As a lawsuit over its source of funding continues in federal court, the $85-million Gulf State Park project in Orange Beach is moving forward with an 11-month master planning process already in the works.
Residents got their first chance to weigh in on the project during a public meeting last week, where the immediate concerns included environmental sustainability and the impact the proposed hotel and convention center might have on the city’s already congested traffic infrastructure.
The project, funded with the majority of Alabama’s $100 million in early restoration funds received from BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, was approved by the a group of federal trustees in 2014.
However, because more than $56 million of the project is earmarked for a lodge, some environmental groups have criticized it as a vanity project. Last October, the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) filed suit against the trustees in Washington D.C. to block the funding.
Since, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Commissioner Gunter Guy and the project’s director, Cooper Shattuck of the University of Alabama, have defended the project and vowed to move forward because no state officials have been brought into the suit.
The University of Alabama has been tasked by Gov. Robert Bentley to manage the project, and since earlier this year a Boston-based team from Sasaki Associates has been working to create a master plan to guide both the project’s development and park’s long term direction.
“This project is part of the state park system, and it’s bound by that mission statement, which is dedicated to acquiring and preserving natural areas; developing, furnishing, operating and maintaining facilities and extending the public’s knowledge of the natural environment,” Jill Dixon of Sasaki said. “If you look at the big picture, there’s nothing like this park anywhere else on the Gulf Coast. No other place has the diverse ecosystem, miles of trails and provides the same opportunity to get out and experience nature.”
However, maintaining the balance as a tourist destination and as a sanctuary for some of the Gulf Coast’s most precious wildlife will be one of the many tasks both Sasaki and the University of Alabama will have to juggle.
Nisa Mirana, of the University’s Center of Economic Development, said the developers are setting “high goals” with the project for both economic and environmental sustainability.
“There’s a strong commitment to the 61 acres of natural habitat, which is very biodiverse. You hear people talk about the Alabama beach mouse and the sea turtles, but there’s also specific plant species that don’t grow in other places,” Miranda said. “That’s why all of the development has to be done very carefully and thoughtfully.”
Miranda said making clear distinctions between natural and recreational areas will be part of that process, as will making sure people are dispersed throughout the park and not concentrated in any single area.
Dixon also said a restoration of the park’s dune system is a huge priority of the project, and will likely be the first visible development, running concurrently with the development of the master plan. Dune enhancements would utilize fencing and recycled Christmas trees to trap sand in an attempt to foster a secondary dune system over time.
Dixon suggested nearly three miles, or the equivalent of 50 football fields, of natural dunes are scheduled to be restored and enhanced. Once they are stabilized with native grasses and shrubs, the restored dunes will provide natural habit for several species and more protection for the coastline.
Though the project is expansive, Dixon said it ultimately comes down to five parts: enhancing the visitors’ experience, restoring the dunes, building an environmental information center, creating a new research and education center and rebuilding the lodge, which was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
According to Dixon, the visitor enhancements will focus on adding options to use the park in an eco-friendly way, steps that may include more footpaths, biking trails, water taxis and trolley systems. Serving two purposes, Dixon said those additional ways to move from the lodge and cabins to the beach area also reduce vehicle emissions in and around the natural areas of the park.
As for its economic sustainability, proponents believe it will be derived from the amount of visitors to the park and how the operations are laid out in the master plan. Today, Sasaki’s head of planning and urban design, James Miner, says it’s too early in the process to tell.
“One of the things we’re trying to create is a model of how to operate the state park,” Miner said. “Expanding the park will create jobs and employment within the park, but it can also create more permanent jobs outside of the park. The metric we’re using is number of projected visitors and what spinoff impact they might have on the local economy.”
Though project numbers haven’t been calculated yet, Miner said the team is working with experts across the country to compare Gulf State to other parks that have been modeled as “ecotourism” destinations.
According to current data, around 600,000 people visit the park each year and its nature center hosts around 40,000 per year, which is up more than 100 percent from just three years ago.
In a limited preview of the economic analysis, Miner showcased the potential for Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Foley to all experience some “spillover benefits” from the economic impact the revitalized park could generate.
Last week’s meeting was the first of three public input sessions planned during the 11-month process of drafting the master plan. According to Dixon, the others will be held in the summer and fall, but as of this time no specific dates have been set.
More details about the project are available at gulfstateparkproject.ua.edu.