May 9, 2013

By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Finally, the hurdles to restoring an Alabama Gulf Coast landmark are starting to fall.

The Gulf State Park Hotel and Conference Center were obliterated by a direct hit from Hurricane Ivan in 2004. For a variety of reasons, the old hotel and conference site has been devoid of any structure since the hurricane made landfall with near 130 mph winds.

Relief, however, appears to have been realized in the form of several favorable outcomes last week. Part of the funding issues have been resolved by the announcement made by Gov. Robert Bentley that the Alabama Gulf Coast will receive about $100 million through the National Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) Early Restoration process related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

About $85.5 million of that money will be applied to Gulf State Park enhancements – funding toward the construction of a lodge and meeting facility on the site of the previous facilities; construction of an environmental research and education facility to benefit Alabama students; trail development and enhancement of existing trails in the park; dune restoration along the park’s pristine beachfront; and establishment of a coastal ecosystems interpretive center.

An oyster reef restoration project on 319 acres in Alabama’s estuaries will be allotted $3.2 million. The Swift Tract Living Shoreline in Baldwin County, which would construct an oyster breakwater/living shoreline to stabilize and protect 1.6 miles of shoreline from erosion and increase shellfish habitat, will receive $5 million in funding.

“The Alabama Gulf Coast is one of our greatest natural treasures, and we are committed to restoring and strengthening our coast,” Gov. Bentley said at a news conference last week. “These projects are designed to strengthen our natural habitat while also encouraging more visitors to explore our beautiful beaches. We have worked hard to identify projects that will benefit the people who live and work along the coast, the people who visit our coast and the natural habitats that exist along our waterways. I want to thank all of our local, state and federal partners who are working with us in this long-term recovery effort.”

While the NRDA process proceeds, Gov. Bentley vowed to continue efforts to restore losses suffered by the state.

“We recognize that recovery is a long-term process, and these projects represent only a portion of our overall efforts to address the losses suffered by the Gulf Coast and the entire state of Alabama following the oil spill,” Gov. Bentley said. “This is an ongoing effort, and our efforts will continue to see that all of the injuries we have sustained are properly addressed.”

The other hurdle cleared last week came in the form of Alabama Senate Bill 231. The bill establishes the Gulf State Park Project Committee, which will be chaired by the Governor and include the Lieutenant Governor, Speaker of the House, President Pro Temp of the Senate, State Finance Director, Secretary of Commerce, Commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and Chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on State Parks or their designees.

“I want to congratulate and thank the Alabama Legislature for passing the Gulf State Park bill, which supports the enhancement and improvement of one of the state’s greatest assets,” Gov. Bentley said. “We have worked hard to secure funding for upgrades to the park facilities on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. This fulfills a promise I made to the people of Baldwin County to upgrade and improve Gulf State Park. The improvements will result in the creation of more jobs and will generate more tourism in our state. I particularly want to thank the bill’s sponsors, Senator Trip Pittman and Representative Steve McMillan, along with the House and Senate leadership and all those who supported the bill. This legislation will benefit the Alabama Gulf Coast and our entire state.”

Alabama State Parks Director Greg Lein, who has had to deal with budget shortfalls already this year, said last week’s developments are welcome news indeed.

“The parks system has been handicapped for well over a decade because of a lack of a lodge and conference facilities at Gulf State Park,” Lein said. “This sets the stage for us to have a lodge and conference center like we had in the past. We’re really excited about this because so many people valued the past experiences and amenities of the lodge and conference center that was located on the beachfront.”

Lein said completion of the lodge and conference center would significantly increase the public’s enjoyment and traffic at the other facilities at the park – the 1,540-foot pier, the large pavilion on the beach, new zip lines and the championship golf course.

“But this is not just about a lodge and conference center,” Lein said. “We will be putting in a new education facility and dorm; we’ll be doing dune restoration; and we’re building an interpretive center. These were not part of the legislation, but they are part of the big picture.”

Revenue from Gulf State Park will help provide opportunities at the parks in the more rural parts of the state. Lein emphasized that the parks system is operated by visitor revenue and not tax dollars.

“What we had down here in the past was well-used and well-loved by the public,” said Lein. “That generated a lot of additional revenue for the state parks system. That’s one of our aspirations here that once again we will have a lodge and conference center that will be well used by the public. That will lift up the parks system and provide additional revenue that will help the entire parks system. The parks system is operated in a manner to provide service and outdoor experiences to Alabama residents and visitors. We not only want it to support our tourism but to also support the public’s interest in the outdoors.”

According to Lein, the new law requires the next step be a market feasibility study that will give current information on which way to proceed with design and construction at the 29-acre site of the former lodge.

DCNR Deputy Commissioner Curtis Jones said the legislation passed last week will give the state the much-needed flexibility to build facilities that meet public demand.

“We’d like to thank the Legislature for working together to get this bill passed,” Jones said. “The bill creates a lot of optimism. It provides a lot more options, allowing the state to build it or to enter into a private/public partnership. It does give the Governor and committee options to address the process in several different ways.

“It’s still a long process, but the bill creates a feeling from everybody that we can move on with the project now. It will bring in people to go to conferences. This is going to increase the entire economic activity along the coast and throughout the entire state. We’ve been missing out for too long.”