March 16, 2017

By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Now that Spring Break is in full swing on the Alabama Gulf Coast, loads of beachgoers are traveling between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. And it’s almost certain that most are wondering about all that construction adjacent to the Gulf State Park Pier.

The answer is the resurrection of the Gulf State Park Lodge. The original lodge and convention center was wrecked by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and a new and extensively improved version has a projected completion date of May 2018 for the park’s beachfront construction.

Cooper Shattuck has been involved in multiple capacities with the Gulf State Park Project (GSPP) since its inception. The project will not use any taxpayer money to restore and enhance the state’s premier state park.

Shattuck said $141 million will be used to rebuild the lodge that was washed away by Ivan’s storm surge, construct a new Learning Campus inside the park, build an interpretive center, enhance the experience for the park’s 600,000 annual visitors with new trails and features and restore the park’s sugar-sand dunes with new techniques and the planting of native vegetation.

The first $85 million of the funding came from an early BP settlement from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“As part of the BP settlement that was reached last year, BP wanted and agreed to pay an additional $50 million,” Shattuck said. “Together with other BP grant monies, this gives the $141 million to complete the entire project, which will be done with no state dollars. That’s significant. There will be no bonds, no debt, 100 percent of the funds will come from BP.”

A judge overseeing litigation involving the project asked that additional alternatives be considered before deciding on using any of the money on the lodge and conference center. Shattuck said those additional alternatives have been identified and analyzed, and the design team has taken advantage of that pause to make further improvements to the plans.

“As part of that process, we’ve had the time and ability to add more enhancements to the project that will allow for greater public access than what was originally anticipated,” he said. “Part of that was going through the master-planning process, and part of it was recognizing elements that would be helpful to the public, and we found a way to include them in the money we received.

“So, we’ve taken a potential obstacle and used it as a stepping stone to something better. As a great example, we’re adding something I think has been needed for a long time – two pedestrian overpasses over the beach road. When those are completed, you’ll be able to walk or bike from the north side to the beach side. That’s huge, and now is the time to do it. It will link the trail network, which will be enhanced, to the beach. So people staying at the campground or using the trail network can get to the beach without having to dodge traffic crossing the beach road.”

Shattuck said one overpass would be constructed in the lodge area and the other would be at the pavilion and interpretive center east of the lodge.

“Those weren’t originally contemplated,” he said. “That’s a development that’s significant. Another thing, as a part of the master planning process, we’ve relocated the research and education facility, which we renamed the Learning Campus.”

Instead of shoehorning the Learning Campus on the small parcel of land next to the campground, pool and existing learning center, the Learning Campus will be moved to a tract close to the park’s administration buildings.

“The design team started looking for other places in the park where we could locate the Learning Campus without an impact on cultural resources or habitat,” Shattuck said. “Even though the park is 6,150 acres, when you start looking to put in a program that size, it’s hard to find.

“But we found one near the existing park headquarters. That area up there is already disturbed. There are cabins and parking lots up there. Instead of putting one big building, we’re going to spread it out so it sits lightly on the land.”

The Learning Campus will include several different buildings – a dorm space for students to stay overnight, a building with classrooms and lecture spaces, a building with a restaurant that won’t be limited to students and renovated parking lots that will use permeable material to cut down on water runoff.

“In thinking outside the box, we created a campus that will be more of a benefit to the people and have less of an impact on the environment of the park,” Shattuck said.

Another aspect of the master planning process, which included significant public input, is a transportation system inside the park that will be in addition to the enhancements of the trail system.

“We wanted people to be able to walk and bike through the park more efficiently,” Shattuck said. “But people can’t always do that whether it’s physical imitations or just time. We want them to enjoy the park.

“So one of the elements we’re adding is a tram service. The plan is for it to be operated and maintained by the lodge operator, but it would serve the whole park. It would be an integrated service that would serve the whole park, so we don’t have people driving all over the whole park.”

Another enhancement that will be added is park-wide Wi-Fi service.

“That was a big deal,” Shattuck said. “That was mentioned by a large number of park users. Some people might say why do we want W-Fi in the park? We want people to enjoy the park. But it was a big deal. That’s the way people enjoy the outdoors these days. They don’t carry guidebooks any more. If they see a plant or bird or lizard that they don’t know, they look it up on their smartphones. And, of course, they want to take pictures.”

Shattuck said the reservations system will also be improved for the 350 hotel rooms with meeting space, which can handle 1,000 people. A ballroom in the beachfront complex will accommodate 1,500 people.

“Construction of the Lodge is coming in on time and on budget,” Shattuck said “The relocation of the Learning Campus may mean it won’t be finished until the fall of 2018, but that’s when we anticipate the biggest demand – when the kids get back to school.”

Before Hurricane Ivan, revenues generated at Gulf State Park provided funds to help operate other facilities in the State Parks System.

“After the project is finished, the park is expected to generate a net from the first year in excess of $5.5 million,” Shattuck said. “That’s good. Then it goes up every year as you capture initial costs. It goes from $5.5 million to $6 million until it peaks and plateaus between $6.5 million and $7 million.

“Being able to do this without incurring any debt, that just doesn’t happen. It’s just unheard of. Frankly, BP had a willingness to do it with their vision of seeing how it helps restore those lost recreational uses and the economy on the Gulf Coast. They benefit from it, but we do, too. I think it showed a lot of vision.”

Shattuck said the GSPP team has discovered how cherished the park facilities were to the folks on the Alabama coast.

“It really was part of the culture,” he said. “There were significant events in their lives that occurred at the park from weddings and wedding receptions. That’s where the Rotary Club met. That’s been gone for more than 10 years. This will restore that for the local community yet provide access for visitors to stay on the beach in a place that they will be proud of.

“So many times people have these great visions, and you end up having budget and time restraints that keep you from reaching that vision. This is going to be one of those rare opportunities where what is ultimately going to be put in place is even better than what was planned originally, and that’s rare. Public or private, that’s rare.”

PHOTOS: (David Rainer) The building that will house a 350-room hotel rises from the site of the old Gulf State Park Lodge and seaside cabins, which were damaged so severely by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 that they had to be demolished. The new lodge will have conference room that will accommodate 1,000 people. The projected completion date of the seaside construction is May 2018.

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