Alabama’s “crown jewel” for tourism, a gleaming hotel and convention center at Gulf State Park financed primarily with BP’s payouts for its 2010 oil spill, opened Friday with reflections from public officials about its predecessor that was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan 14 years ago.
Coastal politicians, and even those from northern areas of the state, recalled their memories of visiting Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Those recollections included family vacations to the old state-owned lodge and hotel originally built in 1974.
“It was terrible to lose something that was part of our history,” said Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft.
Indeed, the $140 million new Lodge at Gulf State Park, which includes a 350-room Hilton Hotel, is viewed as a significant upgrade over the old lodging complex that had long been surpassed as a hospitality attraction by the host of towering condos along coastal Alabama’s sugar-white sand beaches.
The new Lodge, which is being marketed as having the largest beach view ballroom on the Gulf Coast, includes meeting spaces to accommodate up to 1,000 people; a 5,500-square-foot outdoor terrace; a pool and restaurant facing the Gulf of Mexico.
The complex actually hosted its first overnight stays Thursday. The first large-scale events inside the conference center will occur next week.
Room prices will vary depending on the time of the year, though a king-size bed balcony room for next weekend has been going for around $200. A spokeswoman said that would be about the average rate for rooms.
The project was financed largely by Alabama’s earliest settlements from the BP oil spill through the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process.
The money was designated under former Gov. Robert Bentley’s administration, with approval from the NRDA trustees. It was almost immediately criticized by environmental groups who argued that a new hotel and conference center was not the type of project that warranted settlement money from the oil spill.
Bentley’s name wasn’t mentioned during Friday’s grand opening ceremony. Bentley resigned in April 2017 after pleading guilty to misdemeanor campaign finance and ethics violations that arose from an alleged affair with a top aide.
Instead, officials credited a host of public officials who eyed the development of a beachside conference center for decades. Also credited was Gov. Kay Ivey, the Republican who took over after Bentley resigned, and who is up for election Tuesday against Democratic Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox.
“Governor Bentley, he was the governor when we dealt with the BP oil spill money and that was one of the things leading us to a funding mechanism for this project, of course,” said Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon. “But you have to remember, if you look back over the years, we can name Governor Bentley, but we can also name those who were significant in trying to keep this thing as a point of discussion in the Legislature.”
Ivey, who noted that “no tax money” was spent to develop The Lodge, has long called the complex as “crown jewel” attraction for tourism. After touring the complex, she called it a “cozy place” that is “not fancy.”
“It makes you feel relaxed,” said Ivey. “This is a beautiful facility, very practical and provides every convenience known to man. It’s impressive.”
Ivey had already become governor after the state agreed to settle a lengthy lawsuit with environmental groups such as the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network (GRN). That settlement, reached about a year ago, enabled the project to move forward and requires Alabama to spend $65.1 million over 15 years to maintain and operate the public amenties at Gulf State Park.
GRN sued the state in federal court four years ago over the use of $58.5 million for the beachside complex.
Cynthia Sarthou, executive director at GRN, said last year that the settlement was a “huge win” that ensures the BP disaster funds go toward providing free beach and park access to Alabama residents for 20 years. She declined to comment about Friday’s opening.
Other environmental groups, though, see a silver lining with the complex’s opening, noting that it was built to withstand strong hurricanes, and is considered a model development for sustainability.
Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, said she felt that the designers of the project “did everything right” to build a complex that is at peak energy efficiency. The Lodge, once it receives official certification, will be the only hotel in the world with a combination of three high-end certifications in energy efficiency and fortified construction.
The Lodge was built under strict standards. It has a roof that can handle the strongest of hurricane-force winds, and is built well above flood levels to better protect it against storm surge.
State’s new mega-hotel ready to weather storms that may come
“There are a lot of challenges for what this project is and the fact that it is an expensive hotel that not everyone in the state of Alabama will be able to afford to go,” Callaway said earlier this week. “But as far as I can tell, this is what we want to see in future construction along the coast.”
The high-end construction was recognized by an executive with Hilton Hotels, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019. “It will be a model for around the world,” said John Koshivos, vice-president of franchise development at Hilton Hotels.
The complex’s opening does somewhat cloud the future of the nearby Perdido Beach Resort, which has long hosted the conventions and meetings of a variety of special-interest and professional associations.
Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon acknowledged the competition during his public remarks, but added that he as “convinced” that there was enough tourism business to “go with everyone.”
Ivey also acknowledged the competition, saying it will be good for everyone involved.
Kennon also said he was promised that revenues generated at The Lodge will be reinvested into the nearby State Park, which he called a “crown jewel” for Orange Beach.
“Anything less than perfect, shut it down,” said Kennon. “I expect Disney World to come see us to see how it’s done, not us going to see them.”