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Building Relationships
251/652-6565
 Convention Center
in Gulf Shores
back on track

Legislators to address project soon

By Kathy Jumper
Mobile Bay Times
Gulf Shores, Ala. – A gulf-front convention center and hotel on state park land is back on the drawing board and could become a reality when the State Legislature meets in February.

Building a resort and conference center on two miles of beachfront that could hold up to 1,000 convention attendees has been debated and legally challenged for more than two decades and through six governors. The original Gulf State Park lodge and meeting center was destroyed in 2004 by Hurricane Ivan.

Most recently Gov. Robert Bentley met with local businessmen and elected officials to put his stamp of approval on the project.

“The governor has promised it will be a four- or five-star development,’’ said Anthony Kaiser, 
chairman of the Gulf United 
Metropolitan Business 
Organization, GUMBO.

He and other locals have had 
several meetings with the 
governor and Gunter Guy Jr., 
commissioner of the state’s 
Department of Conservation 
& Natural Resources.

“Governor Bentley is dedicated to moving forward with the lodge and conference center,’’ Kaiser said.

The wording of the project has been changed in the proposed bill to describe the hotel as a “lodge’’, officials said. That’s to qualify the project for potential funds from BP’s Deepwater Horizon Natural Resources Damage Assessment monies or from the RESTORE Act, which levied $5 billion to $21 billion in fines against BP as a result of the BP oil spill of 2010 on the Gulf Coast.

Rep. Steve McMillan, R-Gulf Shores, has met with locals and Guy to iron out the details of the legislation and will help introduce the bill in 
February. The bill is a revised 
version of a bill that did not 
pass in the last legislative 
session. It would authorize the 
Department of Conservation & 
Natural Resources to enter into 
project agreements and provide 
developers the criteria for 
submitting proposals to enhance 
the park.

The goal is to make it a feasible project for a private or public developer to build on the state property, according to local and state officials.

“I know there will be some opposition,’’ McMillan said.

But he adds, the lodge would complement the existing hotels and condominiums at the Gulf. 

“It will help Alabamians. Basically they are going out-of-state for conventions and I know the ones that I’ve talked to would like to stay in Alabama. But we can’t accommodate them.’’

Lawyers for the privately-owned Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach have challenged the state’s plans for a hotel and conference center in the past. A resort spokesman declined to comment on the latest proposed legislation.

The revised bill opens the door for a lot of different options, said Kaiser, chief operating officer at Century 21/Meyer Real Estate in Gulf Shores. For example, Kaiser said the state could develop the conference center and a private company could develop and run the hotel.

“We will do what makes sense,’’ he said. “Gov. Bentley is committed to it. We are all on the same page. We now have some trust factors built with the governor and his Cabinet.’’

Developer Paul Kirkland of Gulf Shores was asked for his input on last year’s bill, and he sent Guy a written recommendation, including 
suggesting the state hire a bond 
lawyer to work up the proposed
 legislation.

Kirkland and his development 
partners had tried unsuccessfully 
in the 1990s to get Starwood to 
build a hotel and convention 
center. When the issue was 
revisited last year, the state and locals sought his advice.

The new bill addresses some of the problems that developers face when trying to build on state park land, Kirkland said. One example is that state law stipulating that a developer can lease the land for seven years, does not allow the private developer enough time to build the project and get it up and running and make it work, according to Kirkland.

Kirkland has partnered with hotel developer Marty Collins, president and CEO of Gatehouse Capital in Dallas, Texas, and they plan to bid on the project if the new bill passes. Collins is a preferred developer for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, and Gatehouse has led the development of more than $1 billion new hotel projects from California to Florida since 1997.

In fact, Kirkland and Collins have an estimated $100 million hotel and conference complex designed and ready to go, and includes a 1,000-room hotel to be built in two phases and a 52,655-square-foot convention center with an educational facility. 

Kirkland has met with University of South Alabama folks about using part of the hotel to teach and train students in hospitality and hotel management, and a dorm would be set up on site. Their proposal would also update the state park’s golf course including a new clubhouse; retail space and spa and fitness facility.

The hotel/convention project would be an economic boost for the beach towns, according to Kirkland. “Our area is not a year round community, but if we had a convention center, we could schedule conventions in the fall and spring. It would generate jobs and put Gulf Shores and Orange Beach on the map.’’

Most of the local hotel and condominium management staffs support the idea of a conference center and lodge for conventions, according to Kaiser. 

“Our eyes are on the economic engine it will have for the whole state.’’

(Editor's noteKathy Jumper's new email address is jumper@mobilebaytimes.com)
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