One of the most beautiful tracts in Alabama, a sandy white stretch at Gulf State Park, could become the site of a large hotel and conference center.
Bills pending in the Legislature would let the state use compensation from the BP oil spill fund to build a conference center and let a private developer to build an adjoining hotel. The goal of Gov. Robert Bentley and other proponents is to create a site on the Alabama coast that can attract large conventions like those now drawn to Sandestin in the Florida Panhandle and other Gulf coast sites.
"This will benefit not only the coast but also the entire state," Bentley said Friday.
Opponent says it's a giveaway of valuable state land and a sign the state is abandoning the long-held position that state parks should be affordable for the average Alabama family.
"Alabama's state parks were built for all of the people to enjoy, not just rich people who can afford to sit on their balconies and drink martinis and thump their cigar ashes on a beach that belongs to all of the people of Alabama," said Charley Grimsley, who oversaw state parks when he served as state conservation commissioner between 1993 and 1994.
The sponsors of the legislation, Republican Sen. Trip Pittman of Daphne and Republican Rep. Steve McMillan of Gulf Shores, say a convention complex at the state park would generate badly needed revenue to operate other state parks during tough budget times and would boost tourism and tax income in Alabama's biggest vacation spot.
"We are losing millions and millions a year," McMillan said.
Some officials in Montgomery and in Baldwin County have long dreamed of having a hotel and conference center at Gulf State Park that is big enough to compete for large conventions like those now going to Sandestin. That vision gained momentum in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan wrecked the beachside lodge at Gulf State Park, which had accommodated small conventions.
The Perdido Beach Resort, a convention hotel in Orange Beach, has been a consistent opponent. The hotels' owner, Grimsley and others successfully sued to block plans by former Gov. Bob Riley's administration to let an Atlanta company operate a convention hotel at Gulf State Park. The group already operates the Hotel at Auburn University. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled the plans didn't abide by state law.
An attorney for Perdido Beach Resort, former Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley, said the legislation would put his client out of business, and it ignores the fact that Sandestin was built with private money, not state money.
"If it were feasible to do something like that in Gulf Shores or Orange Beach, private enterprise would have already done it," he said.
The legislation would allow the state to seek proposals from companies interested in building a hotel on the 29 acres of beachfront where the Gulf State Park Lodge once stood. The governor, state conservation commissioner and a legislative committee would have to approval a proposal. They could also reject all proposals and negotiate a deal with one of the companies. The company would not own the beachside property, but could get a lease of up to 99 years.
Baxley said the legislation throws out the idea of government accountability because it exempts the hotel project from many of the safeguards in state law, including bid requirements and the approval of construction plans by the State Building Commission.
McMillan said officials envision a hotel of 300-350 rooms and a conference center that could seat 1,000 to 1,500 for dinner.
For Bentley, the project would mean keeping a promise he made in his first news conference after being elected governor in November 2010: Building a convention complex on the coast that would attract Alabama groups now holding conventions at Sandestin because their meetings are too big for any of Alabama's beachfront hotels.
McMillan and Pittman are optimistic because, unlike past years, the state has an opportunity to build the conference center with BP money instead of tax dollars.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to use money intended for Mobile and Baldwin counties and benefit the entire state with it," McMillan said.
His bill is scheduled for consideration by a House committee Wednesday. If the Legislature passes it, construction isn't likely to start soon. That's because Baxley said his client will be filing suit again.