Alabama Gulf Convention Center Gets 1st OK
The Alabama House Economic Development and Tourism Committee on Wednesday (Feb. 27) voted 13-2 for legislation to let the state partner with a private developer to build a hotel and convention center on prime beachfront real estate in Gulf State Park on the Gulf of Mexico.
Proponents said the project will boost tourism revenue and allow large groups to hold their meetings in Alabama instead of going to neighboring Florida, al.com reported.
The legislation has the backing of Gov. Robert Bentley's administration. Conservation Commissioner Gunter Guy said large associations now head to Florida for their meetings because there is no place on the Alabama coast to accommodate them.
“We need to keep that business in Alabama. We need to keep those tax dollars in Alabama,” Guy said.
The legislation involves the 29 acres of beach where Gulf State Park lodge stood before it was knocked down after Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Under the bill, the state could either build the facility, partner with a private developer on the project or lease the land to a private developer to build the project.
The land could be leased for up to 99 years but could not be sold.
Guy said they envision a hotel with 300-350 rooms and meeting space for 1,000 to 2,000 people. He said state oil spill funds could be used to help build the convention center.
But opponents of the bill said public land should be open to average Alabamians.
Former Conservation Commissioner Charley Grimsley said the proposal would take the “most beloved” piece of Alabama land and build a private hotel on it that many Alabamians could not afford.
“Remember the little girl with her sand bucket,” Grimsley told committee members.
“If this bill passes, she won't be building sand castles there anymore unless her family can afford to stay at the Ritz-Carlton," Grimsley said.
Supporters disputed that the average person would be priced off the beach.
Bill sponsor Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Gulf Shores, said there is 3 1/2 miles of beachfront at the park and the project site would take up half a mile of that beach frontage.
Other opponents of the project included the Perdido Beach Resort, a hotel in Orange Beach that hosts large groups.
Any projects would have to be approved by the governor, the state commissioner of conservation and a majority of the Joint Legislative Committee on State Parks.
A legislator who opposed the bill said that wasn't enough oversight.
"I'm not willing to give the most valuable piece of property in this state to be controlled by so few people," Rep. Daniel Boman, D-Sulligent, said.
Alabama Tourism Director Lee Sentell called the legislation a jobs bill. Right now, all the jobs are in Florida, he said.
“If you are for tourism in Florida, please vote against this bill,” Sentell said.