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Gulf State Vote Expected on Thursday

By Beth Clayton

On Thursday, the Alabama House of Representatives will vote on SB231, the proposed legislation to develop a tract of land in Gulf State Park by building a lodge and conference center.

What will this do?
The intent of the legislation is to develop a convention center and vacation spot that will be usable for the average Alabama family, said David Perry, Governor Bentley’s chief of staff in the House Economic Development and Tourism committee meeting.

“This will be a first-class facility,” Perry said. “It will be a facility that all Alabamians will be proud of and can use.”

“You would not want to put this through a competitive bid process and be forced to go with the low bidder. There’s going to be a lease for another company to run it. You wouldn’t want to be forced to go with a Motel 6 if that’s not what the people of Alabama deserve,” Perry said.

During the committee meeting, Perry discussed the importance of making sure that at least half of the rooms in the new facility are affordable for the average Alabama family.

When discussing the average Alabama family, keep in mind that the US Census Bureau reports a median household income of $42,934. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average US household spends approximately $1,415, or 3 percent of the annual household income, on vacation and pleasure trips.

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In the average Alabama household, 3 percent of the annual income constitutes approximately $1,288 for the travel budget.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics further estimates that the average family spends 23 percent of their travel budget on lodging. Using this figure, the average Alabama family spends approximately $296 on vacation lodging.

For a three to six day vacation, this leaves the average Alabama family paying $50-$100 per night, including taxes and fees.

In keeping with Perry’s reference to the Motel 6 chain, a three-night stay in June at the nearest in-state Motel 6 (located in Mobile, Ala.), would cost $150.44.

If the Governor intends to stay with his plan to make at least 50 percent of the rooms accessible to the average Alabama family, a six-night vacation at the new Gulf State Park facility would need to be around the price point of a Motel 6.

Do we need this lodge and conference center?
David Perry, the Chief of Staff for Governor Bentley addressed the House Economic Development and Tourism committee last week in support of the legislation. Perry said that Governor Bentley is tired of traveling to Destin and would like to see the business kept within the state.

Less than 20 miles down the beach, just off the coast, the Orange Beach Event Center can fulfill all of the proposed requirements of the new Gulf State Park facilities, with a variety of beach-front hotels in a range of price points only a short drive away.

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The Orange Beach Event Center can be flexible for a variety of functions, with 18,000 square feet of space. The space can accommodate dinner for 1,800, a reception for 2,000, and an exhibition space that holds 100 booths. Additionally, the space can break out into smaller meeting rooms and features a full catering kitchen.

Understandably, conferences with out of town guests may need event space and hotel rooms on the same property to ease travel issues.

The Perdido Beach Resort is only a few miles down the road from Gulf State Park. This beach-front resort offers 347 guest rooms and 45,000 square feet of total event space, making it the fifth largest hotel in the state, according to Business Alabama.

What will the project provide that the Orange Beach Event Center and the Perdido Beach Resort do not already provide?

One major point of contention for many Republicans is that the gambling prohibition amendment was stripped from the bill on the senate floor.  During the senate committee, Senator Trip Pittman added an amendment to prohibit gambling from ever being allowed on the property at Gulf State Park. However, debate was taking too long, so Pittman stripped amendments from the bill so that the bill would have a chance to reach the House and make it to the Governor before the end of the session.

When the bill went to the House committee, a gambling prohibition amendment was not proposed. The committee voted to give the original legislation a favorable report to send it to the House floor.

If the bill passes the House as written, there will be no provisions to prohibit gambling.

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Under this legislation, if it becomes law, the people of Alabama could rent out their state park to house a casino.

The Gulf State Park is owned by the people of Alabama, and the people of Alabama have adamantly spoken out against gambling, time and time again.

How will we pay for this?
According to section 9 of the bill, “other than project revenues, only National Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) funds or Restore Act funds may be expended to implement this act. If the State of Alabama does not receive or has not be awarded any National Resource Damage Assessment funds or Restore Act funds for the purposes of this act by December 31, 2015, this act is repealed on January 1, 2016.”

According to a letter from the Deepwater Horizon Natural Resource Damage Assessment Trustee Council dated April 16, 2013, the Framework Agreement to provide $1 billion in early restoration projects is the largest of its kind ever reached.

The NRDA process allows trustees to “evaluate injuries to natural resources and the services they provide so the Trustees can ensure those resources and services are fully restored,” the letter says.

The letter continues to explain ten early restoration projects. totaling $71 million, that BP has agreed to fund under the Framework Agreement, including:
1.    Marsh creation,
2.    Costal dune habitat improvements,
3.    Nearshore artificial reef creation,
4.    Oyster cultch restoration,
5.    Construction and enhancement of boat ramps to compensate for lost recreational uses of resources, and
6.    Improvements to nesting habitats for beach-nesting birds and sea turtles.
Additionally, the Gulf State Park project plans to use money from the federal RESTORE Act. According to the Audubon Society, the RESTORE Act diverts Clean Water Act penalty fine funds to the Gulf states, rather than to unrelated federal spending.

“The RESTORE Act creates an essential framework to manage and finance the Gulf Coast recovery,” the Audubon Society’s fact sheet says.  The act mandates that the fines will be spent according to the following breakdown:
•    60% of penalties will be allocated to Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, half of which will be used to fund the Council’s federal environmental plan and half of which will be distributed to the five Gulf States, based on oil spill impacts, spent according to the individual states’ plans.
•    35% will be used for economic and environmental restoration in the Gulf Coast states.
•    According to the RESTORE Act, this money “shall be used to carry out projects and programs to restore, protect, and make sustainable use of the natural resources, ecosystems, fisheries, marine habitats, coastal wetland, and economy of the Gulf Coast.”
•    More specifically, this money may be used for at least one of the following activities: “(1) Coastal protection projects and activities, including conservation, coastal restoration, hurricane protection, and infrastructure directly affected by coastal wetland losses, beach erosion, and the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (2) Mitigation of damage to, and restoration of, fish, wildlife, or natural resources. (3) Implementation of a federally approved marine, coastal, or comprehensive conservation management plan, including fisheries monitoring. (4) Programs to promote tourism in a Gulf Coast State. (5) Programs to promote the consumption of seafood produced from the Gulf Coast ecosystem or adjacent Federal waters. (6) Planning assistance and the administrative costs of complying with this subsection.”
•    5% will be used to monitor the Gulf Coast ecosystem.
Under item number four above, the Gulf State Park project could qualify for RESTORE Act funding. On the Gulf Spill Restoration website, the project is described as an effort to “market the Alabama Gulf Coast as a destination, thus enhancing the area’s economy and quality of life for all residents.”

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The description continues to state that visitors come to the beaches for “white sandy beaches, a safe destination and a clean, unspoiled environment.” Furthermore, “as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, those factors were no longer perceived to be descriptive of the area and, in fact, were at significant risk,” the description states.

Additionally, the decrease in tourism resulted in a decline in the “aesthetic values of their costal environment” and the economic support for the local businesses and communities. The coastal cities of Baldwin County saw a loss of $64.3 million in lodging revenue alone, the description says.

Among the losses in revenue and usage is Gulf State Park, with new modifications that were “underused,” including a swimming pool and camp store.

“The development of a convention center will be an effective and appropriate venture to offer increased access to the state’s beaches, wildlife and waters in order to mitigate the injury created by the Deepwater Horizon disaster,” the project description says.

While the project will likely contribute to the tourism and economic development of the region, bringing in additional revenue from conventions and travel, is a resort–a potential casino–the best way to spend money allocated to restore the Gulf Coast from the Deepwater Horizon disaster?

Visit the Gulf Spill Restoration project website to learn more about what other states are doing with their NRDA money:

Many states are using their funding to restore the ecosystems damaged by the oil spill through projects such as dune restorations, artificial reef habitats and marsh creation.

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The market viability study to determine whether or not the economic impact will be worth the investment should be ready late this summer or early fall.

When the market study becomes available, the Governor will decide whether or not he will move forward with the project, at which time he may issue requests for proposals.

Wait, he MAY issue requests for proposals?
Correct. In the House committee, Representative Joe Hubbard (D-Montgomery) raised the issue over the wording in the legislation.

Section 4(a) of the bill says, “The Governor may issue requests for proposals, in part or in whole, for the construction, development, improvement, lease and beneficial use of a project to persons whom the Governor shall have determined are qualified.”

In committee, Hubbard proposed an amendment to change the word “may” to “shall,” in order to make it mandatory for the Governor to issue requests for proposals, should the market study show that it is viable to move forward with the project.

Essentially, Hubbard was told there was no time for an amendment if they planned to get the legislation through before the end of the session. An amendment would mean that the bill would go back to the Senate, where it would likely be tied up by Democrat filibusters and die before the end of the session.

David Perry, the Governor’s chief of staff, ensured Hubbard that the word “may” simply means that he is not required to issue requests for proposals if the market study shows that the project is not viable.

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The word “shall” is used throughout the remainder of the bill.

He “shall” enter into negotiations of a project agreement.

The Committee on State Parks “shall” meet to approve or reject a project agreement.

Under Perry’s argument, all “shalls” should be “mays” since the Governor may or may not choose to move forward with the project.

So who SHALL get the contract?
In an area with an economy so widely damaged by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, investing all of the restoration money into one area could be interpreted as a narrow approach to reviving the Gulf Coast economy.

Building a lodge and conference center does nothing to restore the ecosystem and marine habitats. It does nothing to help fishermen who lost revenue from the decimated sea life. It does help the tourism industry, which is only one component of the Gulf Coast.

Follow the money on this one.

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