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Judge hears bid to stop Gulf park hotel development

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — A Montgomery County judge was asked Wednesday to stop the state from developing a resort at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, unless prices at the hotel are affordable for average Alabama citizens.

Attorneys for several defendants challenging the state's plans told Circuit Judge Gene Reese the $100 million, 350-room hotel planned by the state Conservation Department would be out of the price range of most Alabamians.

"State parks were created for average Alabamians to enjoy. The average Alabamian is not going to be able to afford a Ritz Carlton type of hotel," said Birmingham attorney Bill Baxley, a former lieutenant governor who is representing Perdido Beach Resort, located near the state park.

Others suing to stop the project include former Conservation Commissioner Charley Grimsley, the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama State Employees Association.

After hearing arguments for about two hours Wednesday, Reese said he would issue a ruling after receiving further written arguments from attorneys. He gave attorneys two weeks to submit those written arguments.

Under the state proposal, the hotel and convention center would replace Gulf State Park's 144-room lodge that was destroyed in 2004 by Hurricane Ivan.

It would be run by a private company, West Paces Hotel Group, with Auburn University hospitality industry students working at the site.

Baxley and attorneys for the other defendants said the plan would violate state law and asked Reese to make state officials submit the project for competitive bids before deciding who would operate the hotel and to limit the lease for the hotel to six years.

Attorney Will Gunter, representing the state Conservation Department, said there's nothing in state law that would prohibit leasing the Gulf State Park property for the hotel operation. He said park property has been transferred routinely over the years.

"What we are proposing to do is not novel," Gunter said.

Gunter said the Legislature's joint committee on state parks had approved the plan. He said the hotel would generate income for all of Alabama's state parks, including many that lose money.

"We need this money to fund our other facilities," Gunter said.

In an affidavit filed in the case, Grimsley said it was important for average Alabama residents to be able to visit the hotel.

"Unless halted by this court, this project would take the people's most treasured public asset away from them and turn it into a private playground for only the wealthy," Grimsley said in the affidavit.

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

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