Without clarifying which grant from the BP oil spill would be used, Gov. Robert Bentley’s office revealed last week that one of them is being tapped for up to $1.8 million of renovations to a state-owned eyesore near Gulf Shores.
Alabama’s beachfront governor’s mansion, which has been abandoned for almost 20 years, was damaged in 1997 by Hurricane Danny.
It’s called a mansion, but for nearly two decades it has sat in “embarrassing” conditions marked by boards covering the windows, peeling paint on the walls and rotted wood in the walkways leading to the waterfront.“This facility has been an embarrassment for decades. It is a piece of property the state owns, and the Governor began looking this year at ways to renovate it,” Bentley spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis told Lagniappe. “The house has pretty much been gutted since the 1990s, and the work that’s being done is an overhaul of exterior and interior renovations.”
Adding detail, Ardis said the projected cost of $1.8 million covers a new roof and will complete earlier attempts at upgrading the ceilings, bathrooms and kitchen area. In addition, the funds will replace those rotten boards and wood trim, restore the structure’s columns and replace doors, windows and fencing.
Though work began on Dec. 7, the Governor’s office made its first statements about the ongoing renovations last week while discussing the early BP grants that will pay for the project.
“There were two grants from BP after the oil spill, each for $25 million,” Ardis said. “The remaining funds in that second $25 million grant the state received are paying for these renovations.”
However, Lagniappe could not get clarification from Bentley’s office about which specific grant was being used, what its original purpose was and the amount of money remaining in those initial allocations from BP. Currently, the price is said to be around $1.8 million, but Ardis said that is only an estimate and the final cost could vary slightly in either direction.
Though the mansion hasn’t seen much attention in recent years on the waterfront, it has been discussed at length in the courtroom because of two lawsuits filed by the property’s original owner attempting to reclaim the land from the state.
According to court records, the property was originally given to Alabama in 1962 by a developer from Louisiana named E. Lamar Little. As is laid out in the original agreement, the state is prohibited from selling the property, which despite its condition, is still valued at more than $1 million, if the mansion is included.
Little expressed his displeasure after the state neglected to repair the damages from Hurricane Danny and attempted to reclaim the property in court. Most recently, he and the Surfside Development Corporation filed suit against Alabama and former Gov. Riley, but that case was ultimately thrown out in February of 2010.
Now that renovations are back on the table, Bentley’s office says it plans to use the property for economic development along the Gulf Coast. However, as an official residence of the governor’s office, Ardis said Bentley’s successors can use the facility however they see fit.
“Governor Bentley’s goal is to use this facility as an economic development opportunity to help Mobile and Baldwin counties,” Aridis said. “He wants to use it when he’s showcasing the area to companies that may be coming in and looking for a place to set up shop.”
While the work began in early December, bids for the project were requested in August of 2015 with local company Phil Harris Construction Inc. receiving the work. Harris himself is a member of the Gulf Shores City Council, which the property lies just outside of.
Calls to Harris weren’t initially returned, but Andy Bauer, Gulf Shores director of planning and zoning, said the council nor the planning commission — which Harris also serves on — has any authority or influence over this property or any other state projects in the area.
“The state and state property are exempt from our zoning ordinance, which is what the planning commission enforces,” Bauer said.
When asked, Bauer said that would include Alabama’s Gulf State Park, which is currently undergoing an $85 million restoration project of its own. Though a federal lawsuit has challenged the use of BP funding for that project, which includes plans for a large hotel, the enhancements have continued to move forward.
Bentley also announced recently that an additional $50 million of the state’s $1 billion settlement with the oil company would also be set aside to fund the upgrades at the park.
After just under a month of construction, Ardis said the renovations to the beachfront mansion are scheduled to be completed by June of 2016.
“Obviously, that’s a pretty tight timeline,” Ardis said. “We hope it will be ready at the end of may, but there’s still a lot of work to done.”