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Who will develop Gulf State Park?

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—On Wednesday Governor Robert Bentley announced that Alabama will receive nearly $100 million in funding as part of the ongoing coastal restoration projects following the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. And today, the state House of Representatives is expected to pass a bill allowing construction of a hotel and conference center in the Gulf State Park, one of the most beautiful stretches of Alabama coastline.

The Administration said that approximately $85.5 million is designated for Gulf State Park enhancements, which include the “lodge and meeting facilities to attract more visitors to the Alabama Gulf Coast.”

With the final pieces in place, one of the remaining big questions is: Who will be chosen to handle the lucrative job of building the hotel and conference center in South Alabama’s most sought-after real estate?

Section 4(a) of the SB231, the Gulf State Park bill, states that “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.”

There is growing controversy over the language because it needlessly opens the door for no-bid contracts that favor politically connected developers, construction companies and others already lined up for piece of the $85.5 million project.

Not long ago, ex-Gov. Bob Riley pushed hard for a plan to build a luxury hotel and convention center on park property. The plan Riley hatched included a partnership between Auburn University and the Atlanta-based West Paces Hotel Group, today known as the Capella Hotel Group:

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“…world-class design, individualized service and attention to detail of a small luxury hotel with the amenities and activities of larger five-star hotels and resorts. … 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.”

While Gov. Bentley considers a Gulf State Park hotel and conference center a priority, Riley was obsessed, pushing behind the scenes to bring a luxury complex to the state-owned property. Through his new day job as a well-connected, well-paid lobbyist, the former Governor remains a major player in big money projects like the Gulf State Park Resort.

So, who does Riley know that might develop Gulf State Park? Perhaps, more importantly, is who knows Riley?

Enter Brett/Robinson Real Estate Development Co., Inc. The company has been in business in Mobile and Baldwin Counties for 30 years and is one of the Gulf’s biggest condo and hotel developers and managers.

Brett/Robinson knows Bob Riley and Riley knows them. Not only were the partners in the Brett/Robinson firm one of Riley’s biggest donors, Riley and his daughter Minda are the developers’ Montgomery lobbyists.

In the way of background, the Brett/Robinson firm (and a series of subsidiary companies) has three partners: Thomas E. “Gene” Brett, his brother Tillis Brett, and Thomas “Tommy” Robinson. The three gave a combined $150,000 to Bob Riley’s 2006 re-election campaign.

Fast-forward to 2010. In one of his final acts as Governor, Bob Riley helped negotiate a $37.2 million payment from BP to his good friends. On December 1, 2010, the Riley administration along with BP and the Brett/Robinson Gulf Corp. announced a deal to settle claims that the Gulf oil spill damaged Brett/Robinson’s massive Phoenix West luxury II condo project on Orange Beach. In exchange for the $37.2 million settlement, individuals who pre-paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for condo units had to sign waivers agreeing not to sue BP or any other entity involved in the spill.

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So, it would appear that Brett/Robinson has a very good friend in the Rileys.

Who knows if the Riley connection will yield another big payday for the Brett/Robinson outfit. But, word around the Statehouse is that Bob Riley’s favorite South Alabama developers are the front runners for the State’s big land and money play.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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