Legislature OKs Gulf park hotel development

Published 11:05 pm Thursday, May 7, 2009

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A bill that would allow a resort hotel and convention center to be built at a state park on the Alabama coast won legislative approval Thursday after years of political and legal fighting.

The Senate voted 23-3 to go along with a bill the House passed 82-14 on Wednesday. The bill now goes to the governor, who is expected to sign it.

“Now we can start making concrete plans to move forward,” said Will Gunter, attorney for the state Conservation Department, which operates Alabama’s state parks.

The bill is a compromise that would allow a privately operated hotel and state-operated convention center to be built at the location of the old motel at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores. The motel was wrecked by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and never rebuilt because of disagreements about how to do it.

“This will allow Alabama’s Gulf Coast to become competitive again in attracting large conventions of Alabama and out-of-state professional organizations,” said Lee Sentell, Alabama’s tourism director.

The bill allows the state to lease beachfront property for 70 years to a private company for development of the hotel. The state would build and operate an adjoining convention center, in conjunction with coastal towns that would benefit from convention business.

Gov. Bob Riley’s administration had planned to lease beachfront land at the park to Auburn University for at least 70 years and then have Auburn sublease it to the Atlanta-based West Paces Hotel Group. The company was to develop a 350-room luxury hotel and conference center costing about $100 million.

The administration’s plan was challenged in court by former state conservation commissioner Charley Grimsley, the owners of the Perdido Beach Resort on the Alabama coast, the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama State Employees Association. The Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the plan violated a state law that limits leases for private operations in state parks to 12 years.

The legislation headed to the governor’s desk allows leases for up to 70 years — a period that state officials say is necessary to get private sector interest.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Larry Dixon of Montgomery, requires competitive bidding for the hotel operation. The governor and Conservation Department can’t pick an operator without competition.

“It takes these deals out of the back rooms and puts them in the light of day,” Grimsley said.

The bill also requires that the hotel offer rooms at affordable rates and that state employees run the convention center.

Mac McArthur, executive secretary of the Alabama State Employees Association, said his goal in challenging the project was to protect state employees’ jobs, and the bill now does that. He said revenue from conventions at the park will help support other state parks that don’t make money.

The Perdido Beach Resort, currently the largest convention hotel on the Alabama coast, opposed the state government competing with it. But the bill’s supporters said the Alabama coast lacked facilities for large conventions and was losing business to Destin, Fla., and Biloxi, Miss.

“It’s a shame we don’t have a hotel down there for the home builders and Realtors to meet. We have to go to Florida,” said Democratic Sen. Lowell Barron of Fyffe, who develops real estate.