Special Report: The Long Wait to Rebuild

Nearly 10 years ago, a lucrative lodge and convention center at the Gulf State Park was completely destroyed by Hurricane Ivan. 

So, for the last 10 years, the State of Alabama has been fighting hard to make that happen, because many state officials feel the conference center is a way to draw revenue out of Florida beaches and back to the Alabama coast.

Bentley: “Ridiculous” to spend money across state lines

That includes Governor Robert Bentley.

“Even when I was campaigning I would go down to San Destin to speak to Alabama groups, and I thought ‘this is ridiculous’ that we’re spending our money in Florida,” said Governor Bentley, “I mean, I love Florida, but I want Alabamians to spend their money in Alabama.”

It all boils down to the manner in which the state wants to construct the new conference center and hotel.
Unlike the previous center that was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan, the State wants the new hotel to be constructed, and run, by a private developer.

Citizen groups file suit

That choice was made soon after the original conference center was destroyed. But, there were several opponents to the decision.

“I decided to file a suit on behalf of the citizens of Baldwin County, to get a judge’s opinion as to the legality of building the Gulf State Park the way the Governor wished to do it,” said David Whetstone, Former Baldwin County District Attorney.

Whetstone was one of two groups that took action against the state in 2005. Their case was that it was unlawful for private companies to develop on state land, and it led to a delay in construction.

He said the original plans were not in line with the law at the time.

“I thought it was a good idea before, but I thought it was reckless to risk a billion dollars of state revenue on something that was illegal, and eventually the supreme court of Alabama did declare it illegal,” said Whetstone.

After Whetstone won the case, the state sought to pass legislation to legalize the process of having a private developer build on park land.

“Theft of Alabama park lands”

The disastrous Gulf Oil Spill of 2010 unleashed another issue that posed a threat to construction, after state officials decided the convention center should be built with BP restoration funds given to the state after the spill.

The private developer would build an adjoining hotel.

“We don’t think it’s legal to use the BP money to build a resort,” said Bill Baxley, an attorney for the Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach, “We think there are very clear guidelines on the federal level there.”

The Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach is the only conference-style resort along the southern Baldwin beaches, and has long been opposed to construction of the Gulf State Park convention center and hotel.

The addition of using BP and RESTORE Act funds raised more concern on the resort’s behalf.

“It’s the worst theft of Alabama Park Lands that’s ever occurred in this state,” Baxley told FOX10 News.

Some residents also believe the BP funds shouldn’t go to a conference center, but should go to restoring the environment that was destroyed.

“I think the money should be used more to clean up the park, it doesn’t look that great for the environment and the animals and the people that walk through there,” said Gulf Shores resident Matthew Ditillio, “I think the money could be used toward something better than a hotel.”

Lawmakers speak to FOX10

FOX10 News traveled to Montgomery to hear from our lawmakers themselves.

State officials told FOX10 News both tax dollars and visitation days went in to consideration when deciding to use BP funds for the project.

“Number one, the Governor’s goal, which I agree with, was to try to build the lodge and conference center with as few tax dollars as possible,” said Gunter Guy, Alabama Commissioner of Conservation, “Along those lines, the oil spill shut down our coastal communities for a very long time, over  87 days, and because of that we lost a lot of visitation.”

Commissioner Guy said he’s been deeply involved with the conference center project since the day he took office. He told us the use of BP funds for construction has been deemed appropriate by the Natural Resource Damage Assessment Process, also referred to as NRDA.

“Part of the NRDA process, or assessment, deals with not only the damage to the resources, but the loss of use of those resources, and so replacing those visits, or loss of those recreational visits, for what the oil spill caused, is a proper use of those dollars,” said Commissioner Guy.

Just last year, in May of 2013, Governor Bentley signed new legislation in to state law that would allow for a private developer to build and operate a hotel on park land.

Commissioner Guy explained the legislation that was passed last year gives the state some flexibility on how to go about the project.

“Either build it ourselves, all with state money, to seek out partners to join in with us, in the operation and building of the conference center, or to just ground lease it,” he said, “By doing that, given the state of the economy, it gives us an opportunity to see what is best for Alabamians, in getting this lodge and conference center rebuilt.”

FOX10 asked the governor about how taxpayers fit in to the equation.

Is it really fair for a private developer to be able to build, and profit off of, taxpayer funded land? And, is it fair for taxpayers to have to pay lawmakers to pass legislation to make something of that nature possible?

“First of all, the people who are working on it, the policymakers and the legislators, they’re getting paid anyway, this had nothing to do with them, except they helped me get this placed in the correct order so that we could get it done,” said Governor Bentley, “The money itself is coming from BP money. This is not taxpayers money, in fact there is no taxpayer money going in to it.”

Governor Bentley told FOX10 News the state received $100 million from BP after the Gulf Oil Spill.

Of that $100 million, $85.5 million is going directly to Gulf State Park, and only $58 million of that will go toward the construction of a new conference center. The rest, some $28 million dollars, will go toward fixing park trails, the golf course, and camper areas.

Governor optimistic on revenue

Bentley said he’s optimistic about the kind of revenue the center will generate not only for southern Baldwin County, but also for the rest of the state.

“The monies that we produce there will support all of our other parks across the state,” said Governor Bentley, “If we make money there, then we’ll be able to support all of the other parks across the state, and that will bring even more tourism to the state of Alabama.”

So the last question we had for state officials, if this is going to be such a money-maker, how much longer will it take for it to actually be built?

State officials suspect in some 12 to 18 months, folks will see the first shovel hit the ground.

The governor told FOX10 News sometime within the next week or so, he will be announcing his selection of a group that will help the state make the most logistical choices for the project.

State officials said the group will help them pick the developer, which will most likely be a chain company, like a Marriott, Best Western, or Holiday Inn, just to name a few options.

Some 29 acres of Gulf State Park land has been set aside for the project, but of the 29 acres, only 10 are going to be used for the building itself. The hotel will have some 350 rooms, and the conference center will hold some 1500 people.

The state is hoping having a private manager will help keep the hotel and conference center a successful entity for many years to come.

FOX10 News will let you keep you updated as more details unfold.

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