MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama House committee gave its support Wednesday to efforts by Gov. Robert Bentley's administration to build a large hotel and conference center on the beach at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores.
It was a crucial first step for an administration trying to attract big meetings now going to coastal convention hotels in Florida and Mississippi.
The House Economic Development and Tourism Committee voted 13-2 for the hotel bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Steve McMillan of Gulf Shores. Committee Chairman Barry Mask, R-Wetumpka, said the bill promoted lots of questions in committee and faces many more now that it is moving to the House for consideration.
An identical bill by Republican Sen. Trip Pittman of Daphne was discussed Wednesday by the Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee, but the committee delayed a vote until next week.
The official who oversees Alabama's state parks, Conservation Commissioner Gunter Guy, said both bills would allow his department to work with a private developer on the project and to use money from BP oil spill litigation for construction. He envisions a project costing $125 million to $150 million that would be comparable to the Marriott convention hotels operated by the Retirement Systems of Alabama at inland locations. It would have 300-350 rooms and would seat 1,000-1,500 for dinner, he said.
Any agreement with a private developer would have to be approved by the governor and a legislative committee.
An opponent, Democratic Rep. Daniel Boman of Sulligent, said that's too little oversight. "I'm not willing to give the most valuable piece of property in this state to be controlled by so few people," he said.
Gulf State Park had a smaller lodge and conference center destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Since then, legal and political battles have kept the state park in Alabama's top tourist destination from hosting conventions. The new hotel and conference center would fit within the 29 acres where the old facility stood.
A spokesman for the privately owned Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach said the state shouldn't be competing with private enterprise. But state Tourism Director Lee Sentell said Alabama is losing about $150 million a year in conventions to neighboring states, particular Sandestin in the Florida Panhandle, because the Alabama coast lacks enough space for big conventions.
"This is a jobs bill, but right now the jobs are in Florida," he said.
Former state Conservation Commissioner Charley Grimsley said the legislation exempts the project from a state law requiring state parks to be affordable and accessible to the average Alabama family, and the new hotel would be too pricey for the average Alabama family.
"Remember the little girl with her sand bucket," he said.
State officials said the park's beach pavilion, fishing pier and other facilities would still be accessible to all Alabamians.