In 2004, Hurricane Ivan tore up the hotel at the Gulf State Park. Soon afterward, Gov. Bob Riley proposed a plan for a new hotel and convention center project that would involve a predetermined private operator, student labor and a long-term lease. The plan had harsh critics.
Looking at it another way, the Riley plan would bring in a quality company to run the place, provide an educational opportunity for Auburn University students and create environmental protection.
Opponents took the issue to court because they said it allowed unfair competition with other hotels because it did not use state employees to run it, because it would be priced beyond the reach of most Alabamians and because the lease arrangement was illegal.
The state Supreme Court decided the lease was illegal.
So legislators, in one of those rare acts of cooperation, got together and made a host of worthwhile decisions:
The hotel would be built — but the project would be bid.
State employees would be involved in running the hotel.
The law would be changed to allow a 70-year lease.
Auburn hotel management students could use it as a learning lab.
It would be built further back from the gulf and take up less space, so the beach and surrounding areas would be protected.
Local governments would be involved in the negotiations.
And room rates would be reasonable in comparison to similar hotels.
The bill passed, and the governor signed it. It is law.
But there are those, led by former Conservation Commissioner Charley Grimsley, who want to make sure that the "average Alabamian" can afford to enjoy this state property. As he put it, "a four-star hotel's rate would not be reasonable to the public," and he added that "if Gov. Riley violates this section (of the bill), I will carry him back to court so fast it will make his head swim."
If Grimsley does that, the state will face another long, expensive court battle.
Rather than split hairs over what is comparable to other hotels, perhaps it would be better for the state to provide free shuttles to the beach for folks who rent the cheaper cottages.
The state also could provide reasonably priced beach concessions for those renters and for visitors who drive in for the day.
It would not hurt those paying the big bucks for a hotel room to rub shoulders with folks who can't afford those rooms — or who would not rent them if they could. Alabama's beaches are remarkably democratic places. Put all of us together there. Everyone would be better for it.