Gulf Tourism Boost Bills Get Hearings Today

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February 27, 2013 by   - () Leave a Comment

A view of the beach at Gulf Start Park in Alabama in the area where a major convention center is being proposed. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

A sandy white stretch of Gulf State Park beach located on Alabama's Gulf Coast could soon become the site of a long-discussed large hotel and conference center.

Legislative committees today (Feb. 27) will hold public hearings at the Alabama State House in Montgomery on bills by Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne, and Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Gulf Shores, designed to pave the way for the project, reported.

Pittman and McMillan said a beachside hotel and conference center would provide revenue to buoy the entire parks system, boost tourism dollars and allow large groups to hold their meetings in Alabama instead of going to neighboring Florida.

“It will create a huge economic impact for the whole state,” McMillan said.

“We know for fact that we are missing out on a lot of in-state groups that would like to meet in Alabama, but there is not a facility large enough to accommodate their needs,” McMillan said.

The legislation would allow the state to seek proposals from companies to build a hotel on the 29 acres of beach where Gulf State Park lodge stood before it was knocked down by Hurricane Ivan. The state could also use BP settlement money to build a conference center.

Any projects would have to be approved by the governor, state commissioner of conservation and a majority of the Joint Legislative Committee on State Parks, according to the legislation. The land could be leased for up to 99 years but could not be sold.

However, not everyone is a fan of the idea.

Charley Grimsley, the former state conservation commissioner who won a long legal battle with former Gov. Bob Riley over a previous attempt to develop the site, called it “the worst piece of legislation I’ve ever seen.”

“State parks weren't designed for the rich and powerful. They were designed for the enjoyment of the average Alabamians. It would turn Gulf State Park into a playground for the rich,” Grimsley said.

This map shows the concentration of accommodations (blue pins) and dining facilities (orange pins) along Alabama's Gulf Coast. Despite all this development, there is no large convention center, which causes the area to lose potential trade to nearby Pensacola, Fla., located just to the east. Jagged white line at right marks the boundary between Alabama and Florida Map courtesy of Google.

Grimsley said a luxury hotel there would be out of reach for many Alabamians and he said the legislation would allow a “back-room deal” to develop a prized asset without requiring competitive bids.

“It’s too much temptation for the sultans of greed as I called them. It’s like a dog looking through a meat house window."

The Perdido Beach Resort, a convention hotel in Orange Beach, has also been an opponent of the project.

The project has been discussed for years, particularly since Hurricane Ivan destroyed the lodge in 2004. Riley proposed to replace the lodge with a 350-room luxury hotel and conference center on land that would be leased to Auburn University.

Pittman said most of the stretch of beach would remain untouched and the development would have about the same footprint of the old lodge site. He said the park's cabins and campgrounds would also remain as a cheaper beach stay option.

Pittman said the development would provide revenue to the state park system.

“You have to have revenue to maintain grounds, trails and the other amenities,” Pittman said.

McMillan said officials envision a hotel with about 300-350 rooms and a conference center that could seat about 1,000 for dinner.

The House Economic Development and Tourism Committee meets at 1:30 p.m. The Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee meets at 2 p.m.


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