Gulf convention hotel: Tourism boom or boondoggle?
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — 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.