ORANGE BEACH, AL (WSFA) - There is an old quote from an unknown author that says "In the waves of change we find our direction."
Jeremy and Robin Forsythe have no trouble finding their direction to Alabama's beaches every May. They never stopped making the 12-hour drive from St. Louis despite what happened eight years ago, a massive oil spill that leaked more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the warm waters of the Gulf and turned much of the coast into a ghost town.
The couple found it surreal and strange.
"There weren't many people at all," the Forsythes said. "We did see a little residue (tarballs) on the beach."
Jeremy and Robin have made this their destination vacation spot for years. They not only find the beaches inviting more than ever but affordable as well. The couple will end up spending around $1,600 for a 7-day visit. They booked a room about a mile or so from the beach to save money and so their puppy dog could stay with them.
"Just the atmosphere, the affordability, location to home," Jeremy said.
The Forsythes are the very people coastal cities have worked hard to lure back and convince them all is well and thriving.
"It took a number of summers to turn the corner," said Grant Brown, Public Information Officer for Gulf Shores.
And turn the corner Gulf Shores did. The city has since rebranded itself "'Small town, Big Beach."
What used to be a parking lot at the end of Highway 59 South in Gulf Shores is now the anchor of a new beachfront promenade; green space, wider sidewalks and an amphitheatre overlooking the gulf, a $15 million make-over to what Brown believes is the most important real estate in Alabama, the first of any real infrastructure change in 50 years.
"We believe this will create a retail boost to our local economy. New public safety building, 10-foot-wide sidewalks on the boulevard," said Brown.
Not to mention improved roads and bridges with modern, decorative railings and landscaping along the boulevard. Brown says the money spent for all this came from the city's general fund, not from the $7 million settlement from BP. That money was used to reimburse losses Gulf Shores and many of the businesses that suffered from the spill.
"Our economy has rebounded, businesses have seen an uptick in tourists, a good economic recovering in the last 6 years," Brown said.
"I think we've been found out enough," said Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon.
So good, in fact, we found Kennon moments away from breaking ground on a new $30 million middle/high school in Orange Beach.
"We have a wonderful community, but this now completes our community because we're now a multigenerational community instead of just being a retirement community," Kennon said.
Much like Gulf Shores, Orange Beach did not escape the spill's dirty reaches, a rocky time for Tony Kennon's native town, but not anymore. Fishermen are dropping their lines again and Orange Beach will spend its $15 million settlement from BP for the new Wolf Bay Bridge.
"That will move across the bay to the northern side and then there will be about 10,000 acres that will be annexed to the city of Orange Beach," said Kennon.
Restaurants, by and large, have rebounded as well.
"I think I'll have the fried shrimp," said a customer inside Desoto's Seafood Kitchen.
"For people to start coming back and to show we are going great, things are looking beautiful. We're okay now," said co-owner Rosemary Steele.
"And the seafood? We've been here nine years now and we've never gotten sick," said Robin Forsythe.
So much has changed in Gulf Shores in recent years. The city now sports a new waterway district and the Gulf State Park Hotel is being built as we speak.
Still on the drawing board as part of the city's Vision 2025 outlook are two major projects; the Coastal Alabama Center for Education Excellence which will feature a new high school and a new Faulkner State Community College campus. The Coastal Alabama Medical Complex is in the pipeline as well.
We circle back to Robin and Jeremy Forsythe on the last day of their vacation. They're already making plans to be back one year from now, a clear sign the fear of unknown has been washed away thanks to a major re-branding, time and nature's power to overcome.
Tourism leaders say the gulf coast has averaged more than 12 percent in economic growth per year since the spill. Alabama gulf coast tourism leaders also say they are easily averaging around 7 million visitors a year.