasing space on the waterway may oppose the changes that James will bring, but he expects that “every job we lose to his development, I think we’ll gain four.”

He said the new jobs will be in restaurants, boating and tourism-related activities.

“It will increase all our property values, especially if you have waterfrontage,” Rodriguez predicted.

If all the property is purchased, some construction could begin next year.

“I think it would be good. People around here wouldn’t be living in those places. But it sounds good job-wise,” said Donna Herrera, a clerk in a church-run thrift store.

There aren’t many For Sale signs on property here.

“Most people in the bayou when they see dollar signs, they are going to move out,” said bait shop clerk Pearl Bosarge, who can look out the store door and see some of the city property sought by the James group.

Handling the flood threat will be a major challenge for the developers. Bosarge said the floodwaters during Tropical Storm Cindy were hip-high in the store parking lot.

Before the large shipbuilding and seafood processing plants, tourists stayed in hotels in the bayou from about 1900-1940, said Greg Marshall, a ship supply dealer whose business would be helped by the James project.

“I’m a true believer in his vision,” Marshall said. “It’s a huge undertaking.”