By Martha Simmons
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
Sugar white sands, warm blue waters and great seafood aren’t the only selling points city leaders want to emphasize in marketing Alabama’s Gulf Coast beaches: “Family-friendly” is key to the brand.
Orange Beach and Gulf Shores have worked for years to protect that image and avoid the kind of hard-partying reputation drawing hordes of college students to beach towns in neighboring Florida.
For instance a 2013 Orange Beach ordinance banned public display of particularly naughty T-shirts and trinkets, resulting in area souvenir shops removing the blush-inducing items from their stores in both communities.
Baldwin Baptist Association also ensures families are a focus of its Gulf Area Resort Ministry (GARM), said Rick Ellison, Baldwin’s associational mission strategist.
“We feel that our beach area is really a missions field,” Ellison said. “We use every opportunity to minister to families and to share the gospel.”
The association works to ensure no shortage of worship services for seasonal visitors exists, Ellison said, offering multiple Sunday services at state parks, RV parks and on the beach.
“Baldwin Baptist Association churches reach out in these resort communities in different ways,” GARM director Nate Diehl said. “Individually churches are reaching out on their own as part of their regular ministry efforts. They connect wherever the door is open to do so.”
For instance the Beach Outreach teams from First Baptist, Gulf Shores, engage in one-on-one evangelism on the beach throughout the summer and spring break, and offer prayer, transportation services and food to those in need.
“On the beaches we provide bottled water labeled with Scripture, salvation bracelets, face painting and other things in an effort to connect with visitors and share Jesus with them,” Diehl said. “Often we are able to have prayer with families or individuals when those connections are made and the gospel is presented.
“Our effort is friendly and free and often seems to be an encouragement to those we are able to serve.
“In local RV parks we provide free day camps for kids, block parties, movie nights, worship services, concerts and more,” Diehl said. “We connect through local community events such as the Shrimp Festival and the Baldwin County Fair with the partnership of volunteers from local churches. The local churches connect with similar events in their various communities throughout the county.
“Volunteers and support from Baldwin Baptist churches, along with churches visiting from outside of our area, help to make a difference in the resort community,” Diehl added, “providing a light in the midst of the darkness in people’s lives.”
Alabama’s family-friendly brand was threatened a couple of years ago when a Florida beach town’s excesses finally came home to roost.
Panama City Beach’s national reputation took a blow in 2015 when a deeply disturbing cell phone video surfaced of an intoxicated teen girl being gang-raped in broad daylight while hundreds of young partiers did nothing to intervene.
In response the Florida Panhandle beach town — long the setting for cable TV’s raunchy reality shows depicting spring break debauchery — enacted laws to crack down on spring breakers, prompting many of them to seek new, more lax locales for their next annual revelry.
The following year youthful hordes descended on Gulf Shores and Orange Beach bringing with them a host of behaviors that definitely didn’t fit the towns’ “family-friendly” brand.
Officers more accustomed to dealing with comparatively sedate tourists suddenly faced massive gatherings of rowdy students on the beaches leading to hundreds of arrests.
“During the first several days of spring break 2016, (Gulf Shores Police Department) encountered numerous issues with large groups of spring breakers binge drinking, using illegal narcotics and creating a dangerous atmosphere for themselves and other visitors,” Chief Ed Delmore said in a report to the city council. “The potential for large scale confrontations with police officers existed in a very real way.”
City leaders scrambled for a solution to the sudden siege. Orange Beach beefed up patrols and enforcement of existing laws, while Gulf Shores implemented a ban on all alcohol on the beaches during spring break. Both cities’ tactics quickly improved the situation and spring break arrests have dropped substantially each ensuing year.
For 2019 the alcohol ban on Gulf Shores beaches was expanded to 58 days to match the spring break calendars of the majority of schools and colleges with students typically visiting the area. The original ban in 2017 lasted 33 days.
Although Orange Beach hasn’t banned alcohol on its beaches Mayor Tony Kinnon amped up warnings this year that zero tolerance would be allowed for underage drinking, disorderly conduct and illegal drug use, and undercover officers and other methods would be employed to enforce the city’s ordinances.
Sleeping in cars or on the beach; playing loud, offensive music; having alcohol at the state park; digging large holes in the sand or having glass containers on the beach are some of the infractions that could result in a run-in with local law enforcement.
“For those looking for a party town during spring break Orange Beach is not it,” Kinnon said in a widely circulated statement. “There will be no warnings, no mulligans, pour-outs or do-overs. If you are drinking under age, if you are using illegal drugs, misbehaving or are publicly intoxicated you will go to jail.
“We will not compromise our family-friendly brand for a buck.”