The unsolicited combination of two Restore Act projects has caused a rift among the Dauphin Island Property Owners Association’s (DIPOA) board and recently caused the nonprofit to turn down an already paid for feasibility study of the Isle Dauphine Beach and Golf Club.
In June, DIPOA members voted 6-3 to withdraw from participating in a Restore Act grant that would have put $375,000 toward studying of the 165-acre Isle Dauphine property, how it might best be used in the future and what options members might prefer.
The Restore Act distributes civil penalties from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and in Alabama, projects funded by those dollars are, for the most part, selected by a single-purpose entity: the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council (AGCRC).
The Isle Dauphine study was originally submitted for Restore Act consideration by DIPOA as a standalone project, but by the time it came out of the AGCRC’s selection process and was approved by the United States Treasury Department, it had been absorbed into two other projects related to the town of Dauphin Island’s $14 million Aloe Bay Harbour Town proposal.
The project aims to create a business district with mixed-use public facilities like lodging and retail spaces along Aloe Bay. However, DIPOA President Dennis Knizley says he wasn’t ever made aware of that combination of their project, and the board never voted to approve it.
Instead, he says the decision was made by AGCRC itself and moved to add language the board never agreed to, describing the study as one to explore how the Aloe Bay development and Isle Dauphine could “economically enhance” one another.
The lack of information about how the projects were combined exacerbated concerns conducting a study as part of a town project could obligate DIPOA to the town’s wishes. Supporters say those claims were misplaced, but they were enough to doom the project.
“As president of the board, I received no notification from anyone else that the standalone submission made by the DIPOA was going to somehow be combined with the Aloe Bay project or about purpose being changed,” Knizley said. “I learned about it when I read it.”
According to Knizley, there were also concerns among some board members a feasibility study meant to “economically enhance” a major tourist attraction would likely suggest and could eventually lead to the development of a hotel or convention center on the property.
The original submission from the DIPOA does list “a potential lodging facility” among the ideas a study could evaluate to see what might make Isle Dauphine — a property that’s struggled financially in recent years — more economically sustainable. It also mentions reviewing “deed restrictions,” which DIPOA has used to prevent commercial development in the past.
It’s important to note half of the board didn’t just arbitrarily change its mind.
To develop or not develop has long been the question on Dauphin Island, which is both sustained by tourism and relishes in its small-town character. Add to that the confusion about who was driving the combination of the projects and it was enough to cause some upheaval.
The members who voted to submit the study for consideration in 2017 were not the same ones who voted to abandon the plan. In May, DIPOA’s 3,300 voting members elected four new board members who each ran on a platform of withdrawing from the Restore Act study.
A month later, during their first meeting on the board, they voted to do just that.
One of the current members who voted in favor of keeping the study was Brian Hunt, who has supported the feasibility study and idea of DIPOA utilizing Restore Act monies for several years. He told Lagniappe the majority’s decision to vote down “free money” for a non-binding study was quite perplexing to see. He accused the opposition of sowing “disinformation.”
“We were going to pay nothing for it and get a lot of good information,” Hunt said. “And whether it suggested a bird trail and nine holes or an RV park, it would have to be submitted to a vote of the full membership. Nothing would happen without membership approval.”
Hunt said the study would have provided a chance to get “detailed information on how members felt about the Isle Dauphine” and “opportunities to make it more viable” and suggested the vote to scrap it prevented them from weighing in. Knizley believes members exercised their voice in May when they elected the new representatives to the DIPOA board.
It is also worth noting that, while Hunt and Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier both told Lagniappe there was always an understanding that DIPOA would control the study process and select the firm conducting it, there’s no mention of that in the Aloe Bay project.
The combination also raised concerns about whose idea it was and why. Collier told Lagniappe the projects were rolled into one for “grant convenience purposes” due to DIPOA’s lack of administrative staffing and because the town was already handling a large grant proposal.
It does appear the projects were discussed together at times because mutually beneficial proposals that can maximize each other’s impacts can help sell officials when they’re selecting projects to fund. Collier said it also made sense because they both would benefit the island.
However, comments from board members and Collier and the AGCRC’s own records indicate rolling the projects together was likely the only way DIPOA — a private, nonprofit entity with no grant administration staff — was going to get $375,000 in a suite of public projects.
“We helped get it approved at the council level, which was a pretty extensive process. There’s a lot of different lawyers that have to be satisfied, and that’s what I always felt like caused it to be packaged that way,” Collier said. “But, I don’t know all the details.”
In its multiyear implementation plan, the AGCRC wrote “recipients of Restore Act funds must follow stringent federal rules and regulations, and not all submitters are eligible to receive and manage” them. It goes on to talk about entities that have experience with federal grants.
Representatives from the Treasury Department did not respond to specific questions about this issue, but others Lagniappe spoke with said DIPOA would have likely been ineligible for Restore Act funding regardless of its administrative capacity. Even though some of its properties are publicly accessible, they are privately held and access can be restricted at any time.
Keri Coumanis, executive director of the AGCRC, has only been at the helm for a few months and said she couldn’t speak to how the decision to combine the projects was made because it happened before her time. She did say other projects use public-private partnerships, though.
AGCRC Chairman Jimmy Lyons also declined to speak on the record about how that decision was made. It’s also worth noting that, based on rules its members wrote and adopted, the AGCRC isn’t required to discuss its project-selection process in open meetings.
Going forward, it’s a little unclear how the money DIPOA won’t be using for the study will be handled, but it likely won’t have any effect on the Aloe Bay project. For the most part, Restore Act funding is held until it’s needed to pay for projects as they are constructed.
Collier said regardless of what the DIPOA wants to do with Isle Dauphine, the town of Dauphin Island is still excited about the impact Harbour Town could have on tourism and the economy.
“They have decided to say ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ and if that’s done it’s done. It is what it is,” Collier said. “But Aloe Bay will still be moving forward as planned.”
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