Natural issue: OMSP hotel proposal sparks debate
By GRAHAM BROOKS and NEAL WAGNER / Shelby County Reporter
Local county and city leaders have voiced support of continuing to examine a plan for a proposed Oak Mountain State Park hotel and conference center, as a local group is speaking out in opposition to the project.
A one-page summary was distributed at a late February Shelby County Commission meeting with details on the proposed project.
According to the summary, the purpose of the project is to provide a facility with additional amenities in the state park to the residents of Alabama, provide further economic support of park facilities, establish the first lodging facility with large conference meeting and assembly space with a full-service restaurant in Shelby County.
The study recommendations include approximately 175 rooms, 15,000-20,000 square feet of meeting space, an estimated 350 parking spaces and more.
During a March 6 interview, Shelby County Manager Alex Dudchock said no decision has been made on the project, and said the county and the city of Pelham are working with the state park system to evaluate the proposal.
“Right now we are simply evaluating, and that’s it,” said Dudchock. “We are looking at each component and going through the detailed approach about the project. Nothing has been decided on and we simply have a summary right now. Everybody is trying to jump to conclusions right now but we are just evaluating and that’s it. Period.”
Some of the 2015 projects under development, review or evaluation that Shelby County and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources are working jointly to complete are as follows: Two new restroom structures, restroom, storage and picnic pavilion building at archery range, actions with playground structures and the potential development of a upper/main lake water recreation feature, actions with Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers, continued evaluation of the feasibility for a hotel, restaurant and conference facility and more.
Mayor voices support
At a February commission meeting, Pelham Mayor Gary Waters went on record in support of the county’s feasibility study and continued evaluation.
“I would like to go on record in supporting this development,” said Waters. “For nearly 38 years that I’ve lived in Pelham, Pelham has had more of a vested interest in that park than the other municipalities. The opponents that will come out and speak against this plan are the same opponents that for the last 38 years have opposed every infrastructure improvement we’ve ever tried to make in Oak Mountain State Park. I would encourage you (Commission) to stay the course, the opponents are always going to be there.”
Approximately seven-acres are needed for the recommended size and scope of the project, according to the summary.
Opposition to the project
Members of the “Keep Oak Mountain Wild” group are disputing information contained in the OMSP hotel and conference center feasibility study, claiming the project could have long-lasting environmental and financial impacts to the area.
During a March 2 public forum with Alabama State Parks Director Greg Lein, the group, which had more than 200 members in attendance, presented Lein with a petition signed by more than 3,500 individuals opposed to the project. As of March 9, the online petition had grown to more than 4,100 signatures.
During the forum, Lein said no decision has been made on the proposed development.
In a written response to the county’s feasibility study on the project released in late January, Keep Oak Mountain Wild wrote it “is concerned, not only for the potential negative ecological impact, but also for the inevitable drain on the financial resources of the city of Pelham, Shelby County and the state of Alabama.”
Concerns with study
In its five-page analysis of the feasibility study, Keep Oak Mountain Wild listed specific concerns it has with the feasibility study and the proposed hotel and conference center project.
During a March 4 phone interview, Keep Oak Mountain Wild member and former Shelby County Circuit Court judge Hub Harrington said he was concerned the feasibility study didn’t compare Oak Mountain with hotel and conference centers in other Alabama state parks.
Harrington said the feasibility study used facilities such as the Auburn Marriott Hotel and Conference Center and the Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa in Florence as references.
“Those facilities have national recognition and marketing behind them,” Harrington said. “Oak Mountain State Park does not have that name recognition or marketing push. That’s such a glaring error that’s hard to ignore.”
Harrington claimed the feasibility study’s “projections and expectations (for the OMSP project) are so incredibly unrealistic,” and said Keep Oak Mountain Wild is concerned the project could lead to theme park-type developments at the park.
“If (the hotel and conference center) is not supporting itself, which in all likelihood it will not, you’ll have to do something to fill it up,” Harrington said. “They’ll have to turn it into Wally World. We will fight that tooth and nail until the cows come home.”
The group’s analysis claimed the project’s “financing options and third-party operation of the hotel are both wrought with legal barriers ignored by the feasibility study,” and claimed the project could place a financial strain on Pelham, Shelby County and the state.
“Every conceptual financing option will violate state statutes,” Harrington said. “Basically, we have begged the County Commission to read our study. If they are not going to make a reasoned and informed decision, we will make it a political decision.”
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