Bill to build Ala. Coast resort passes to Senate

Kathy Wingard, Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- A bill that would open the way for construction of a major lodge and conference center at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores moved one step closer to reality Thursday as it advanced to the full state Senate.

Supporters in Gov. Robert Bentley's administration said the resort would attract visitors to Alabama who are currently drawn to spend their vacation dollars to the Florida Panhandle or Mississippi's Gulf coast. Critics oppose the plan for development on one of Alabama's most pristine coastal stretches.

A previous hotel on the same 29 acres did a thriving business until it was severely damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

The legislation would provide for the use of proceeds from the proposed lodge and convention center to fund state park projects through the State Conservation Department. The bill's sponsor, Republican Senator Tripp Pittman, whose district includes Orange Beach, said the bill also would allow for flexibility in designating who manages the property.

In a move to earmark possible funds from the BP oil spill litigation, the bill proposes the use of a portion of the 3-mile long beach front area, all of which would remain accessible to the public. Court settlement terms could control where and how the money could be used, but backers of the bill said they felt it would survive any challenges.

The Senate Tourism and Marketing Committee passed several amendments to the legislation, including a change that would require a 12-member joint oversight committee to meet and discuss any business proposals before they are acted upon.

By a unanimous decision, the committee added an amendment by Republican Sen. Paul Sanford that affirms that no gambling of any kind would be permitted on the property.

Previous efforts to build a new conference center and lodge to replace the one demolished by Ivan have run into multiple lawsuits and problems. Pittman said that the bill has been crafted carefully to allow for accommodation in the event of lawsuits, seeking to ensure any project would not be halted by potential court filings.

Before the measure was sent along to the full Senate, representatives of the State Conservation Department were questioned about insurance on the previous facility at the site, among other matters.

Five committee members voted to return a favorable report to the Senate on the bill. Republican Sens. Dick Brubaker, of Montgomery and Paul Sanford, of Huntsville, opposed relaying the measure to the full chamber.