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Helping Innovators Grow Roots

April 22, 2024 · Stories

Alabama is paradise for outdoor enthusiasts: From the Appalachian foothills to the sandy shores of the Gulf

In early September, as the sky shifted from blue to gold in Gulf Shores, Alabama, visitors at the nationally-acclaimed Gulf State Park were in for a surprise.

People congregated along the beach for the day’s final swim, a walk to the pier, or a dinner picnic. The water was cool and clear, the air warm. People from all over the U.S. had gathered at the park’s state-of-the-art, eco-friendly resort, the Lodge, for a weeklong conference with the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA). Conference attendees joined visitors who came from around the world to enjoy the 6,500-acre park with more than 28 miles of paved trails through Lake Shelby wetlands.

As the sun set, a couple wading in the water watched the sandpipers trot along the soft white sand, a flock of pelicans flew overhead, and then, toward the horizon, the couple spotted a fin.

“Is that…?” the man yelled to a nearby, local fisherman, who nodded, reeling in his line. There was excitement as others saw it, too: a shark was 50 yards offshore. They watched as the fin came closer.

The man, who first spotted the fin, had traveled from Michigan with his wife to stay at the Lodge for the weekend. His wife, who uses crutches because of a neurological disorder, chose the Lodge for its accessibility and the convenience of multiple restaurants on site.

“Who knew this kind of resort was in Alabama?” she joked. “We’re having a blast.”

Over the next few days, that sentiment — “who knew Alabama had this?” — was echoed repeatedly by guests of the conference, writers, editors and photojournalists, many of whom travel the world for work but had never been to Alabama and were learning firsthand why the state is called “Alabama the Beautiful.” The nickname’s history is rooted in both the warmth of the people, wonderful culture (from James Beard winning-restaurants to Grammy-award winning musician-led festivals), and the stunning natural beauty.

To Alabamians, living mere minutes from paradise is just one of the many perks of calling the state home. From the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to the white sandy beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, Alabama’s geography offers diverse and accessible ways to get outdoors.

Most Alabamians are only a short drive away from the ecologically diverse waterways or breathtaking mountain trails. These locations make for the perfect post-work R&R or easy weekend getaways: stunning views in exciting spaces for mountain bikers, hikers, kayakers, or climbers. Whether you’re into a quiet afternoon birdwatching as whooping cranes dip over the Tennessee River or bouldering at renowned Horse Pens Forty, Alabama is home for the outdoors lover.

When the conference ended, OWAA Executive Director Chez Chesak said, “Every attendee we talked to — and I mean every single one — had only great things to say about their time in Gulf Shores and all around Alabama. So, I’d say that the conference was a total smash hit.”

The conference was sponsored, in part, by Innovate Alabama, a statewide public-private partnership focused on entrepreneurship, innovation and technology. Outdoor recreation is one of Innovate Alabama’s key focus areas for entrepreneurs seeking a place to build their business, to put down roots — and having fun doing so. Talent attraction and retention is much easier when a founder can advertise coming to work for them isn’t just about the job, but also tout what Alabama has to offer outside the hours of 9 to 5.

Sustainable innovation in Alabama must go beyond businesses. It’s about investing in people. Innovate Alabama is leveraging the state’s natural beauty to create a vibrant, diverse innovation ecosystem — by introducing tools to connect innovators with their communities and the outdoors, ensuring an unparalleled way of life. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, innovator, or along for the ride, you’ll find a supportive community and the resources to thrive here. That’s why Innovate Alabama is actively investing in the sector.

Our rural communities, in particular, are home to a number of natural resources waiting for the right visionary to create even more opportunities for people to get outdoors.

“We’re investing several hundred million dollars in our state parks,” said Chris Blankenship, the Alabama commissioner for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, who chairs Innovate Alabama’s Council on Outdoor Recreation. Now, he said, the state wants to partner with outdoors innovators.

“We have all these great assets,” Blankenship said, adding that many smaller communities don’t yet have the infrastructure to make for a dynamic outdoor experience. “In Anniston, for instance, in Coldwater Mountain, on the Forever Wild Program, we have great bike trails, but with a little more money put into that, we can get it to a gold or silver standard. And we need companies to come in to transport people from the bottom of the mountain to the top, a shuttle service. Or a bike repair shop. Or even food trucks to come in on big weekends.”

Innovate Alabama has been instrumental in the development of businesses across the state through its grant and tax credit programs, as well as fostering a statewide network for entrepreneurs, researchers and innovators.

CEO of Innovate Alabama, Cynthia Crutchfield, said the organization will begin grant funding “specifically for outdoor recreation to start fueling growth in that space.” With 13 recommendations from the Council on Outdoor Recreation, Innovate Alabama is actively engaged in enhancing the state’s attractiveness for a skilled workforce.

Alabama, which is 70% forest land, has incredible natural beauty, Crutchfield said, adding that people moving to the state — whether to work for a university or tech startup — will be looking for ways to get outdoors to exercise, explore and relax. Alabama’s investment and growth in outdoor recreation will allow just that.

Crutchfield said the organization is committed to ensuring people who move to Alabama to invest, to bring their great ideas and game-changing companies, will have an outdoor space where they can play as hard as they work.

About 200 miles north of the Gulf State Park in the state’s Black Belt, named for its nutrient dense soil, Christopher Joe is a third-generation Black farmer now operating a birding tour service on the land of his family’s farm. A regular stop for Audubon tours, the site attracts birders from all over the country who are interested in spotting a painted bunting or a scissor-tailed flycatcher.

To the northeast in Birmingham, the mountains where miners once dug for iron ore are now home to trails, nature conservancies and businesses like RideBHM. Located at Red Mountain Park, less than a 20-minute drive from Birmingham’s bustling downtown and innovation district, RideBHM is a downhill mountain bike park where novices can rent gear, including e-bikes, to try out a path, and advanced riders can shred a double black diamond trail.

Another 90 miles north, the Singing River Trail offers more than 200 miles of greenways through the Tennessee River Valley. But the Singing River Trail, a member of Innovate Alabama’s statewide network of catalysts, is more than the name suggests — it’s spurring innovation and startup activity across North Alabama.

In collaboration with regional economic development partnership Launch 2035, Singing River Trail created a pitch competition targeted at outdoor recreation business concepts. Mike and Meeka Fellows won a LaunchTank grant for their small business, Selah’s Acres, a glamping site in Hazel Green, a 20-minute drive from fast-growing Huntsville, home to NASA, Boeing, HudsonAlpha and other giants of innovation.

During the height of the pandemic, the Fellows were inspired to simplify their lives. They sold their large suburban home and moved into a camper van with their four children. The experience was so life-giving, they decided they wanted others to experience what unplugging from the hustle-and-bustle of everyday life and reconnecting with nature — and other people — can do for you.

“I’m surprised by the hunger for fellowship that people have,” Meeka Fellows said. “They miss community.”

At Selah’s Acres, campers stay on an old farm, in the forest near a babbling creek, but they’re also in air-conditioned yurts on comfortable beds where breakfast is served. Many of the visitors are Alabamians, folks who live within an hour’s drive, who are looking to unplug and experience Alabama’s great outdoors.

Back on the white sand beach in Gulf Shores, as the sun finally set over the gentle turquoise tide, the people who spotted the shark together made plans to meet at the bar to watch a football game the next night. The fisherman showed a little girl what he was using for bait. A group of women swapped tips for walking the trails on a hot weekend.

Alabama’s great outdoors brings people together and rivals the overtrodden destinations that require a trek from the nearest city in other parts of the nation. Whether you seek solitude on a sandy beach, belly-hurting laughter around a campfire or the thrills of a mountain biking trail, you can find it all in Alabama.

Alabama is a remarkable frontier of innovation — discover how you can grow roots here. Bring your idea. Your business. Your product. In Alabama, you’ll get the support of a community committed to seeing you succeed. Whatever it is, we’re in. To learn more about Innovate Alabama and the robust resources available for founders, researchers and students in Alabama, visit If you’re a small business looking for capital or a funder looking for low-risk portfolio additions, click here to learn more about Alabama’s SSBCI program.

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