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Bill could spawn Branson, Mo.-style site in Alabama

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama House passed a bill last week that a legislator hopes will clear the way for creation of a country music development in Coffee County between Enterprise and Elba.

As envisioned, the development would include outdoor and indoor theaters, a golf course, amusement park and new homes, and it would regularly feature performances by nationally known country acts.

“This will be a first-class tourism destination,” said Rep. Terry Spicer, D-Elba.

The property is located off Alabama 167, a popular route for tourists traveling to Panama City or other Northwest Florida beaches.

The House on Tuesday voted 56-30 for a bill to create an enterprise zone at the location of the property, which Spicer said would make the project eligible to receive federal grants.

A controversial provision would allow the sale of alcoholic beverages on the property, even though Coffee is a dry county. Alcoholic sales are permitted in Enterprise and Elba.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where Spicer said he is concerned it could be in jeopardy because a sessionlong fight over rules had blocked most legislation.

Spicer said country music legend George Jones is one of the investors in the project. Jones is in the process of building a home near Enterprise. Spicer predicted that country music stars Alan Jackson and Kenny Chesney would be among those who would perform at the Coffee County site. He said plans include hosting a music festival once a year that would feature top country music acts.

The director of the Alabama Tourism and Travel Agency, Lee Sentell, said he is aware of the plans for a country music entertainment development.

“It sounds like a great concept and one that should attract a lot of attention,” Sentell said. “That part of Alabama is on the route for people headed to Panama City. That’s a lot of traffic and this could detour them to spend time in Alabama.”

On the floor of the House on Tuesday during debate of the bill, Spicer and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay, compared the development to Branson, Mo., a popular tourist destination in Southwest Missouri that features live musical acts in more than 40 theaters.

“This project would open us up to tourism like we’ve never seen before,” Morrow said.

Spicer said he asked Morrow to sponsor the legislation because he is the chairman of the House Tourism and Travel Committee and has sponsored similar bills in the past.

Sentell said it’s not far-fetched to think that such an attraction could be built in Alabama. He said Branson started out small and grew into a resort location that had 7.3 million visitors in 2006.

Spicer said Enterprise businessman Ronnie Gilley is developing the project.

Much of the debate on the House floor centered on legalizing the sale of alcoholic beverages at one location in the middle of a dry county. Spicer and Morrow both said the sale of liquor was needed to help lure tourists.

But several lawmakers said they don’t think an attraction has to offer alcoholic beverages to draw visitors and pointed out that, until recent years, alcoholic beverages were not sold in many restaurants and theaters in Branson, Mo.

“A lot of people don’t travel just to drink,” said Rep. Arthur Payne, R-Trussville.

Several weeks ago, Jones visited Spicer at the Statehouse and met with officials in the House and Senate to talk about the project.

Spicer said the project is close to becoming a reality and he expects “to start turning dirt” as soon as the legislation receives final approval and is signed by the governor.

“We’re ready to roll if we can get this piece of legislation passed,” Spicer said.

“This is going to be a little Nashville right here in Coffee County,” he said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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