Shop Small, Shop Local

The Wharf in Orange Beach has become a central part of the town’s budding community where people come to shop, dine, listen to great music, and participate in all manner of sportfishing tournaments. I sat down recently with Jim Bibby, Owner Representative at The Wharf, and Mary Kate Lantrip, Social Media Manager, to learn more about The Wharf’s impact on tourism and residents in the area.

“In 2006, Orange Beach was not even incorporated when The Wharf was first conceived and then developed,” says Jim. He arrived in Orange Beach in 1985, serving as Orange Beach’s first Chief of Police. He now serves on the board of the South Baldwin County Chamber of Commerce (Secretary) and is the Chairman of the Coastal Alabama Chamber of Commerce.

He is also Vice-Chairman of the Gulf United Metro Business Organization (GUMBO) and serves on the Executive Board of the Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance. To say he is pro-business is an understatement. That’s quite a list of civic services.

The Wharf didn’t start with a bang. As they say, its former developer had a great vision but was early to the party. The original development slipped into receivership, and a gentleman from Louisiana was approached to save the project. Enter Art Farve. He had been coming to Orange Beach for 18 years to fish and loved the area. 

Favre was pitched the idea that “if you don’t purchase The Wharf, it will end up like Bama Bayou across the Intercoastal Waterway,” a defunct development that The Wharf recently purchased after years of half-completed neglect. He had a vision for The Wharf property that is still being implemented today, including new amenities and features that make The Wharf a true destination property.

It was during Spring Break in 2012, after Favre acquired the property, that workers began laying fiber optic cable, hooked up power and added lights to Main Street’s palm trees, and breathed new life into The Wharf. Today, it's an upscale complex with a world-class marina, condos, a hotel, an event center, and an amphitheater that hosts huge musical acts throughout the year. Restaurants, shops, and offices line the streets, and it has become the de facto town center for the city of Orange Beach.

As Jim and Mary Kate tell me, they continue to innovate every day. “We want The Wharf to be a place where everyone can visit, be entertained, and make memories with family and friends,” Lantrip says. “No one is resting on their laurels as the Ice Rink is now a popular annual feature during Winter at The Wharf. The nightly Spectra Laser Light Show Experience and a fireworks display that happens every Monday evening throughout the summer attract families and are complimentary.”

“We have several sold-out concerts every year, with an average of 20 major musical acts taking the stage each season at The Wharf Amphitheater. Hank Williams Jr kicked off the first season after Art purchased the property, and we’ve never looked back,” says Jim. “Mr. Art is always reinvesting to keep The Wharf fresh and exciting.”

“We recently completed an upgrade to the marina adding high-speed fuel pumps, the fastest on the Gulf Coast,” says Jim. “Where it used to take several hours to refuel a yacht or sport fisher, it now takes about an hour.” The Ferris Wheel, an iconic feature at The Wharf, has been refurbished, and they upgrade the Ice Rink every year. “We have learned a lot about how Ice Rinks work and it’s a big attraction for families to come to The Wharf,” he says.

The event center at The Wharf was built and sold to the City of Orange Beach. It can seat 2500 people for business conferences and youth groups or it can be converted to an 1800-seat table venue for things like Mardi Gras balls and such. “It’s a great facility to have adjacent to everything else The Wharf offers. It makes a group event at The Wharf easy,” says Jim.

The nice thing about The Wharf is you never have to leave the property. You can rent a condo, attend a concert, swim in the pool with a lazy river, shop, dine, and go to one of several nightclubs, including the new upscale 8-Reale Speakeasy. Generally, you can park your car and enjoy a full weekend of activities on-site.

Jim describes The Wharf as a Charette, a French term that is described as a cart being pushed down a street. Along the way, people place items in the cart, and at the end of the street, something wonderful is created with all the ingredients. From a vacation or a shopping point of view, that’s a fair description. The Wharf was the first Entertainment District in the state of Alabama. Jim, Mary Kate, and the entire team are constantly adding free events for guests to enjoy throughout the year.

The holiday season is especially active with all sorts of family-friendly things to do and see. Then there are car shows, boat shows, and fishing tournaments in the spring and summer. In fact, Art, an avid sports fisherman once asked where the next generation of fishermen will come from. So they implemented a fun fishing tournament just for families called Kids Win.

Jim tells me, “It’s the only time we allow fishing from the docks. Friday night and Saturday morning kids can fish with mom and dad. Around noon, awards are given for the biggest fish, smallest fish, heaviest fish, and so forth. There is an award for everything. Families who have never fished in their lives get excited and exposed to fishing. The only rule is fish have to be caught on a hook. It’s all about the experience the family gets to share and everybody wins!” 

This annual kids' tournament also benefits Make-A-Wish Alabama and raised $17,500 this year to provide a wish for a special local child. Mary Kate tells me that this year they granted a trip to Disney World for a child. “One of the City’s fire trucks drove into Marlin Circle with a sign that said, ‘Your Wish is Granted.’ It’s a big opportunity that our entire community takes part in,” says Mary Kate. The Wharf hosts several big game tournaments which attract huge crowds at the weigh-in station.  

The popularity of these events is enormous. The Wharf has hosted 19 concerts this year. Eight have sold out. The Wharf Amphitheater has been nominated for multiple years by ACM Awards as Best Outdoor Venue. Concerts and events are big attractions with 10,000 people attending a concert at the venue and 5,000 spectators at the billfish tournaments. Of the 8 million visitors to the Gulf Shores/Orange Beach area each year, 3.9 million visit The Wharf. That’s over fifty percent.

Jim and Mary Kate tell me they always have their eyes and ears open for ideas to improve. They field a lot of questions and get a lot of suggestions from guests. “Fresh eyes help keep us fresh,” says Jim. “People who visit see it from a different perspective.”

We talk about the growth of the area in the last 30 years. “In 1985, as the new Chief of Police, I was pumping gas and a fellow next to me asked, “Are you a tourist or are you local?” I said, “I’m local.” He responded, “Do you have someone buried in the cemetery? Do you own a shrimp boat?” “No sir,” Jim replied. “Then you’re a damn tourist!”

“People were against growth in 1985. But it’s here because this is a great place to live. We work hard to give the visitors what they want and make it better every year. We are fortunate to have an owner like Mr. Art Farve who loves this area, and believes we can continue to make it better for everyone.” The Wharf is giving 25 acres to the City to help with growth. “We want to be good stewards,” says Jim. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Be sure to check out all the holiday events taking place through the end of the year, including photos with Santa and the big New Year’s Eve party. You can see everything on The Wharf’s website, or there is a printed list of all the holiday events that you can pick up at most retail shops and restaurants.

Thanks, Jim and Mary Kate! It was a pleasure to learn about the great things happening at The Wharf!  

Nov 29, 2023
Events That Inspire

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