Since Hurricane Ivan devastated Gulf State Park’s lodge and other facilities in 2004 and the state ultimately demolished it in 2006, legislators and private interests have targeted its redevelopment along with a “restoration” of the park’s ecosystem.
With $85.8 million set aside from early Natural Resources Damages Assessment (NRDA) funds provided by BP after the 2010 Gulf oil spill, the state legislature is currently considering a move to approve an additional $50 million bond toward the goal. But the Gulf State Park Enhancement Project, currently managed by the University of Alabama at the behest of Gov. Robert Bentley, has faced opposition from environmental groups as well as taxpayers concerned that certain aspects — including plans to build a resort-style hotel — are not appropriate uses of NRDA funds. And others are concerned about what happened to the tens of millions already allocated over the years to the project.
State Sen. Trip Pittman said of the $85.5 million set aside for the project, $58 million was allocated for the construction of the hotel. According to the request for proposals for the project released last September, the lodge will have 350 rooms or suites, meeting space for 1,500 people, on-site parking and a full service restaurant. Bentley has publicly voiced support of the plan, saying the state needs a convention center at the beach to keep business and tourism from leaving the state.
Pittman said after initial designs and a feasibility study came back, the state realized the hotel’s construction would cost approximately $50 million more. Pittman said the bond was discussed during the regular session but it did not receive a vote before the legislature adjourned in June.
“They started the project and now we need to make sure we have enough to be able finish it,” Pittman said last week, between meetings for the legislature’s special session to address the state’s general fund budget shortfall.
Apparently, the proposed bond issue has faced similar opposition in the special session to that received earlier this year. Pittman said some legislators are skeptical about borrowing more money for Gulf State Park, when it could spend existing funds on other state parks without the same perceived risks. He also said there has been opposition from the private sector, including Perdido Beach Resort, which views the development as a state-subsidized competitor.
State Rep. Steve McMillan said the bond did not pass during the first special session last week, but the issue could come up again in a second special session next month. McMillan also said there are alternative funding sources available to raise the additional $50 million needed if the bond doesn’t pass. Specifically, he said other BP funds, private investment or a joint venture with the private sector may be a possibility.
McMillan said the additional funds are needed because the project’s scope — with environmental issues like dune restoration as well as public input about walking trails and the park’s golf course — has been more expensive than originally expected.
“We are going to get it done one way or another,” McMillan said. “We are going to do what really needs to be done in order to make the project competitive with other similar centers in neighboring states.”
State Auditor Jim Zeigler said it would be a “blessing” for the state and Baldwin County residents if the $50 million bond does not pass, saying the state should not incur more debt and instead rebuild a lodge similar to that destroyed by Ivan.
“The purpose of the original Gulf State Park lodge was to be a people’s park, built and priced reasonably so that families from other parts of the state could afford to stay and enjoy their state beaches at the state lodge,” Zeigler said. “Instead, the governor has this idea to build a high-priced resort and conference center that would compete with the Grand Hotel, the Perdido Beach Resort and other similar resorts in the area. They can build it like the old lodge without committing to another $50 million in debt, with the money already allocated for it.”
Another issue standing in the way of the $50 million bond are spending cuts related to the budget passed by the state House of Representatives, including $156 million in Medicaid cuts and millions more affecting a host of other state agencies. If approved, the budget would include a loss of federal funding for the state’s marine resources, wildlife and freshwater fisheries, and result in closings at an undisclosed number of state parks.
In 2013, Pittman sponsored legislation, SB231, allowing the state to partner with a private developer to build a hotel and conference center at Gulf State Park and set up the Gulf State Park Project Committee to approve a lease at the site, manage requests for proposals and negotiate project proposals.
Locally, the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach approved sending letters of support for the project in 2013. But this week, Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said the city’s support of the project hinged on several questions that have yet to be answered. Among them, Kennon said he wants to know how traffic will be diverted to and from the hotel and convention center, where the funding will come from to complete the project and who is going to manage the project.
“At this point in time I’m still looking for some answers and I feel like a mushroom looking for light in the dark,” Kennon said. “We did support the idea, but we need answers.”
A HISTORY OF LITIGATION
In October 2014, environmentalist watchdog organization Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) filed a federal lawsuit to stop the project’s development, charging that a lodge and convention center is an inappropriate use of NRDA funds. The suit does not challenge the approval of the dune restoration, trails and educational facilities at Gulf State Park, and it originally named the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council as defendants, not the state.
The suit argues the resort and lodge violates the guidelines for spending NRDA funds set by the Oil Pollution Act of 1989, which was adopted following the Exxon Valdez accident.
On Aug. 4, GRN filed a motion for summary judgment, which gives the defendants until the end of August to file a response. A hearing on the matter is set for September. The project’s developers recently said they do not expect the lawsuit’s outcome to affect the project’s construction.
But this is not the first time the state has pushed to build a resort at Gulf State Park, and it is also not the first time it has been mired in the court system.
In 2001, during former Gov. Don Siegelman’s administration, a $110 million bond was issued by the Alabama Public Historical Sites and Parks Improvement Corp. and the Alabama State Parks Improvement Corp. to pay for improvements to the state’s parks and historical sites. Records indicate those nonprofit organizations were incorporated by Siegelman, along with then-President Pro Tempore Lowell Barron, Speaker of the House Seth Hammett, Director of Conservations and Natural Resources Riley Boykin Smith and Director of Finance Henry C. Mabry.
The original $110 million bond issue for parks statewide was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1998, but during a 2001 special session, legislators tacked on an additional $70 million bond solely for Gulf State Park. At the time, the state planned to use the $70 million bond approved in 2001 to build what it called a “first class” hotel with competitively priced rooms to attract large convention groups.
The hotel would have had 350 rooms and a smaller footprint than the original lodge, which featured just 144 rooms. The project would have cost approximately $100 million and additional funding would have been secured in a partnership with the cities of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, as well as a “substantial” settlement from insurers due to damage caused by Hurricane Ivan.
State Parks Director Greg Lein did not return calls for this story prior to press time, but according to a 75th anniversary report he authored last year, Gov. Fob James and and Conservation Commissioner James D. Martin initially led the push for the $110 million bond issue in 1998. While the report said many improvements to parks statewide were made in the ensuing 10 years as a result, Lein wrote, “this period of improvement to the park system coincided with the large growth period in housing construction and post-hurricane redevelopment in the southeastern United States, which resulted in dramatic rises in the costs of construction. As a consequence, the pre-bond estimates for project costs fell far short of the actual costs. This resulted in a number of park renovation projects not being undertaken because of the lack of funds.”
In 2004, under Gov. Bob Riley, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources invited Auburn University to lead development of a new resort at the site of the former lodge. The plan called for Auburn to lease the lodge from the state and use it as an educational venue for students pursuing careers in hospitality management, forestry, wildlife, marine sciences and related fields.
Plans for that project ended after a lawsuit, filed by former ADCNR Commissioner Charley Grimsley, successfully blocked it. In an order dated June 26, 2008, Circuit Judge Eugene W. Reese declared the lease agreement between the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and Auburn University contrary to Alabama constitutional and statutory law. The state supreme court upheld at least one of the lower court’s findings on appeal, and the state eventually scrapped the project.
Zeigler served as a preliminary legal counsel for the plaintiffs, but he said citizens — led by Grimsley — were the driving force behind the suit. The owner of the Perdido Beach Resort also joined the complaint.
Aside from the lawsuit, the $70 million bond issue was further complicated by the “levels of revenue losses the system faced because of renovations and damages associated with natural disasters,” Lein’s 75th anniversary report noted. With 70 to 90 percent of the parks’ revenue generated by user fees and a sudden drop in users after 2002, the system no longer had the support it needed to pay back such a large bond.
Lein was unavailable to confirm whether the parks were indeed awarded the “substantial” insurance settlement being discussed at the time, but a story published Aug. 4 by the Alabama Political Reporter quoted former Attorney General Bill Baxley as saying the state received an estimated $45 million for damage caused to Gulf State Park by Hurricane Ivan.
Zeigler said he recently received a citizen’s complaint regarding the money allocated for the park over the years and he is currently conducting a preliminary investigation of the issue. He added that he has not seen any evidence of how the original $110 million bond was spent.
“They have been pushing for this Taj Mahal for two decades and have nothing to show for it … ” he said. “For whatever reason, [Gulf State Park] was allowed to deteriorate for years and was then totally bulldozed after Ivan. This has happened under the leadership of a succession of governors … ”
THE NEW PROJECT
Jill Dixon, from Boston-based Sasaki Associates, is a part of the team tasked with managing the Gulf State Park Enhancement Project’s long-range plan for University of Alabama. Last week, she said the project comprises five components she believes will ensure the park’s long-term economic and environmental sustainability. Sasaki is currently working on the master planning phase, which she estimated could be finalized in the fall.
The first component is to enhance visitors’ experience with 10 miles of new walking, running and cycling trails. This component also includes upgrading existing trails and making connectivity around the park easier for visitors in order to reduce the need for motor vehicle transportation in the park.
The second component is dune restoration, which Dixon said involves the equivalent of 50 football fields’ worth of sand dunes along the beach. This phase involves work to repair berms as well as repairs to the ridge that was originally built to protect the park from flooding following Ivan. She said volunteers have already begun cutting slits in the berm so that sand can easily flow through, which will help restore the dunes to their natural state.
A the third component is building an environmental learning center, with classrooms, meeting space, outdoor boardwalks and indoor exhibits to allow visitors to learn more about the dune habitat.
The fourth component is also educational, with plans for a research and education center to serve kindergarten through 12th-grade students. The education center is said to complement the park’s existing nature center, which already receives approximately 40,000 visitors per year.
The fifth and final component is rebuilding the lodge. Dixon emphasized that the new lodge will be built with a smaller footprint than the original, 144-room building. The overall project is estimated for completion by 2018, but Dixon said visitors will begin to see signs of progress much sooner than that.
Reached Tuesday, Grimsley, now a part-time Realtor in Tuscaloosa, said progress could have been seen 10 years ago had lawmakers not “focused on grandiose proposals and succumbed to corporate greed.”
“The sad thing is, going back to Siegelman, Riley and Bentley, we could have rebuilt what was down there a long time ago — something the people of this state could have been enjoying for a long time, but the emphasis has been on lavishness and cronyism,” Grimsley said.
Grimsley suggested the smart thing to do would be to use the state’s $1 billion settlement from BP to finance the project, rather than use it as a “one-year Band-Aid for the bleeding General Fund” and put taxpayers on the hook for financing.
He called Riley’s 2004 agreement with Auburn University and a “hand-picked” developer “totally illegal,” and noted the legislature has since passed amendments that would make a similar deal fall within the boundaries of the law.
“The sad thing is, Gulf State Park is the most beloved environmental treasure the people of Alabama own, and as much as possible it should be kept pristine and natural,” he said. “If you look across the border to Florida, you have miles and miles of beaches the people there have preserved in their natural state. And if this project is not done right, or lines the pockets of private interests, it’ll be the fuse that lights the stick of dynamite that will eventually see every development in the world in line to follow.”
In a video hosted on the enhancement project’s website, Bentley said the revenue generated by the proposed park will help fund the state’s 22 other state parks and stimulate the local economy on the Gulf Coast. Pittman agreed.
“It is important that Gulf State Park is economically sustainable because it helps to subsidize some of the other parks that don’t make much money statewide,” Pittman said.
In comments about the state budget crisis, Lein has noted only seven of the state’s 22 parks have made money consistently over the the past three years. Gulf State Park was among them.
Gabriel Tynes contributed to this report.