On Monday evening, hundreds of people packed the Pelham Civic Center to voice their opinions about the possibility of a 175-room hotel and 20,000 square-foot convention center being built in Oak Mountain State Park.
The tone in the room, according to Alabama State Parks Director Greg Lein, was clearly negative. At one point, as Lein took questions from the audience, a man who said he favored the hotel being built was booed.
The Alabama State Parks Department and local government are in the exploratory stages of this proposed project and have made no decisions on whether the hotel and conference center would even be feasible, Lein said.
The city of Pelham and the Shelby County Commission approached the Alabama State Parks Department about the possible project, he said. Lein was noncommittal when asked if he favored a hotel being built in one of Alabama’s more profitable state parks. “I am for considering the possibilities,” he said.
Contrary to the belief held by some at the meeting, Oak Mountain State Park is not funded by taxpayer dollars. Rather, the park’s revenue is generated through visitors coming into the park. In 2012, the park brought in roughly $3,060,000. A large portion of that, 28 percent, was brought in by gate admissions, according to Lein.
Among the opposition to the development is Keep Oak Mountain Wild (KOMW), which presented Lein with a petition containing more than 3,000 signatures from people who are against the park. When Lein asked to see the hands of those who opposed the hotel, nearly every hand in the room shot up.
Rita Jablonski-Jaudon, chairperson for KOMW, said she is not against all development in the park, just projects that don’t make sense.
“Overall we are concerned with preserving the beauty and integrity of the park,” Jaudon said. “The people within our organization are concerned about the possible hotel because it doesn’t seem like a good idea given the layout of the park.”
She said that the proposed hotel would be put by the “golf course and petting zoo, which is already one of the most congested areas of the park.”
Any construction or increased traffic, Jaudon said, would disrupt activities such as horseback riding and livestock lessons. “Sometimes I volunteer as a guide for the horseback tours out there,” Jaudon said, “and I’ve already almost been hit by oncoming traffic.”
Jaudon and others at Monday’s meeting pointed out that there are already 10 hotels within five miles of the park that operate at about 60 percent occupancy throughout the year, as verified by a feasibility study done for local governments. “So you’re going to put a hotel and conference center in an area that is already saturated with hotels that are underutilized,” Jaudon said.
Lein noted a study that indicated if a person does not go camping by the time they are 17, then they are not going to start later on in life. A hotel might bring more people. “We are just trying to think of other ways to get people to visit the parks,” Lein said.
Of the 22 state parks in Alabama, Lein said, 10 of those parks account for 91 percent of the expenditures. “It’s not all about the money, but boy, you have got to pay attention to that,” Lein said.
Rollin Johnson, 75, said that he has lived his entire life adjacent to the park, and still walks the trails twice a week whatever the weather. “This park is an absolute treasure, and a jewel for this part of the country. It’s the only place that is left around here that is a natural, southern, woodland area. This place is precious to me,” Johnson said over applause from the crowd.
“You can’t tell me that putting a hotel in the middle of that park would not change what that park is and its appeal. It can’t be done without destroying a part of that treasure, and once it’s done it can never be replaced,” Johnson continued. “We’re not a resort and we will never be a resort.”
Although some of the people who opposed the park shouted during the discussion, Lein gave everyone who wanted to speak a chance to use the microphone. “I haven’t run despite the clear tone of the room,” Lein said as the crowd began to dwindle several hours into the meeting.
The timeframe for the proposed development could be determined by the end of the year, Lein said. “If there is any dissension between any of the parties involved or if we don’t think it is a good idea to move forward, then we won’t,” he said.
“We’ve committed to explore this concept,” Lein continued, “but we haven’t committed to anything beyond that.”