GULF SHORES, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's attempt to rebuild its beachfront state park using oil spill money is again embroiled in controversy, with a businessman arguing officials are shutting down his adventure attraction within the resort and refusing him $40,000 in compensation as construction continues on a new coastal hotel.
Years after a hurricane virtually wiped out Gulf State Park, located between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Tom Schlinkert came up with a ride that both gave visitors something to do and provided money for a park system struggling for money: a zip line, where guests suspended from a cable whiz between tall towers erected across the street from the beach.
Built at a cost of $750,000, Schlinkert said, the attraction has lured thousands of visitors and has provided more than $450,000 in revenue-sharing and tax revenues for state and local governments. But now, officials are ending Schlinkert's contract to operate the zip line after four years.
Documents provided by Schlinkert show the state has decided against extending his contract to operate the Gulf Adventure Center at the park, where the state is constructing a 350-room hotel across a road from the zip line course. The state's plan to use money from the BP oil spill to build the resort resulted in a lawsuit that means funding for the project is still up in the air even as construction moves ahead.
The state's long-term plan says a zip line attraction will be relocated to another part of the park once the hotel is complete, and Schlinkert's contract says the state must provide him with $40,000 to relocate the zip line if the conservation commissioner notifies Schlinkert in writing that the current zip line site is needed for development of a new park lodge.
But the hotel isn't being built on the zip line site, and Conservation Commissioner Gunter Guy hasn't written such a letter to Schlinkert. So, Schlinkert said, he's both going out of business and getting nothing in return for his property since the state is refusing to pay the $40,000.
"I can't believe they are actually doing this," Schlinkert said.
State parks director Greg Lein said the zip line course is popular with its customers, but not everyone likes its location at a public day-use area at Lake Shelby. He also said the presence of a paid concession complicates both collecting fees from visitors and planning for the future.
"It is for those reasons, and other ongoing changes we are planning and undertaking at Gulf State Park that we no longer intend to host a concession zip line operation at the park's Lake Shelby Day Use Area," he said in a statement. The dispute is in mediation, Lein said.
The state has been trying to spruce up Gulf State Park since 2004, when Hurricane Ivan swamped the old lodge and caused extensive damage elsewhere on the more than 6,100-acre property.
The state began construction earlier this year on a new park hotel using money provided by BP to repair damage caused by the Gulf oil spill in 2010. The project, which includes environmental restoration work at an educational center, is expected to cost some $135 million.
Ruling in a lawsuit by an environmental group, a federal judge blocked the state from using $58.5 million in BP funding because a required analysis had not been done. Construction is continuing, and the state said the study is now being performed.
Meanwhile, the state auditor and a legislator have filed a state lawsuit claiming lawmakers did not authorize the use of BP money for the project.