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.