By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
Gulf State Park is described as a place where, “white sun-kissed beaches, a surging surf, seagulls and seashells greet you.”
If certain legislators and business interests have their way you will also be greeted by a valet, and doorman at a new 5-star, luxury hotel.
Opponents of the plan say this is one more shot to pave the peoples’ paradise and put up a playground for the rich.
SB231 carried by Senator Trip Pitman (R-Daphne) and HB302 by Representative Steve McMillan (R-Bay Minette) would allow a private company to lease some 29 acres of the park to build a hotel and convention center. They say it is good business.
Charley Grimsley, former conservation commissioner from 1993-95, said, “To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, ‘Here, they go again.’”
Grimsley referring to Bob Riley’s plan to build an luxury hotel and convention center in a partnership between Auburn University and Atlanta-based West Paces Hotel Group in 2009.
Established in 2002 and headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, The West Paces Hotel Group was founded by Horst Schulze along with several former Ritz-Carlton executives. The company has since changed its name to the Capella Hotel Group to more reflect its international brand.
According to the company website Capella Hotels are, “Developed and designed specifically for today’s very high-end travelers, driven more by personal values and quality services than just material offerings.”
The company which has hotels from Washington, DC, to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico in the Americas to Singapore and Thailand in Asia and more offerings worldwide says, “Capella hotel customers make up the top 5 percent of business and leisure travelers… Our customer no longer has a psychological need to associate with aspirational brands that helped define their earlier economic lifestyle ascendancy. When traveling for business, they have few budgetary restrictions to follow since they are usually the ultimate decision-makers within their organization or are traveling using their own discretionary income.”
Critics like Grimsley think that, “customer [who] no longer has a psychological need to associate with aspirational brands that helped define their earlier economic lifestyle ascendancy” are part of the problem with the development of Gulf State Park.
Grimsley cites the fact that the park was designed for the families of Alabama and not the top 5 percent of business and leisure travelers, that Capella attaches.
The original Riley plan was based on relationships between Auburn University and West Pace Group [now known as Capella] through Susan Hubbard, wife of current Alabama Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard.
According to Mrs. Hubbard’s bio, “Susan earned three degrees between 1987 and 1993 and was hired as a faculty member in the college’s Hotel and Restaurant Management program. She has worked her way up in the ranks, now serving as a professor and associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Human Sciences.” She also says of her career at Auburn, “[I] had the opportunity to play a major role in the development of the Auburn University Hotel and Restaurant Management educational partnership with the West Paces Hotel Group, LLC.”
The Capella Group operates a small elegant hotel at Auburn and another such facility at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA. Regent University was founded by Pat Robertson, which began as Christian Broadcasting Network University in 1978, became Regent University in 1989. Only one other hotel is a part of the Capella Group’s independent hotels and that is the AYANA Resort and Spa in Bali, Indonesia.
One republican lawmaker who provided background for this story said, “This is just one more reach in the honey hole for Riley, Inc.”
Grimsley, who was a part of a lawsuit that stopped Bob Riley from developing the park in 2009, calls the bill “Riley, 2.0” saying he believes it is another attempt by Riley and company to turn the State Park in to a money machine. “That’s what I’m calling this bill to try and emphasize that all this is is a second kick at the can for Capella,” said Grimsley.
However, Bob Riley is not the first Alabama Governor to advocate a grand resort at Gulf State Park and it seems he is not the last. Riley’s predecessor Don Siegalman was a proponent of such an idea. Riley and Siegalman are now joined by Governor Robert Bentley in wishing to creating a luxury retreat on Alabama’s coast.
WPMI TV in Mobile, recently reported that, “He [Governor Bentley], is pushing the legislature to approve another bill that would allow a private company to build a convention hotel at Gulf State Park.”
They quoted the governor as saying, “If we get that through there will be adequate money available to fund all the parks in this state.”
Also quoted in the report was Charley Grimsley who said, “”It’s certainly the most valuable piece of land that the people of Alabama own. And their idiotic argument is we’ve got to give away the most valuable piece of land that the people own in order to develop it.”
The bill’s sponsors, Pitman and McMillan, believe the resort and convention center would be a boost for the state’s park system as well as bring added tourism and convention traffic to Alabama’s Gulf coast.
However, from a business standpoint, the bill raises many question and leaves many unanswered.
Just a few are as follows:
On page 5 of the bill lines 6 through 11 describes what the state park project will consist of but it says that there will be, “other facilities.” Without a clear definition this could mean casinos, bingo halls or an ice cream shop. Would voters in Alabama, want to see the jewel of the state become the Monti Carlo of the South?
In a state starving for tax dollars, amendment number two of SB 231 says retail establishments of any type or amusement parks may all receive possible tax abatements.
SB231, amendment one, also raises the question as to why are other hotels in the area are under the State Building Commission yet the new buildings constructed at Gulf State Park would be exempt from such oversight?
On page 16 of SB231, the bill exempts the project from numerous laws currently on the books as if these exemptions are not enough if you refer back to page 15 beginning at line 18 this section provides that, “and so far as this act may be in conflict or inconsistent with any other provision or any other law concerning actions authorized by this act the actual control and govern any other provision of law to the contrary notwithstanding.”
This is pointed out as a catchall provision by the bill’s opponents.
But is it not fair to ask why this one project has Carte Blanc over so many State laws?
Immunity from the State Building Commission, a clause that allows any state authority to give away property at any time to this project without any input from the voters of the state, should raise alarm bells. Section 8 authorizing any government to incur indebtedness for the benefit of this project to creating a super law. In section 9, begs the question why so much is being given away when Gulf State Park is perhaps the most valuable piece of land in the state?
The very notion of a no-bid contract seems to clearly indicate that there is a deal in the works even before the law is passed.
Are there any plans within the Conservation Department for the proposed development at State Park?
Plans were developed a few years ago for luxury hotel spa. Are they still available if so where are they?
No one seems to have an answer to these questions.
The current bills before the legislature does not envision the cost of the project and many other fundamentals needed to make a sound business decision.
Once again the legislative leadership is asking the members to take this bill on faith.
It would seem Grimsley and others might want to invoke another Reagan quote, “Trust but verify.” The state can’t afford many more giveaways.
Birmingham approves $1.3 million contract for real-time crime center technology
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
The Birmingham City Council approved a five-year, $1.3 million contract with Motorola this week to provide new technology for the police department’s real-time crime center amid unease and public concern over the potential use of facial recognition software within the new systems.
Mayor Randall Woodfin insisted in his remarks made before the council that the new technology is meant to integrate existing hardware and technology inside the real-time crime center. “You’re not buying any additional new equipment,” he said, “You’re buying something to integrate all those systems.”
The software suite includes Motorola Solutions’s CommandCentral Aware, a system that aggregates video, image and other data information into one interface, and BriefCam, a “video synopsis” system that will further integrate and analyze information from Birmingham’s ShotSpotter systems, public cameras and police body cameras.
Briefcam offers facial recognition capabilities, which was the main concern of community members speaking before the council, and the risk that use of the technology could disproportionately affect Black people. Facial recognition technology has a record of racial bias and misidentifies Black people at rates five to 10 times higher than white people.
“Despite assurances that there will not be facial recognition implemented at this phase that does not prevent it from being implemented in the future,” said Joseph Baker, Founder of I Believe in Birmingham and one of the Birmingham residents voicing concern on the proposal. “I believe that this software, if fully implemented, can easily lead to violations of unreasonable searches.”
Another resident who spoke against the resolution was Byron Lagrone, director of engineering at medical software solutions company Abel Healthcare Enterprises. Lagrone pointed to IBM and Amazon as examples of companies that have halted or abandoned facial recognition and object tracking software altogether over racial bias concerns.
“The prevailing attitude, among technical people is this technology is not effective, and it causes high amounts of harm for next to no gain,” Lagrone said.
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
“It’s explicit in this contract that facial recognition will not be used,” Woodfin said, “[If] facial recognition wants to be used in the future of this city. It would have to be approved by this body. … The mayor’s office or the police department doesn’t have unilateral power to use facial recognition. That is not part of what our contractual relationship is with Motorola.”
Woodfin also clarified that the total $1.3 million price of the contract will not be paid as a lump sum but spread out over the five-year commitment.
The city council voted 8 to 1 to approve the contract, with District 8 Councilman Steven Hoyt speaking in favor of the use of facial recognition capabilities.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom,’” Hoyt said. “If it’s in the house, you’re going to use the restroom. … If it has the capability of facial recognition, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to use it. I’m going to vote for it because I know we’ve got to have every tool we can garner to fight crime, because it’s out of hand.”
Hoyt also suggested a review of the information collected by the new system apparatus.
“I do think, for the public’s sake, we need to have some way we review that and see how it’s being used,” Hoyt said. “We need that to go along with this.”
District 3 Councilwoman Valerie A. Abbott — who said she was the victim of a burglary the day before the vote — echoed the mayor’s insistence that the facial recognition capabilities would not be deployed unless authorized by the city council, reading a letter from Motorola stating “in order to enable facial recognition, Motorola will require an addendum or change order to the contract,” which would have to come before a public meeting of the city council.
“I too would not want facial recognition,” Abbot said, “I’m voting in favor of this because the majority of my constituents are telling me they want more and better policing, capture of criminals, prevention of crime.”
District 5 Councilman Darrell O’Quinn was the lone no vote among the near-unanimous city council, stating that he had “some reservations about how we’re doing this and will vote my conscience.” Later, O’Quinn was quoted in BirminghamWatch, saying his vote reflected his concerns about “taking on a new debt obligation in the midst of a projected $63 million shortfall in revenue.”
Opinion | Doug Jones’s pathway to victory: Substance over lies
Jones said his work in the Senate should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
Alabama Sen. Doug Jones believes voters will ultimately see through Tommy Tuberville’s lazy campaign and lies, and that enough of them will be moved by his work over the last two years to send him back to D.C.
Jones’ comments came during a lengthy interview on the Alabama Politics This Week podcast. He also discussed his plans to address some of Alabama’s most pressing issues and also praised Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican.
But it was Jones’ comments about Alabama voters — and whether too many of them are incapable of moving away from the Republican Party — that were most interesting. Jones still believes there are open-minded voters in the state, and that there isn’t enough attention being paid to polls showing a growing dissatisfaction in Alabama with President Donald Trump.
“There are a number of things that Donald Trump has done that people (in Alabama) don’t agree with,” Jones said. “There are a number of things that he’s done that’s hurt Alabama and that they’re not OK with. That’s where I come in.”
Jones said his work in the Senate, where he’s sponsored the most bipartisan legislation over the last two years, should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
“I tell everyone, you owe it to yourself to look at every candidate and every issue,” Jones said. “I do that. I’ve been a Democrat all my life but I don’t think that I have ever pulled a straight lever. Because I look at every issue. I will tell you that there have been times that I didn’t vote for people who are Democrats for whatever reason — I just couldn’t do it. I think we owe it to ourselves to do that.”
Jones had the perfect example to drive the point home.
“Y’all all know our state auditor, Jim Zeigler? Jim wasn’t always a Republican. Jim’s first runs for office were as a Democrat.
“I rest my case.”
You can listen to the full interview at the Alabama Politics This Week website, or you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
New unemployment claims decreased last week
Fewer people joined the unemployment rolls last week compared to the week before.
There were 7,964 new unemployment claims filed in Alabama last week, down from 8,581 filed the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.
Of the claims filed between Oct. 11 and Oct. 17, there were 4,032 related to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s 51 percent, compared to 36 percent the previous week.
Trump to visit Pensacola tonight
Trump is making a push in Florida in the final weeks of the election, and Northwest Florida is part of his strategy.
Neither presidential candidate is likely to visit Alabama before the general election, as both campaigns accept that Alabama will be certainly in President Donald Trump’s camp on election day no matter what else happens. While Alabama is not a swing state, Georgia and Florida are both in play, and both campaigns are devoting enormous resources there.
Trump is making a push in Florida in the final weeks of the election, and Northwest Florida is part of his strategy. Trump will be just across the Florida-Alabama state line visiting Pensacola and is scheduled to address supporters at the ST Engineering hangar beginning at 7 p.m. CT.
The doors open at 4 p.m. and the event begins at 7:00 p.m.
The president’s rally tonight comes right after a visit to Pensacola last week by Second Lady Karen Pence and is one of many Florida campaign events planned for Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump arrived in Florida after Thursday’s final presidential debate with Joe Biden. He is scheduled to hold a campaign event in The Villages before traveling to Pensacola. The president will spend the night at his Palm Beach resort Mar-a-Lago and will vote early Saturday.
The vice president will hold rallies in Lakeland and Tallahassee on Saturday. Florida has 27 electoral college votes. It would be very difficult for Trump to get the 270 electoral college votes necessary to win without winning Florida.
Democrats warn that attending a Trump rally could be dangerous due to the coronavirus threat.
“The last thing Floridians need is for Donald Trump to host more potential superspreader rallies across our state,” Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo said in a statement on the rally in Pensacola. “What we do need, however, is a president capable of putting Floridians ahead of his own self-interest and get this pandemic under control.”
Most recent polls have Trump trailing Biden in Florida. Tickets are required to attend the rally.