By David Underhill –
The dermatologist moonlighting as Alabama’s governor, Robert Bentley, has shown that neither of these pursuits is his true talent. He is actually a master prestidigitator.
Only an amateur magician distracts by elaborate maneuvers with one hand, while the other is slyly inserting the rabbit into the top hat, displayed as empty a moment before. The master stuffs the bunny into the hat with both hands in full view of the audience, then snatches it out while declaring he has just materialized it from nothing, and they gasp in believing wonder.
Magical Bentley recently performed this trick at the state’s sole park fronting the Gulf of Mexico. And even those not fooled were so awed by the daring and audacity of it that they’ve remained dumbstruck.
BP’s exploded offshore oil well will pay for the show. Dormant dreams of building something swanky on the beach at Gulf State Park revived when the goop came ashore with the prospect of huge fines and court settlements rolling in behind. This spring the state enacted a law giving itself permission to contract with private developers for creating a BP-funded project in the park.
It would not be a campground for tents and RVs, nor cottages among the shoreline dunes for family vacations. In early May the governor committed truth, which is a capitol offense. He made the clumsy mistake of speaking honestly about what the facility would be and why. It would combine a pricy hotel with a large convention center.
Because: “I’m tired,” he said, “to travel to Sandestin, Florida to speak to…Alabama doctors and lawyers. I want the money that they spend in Sandestin to be spent along our shores.” He specified in the two coastal towns bracketing the park, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, plus the neighboring inland area. The mayors of those towns echoed the governor.
This honesty revealed too plainly who the park project was for. In the lingo of the occupy movement, it would be a private preserve for the 1% on a prime beachfront parcel of a public park meant for the 99%.
Governor Bentley’s handlers escalated into Condition Red and activated the emergency response system. By mid-May the repairs to conceal the truth were complete, and the governor performed his magic act, flanked by local dignitaries during a press conference at the project site on the beach.
Although the plans hadn’t changed, the description of them had. The hotel vanished, and a lodge appeared. The convention center evaporated, and a mere conference center took its place.
The doctors and lawyers and their dollars also went Poof! Instead the governor imagined a facility that “everyone can visit and enjoy. I want more families to come to the Gulf State Park and explore our natural resources.”
The dignitaries nodded and smiled.
And the antique media evidently went into a stupor, since none of them present asked the obvious: Just a couple weeks ago you were saying this was for conventioning doctors and lawyers. Now you say it’s for ordinary families to commune with nature. Are the plans altered or just the pitch?
Questions unasked remain unanswered. In front of the cameras Mister Magical disappeared the original and accurate vision for the park and pulled out a cosmetically enhanced deceptive vision. His confidence about getting away with this was correct. The accompanying official clique appreciated his slick dexterity. The pet media suffered amnesia about the initial truth and swallowed the new twisted truth whole. And the general public, as a result, scarcely realized and therefore did not complain that the master magician’s story had changed.
Misusing Human Use
Enviro obsessives, however, who want BP’s fines and other penalties to pay for healing oily injuries rather than financing realtors’ fantasies, knew that something was fishy. This money was supposed to be for fishes and oysters and marshes, not for builders and operators of elite beach resorts.
Apart from thousands of small settlements already paid to affected individuals like fishermen, the big baskets of money finally arriving are aimed by law first and specifically at repairing environmental damages. Later baskets, bearing the fruits of ongoing lawsuits against BP, are intended to also restore coastal economies long battered by reckless humans and occasional natural rampages.
If building a convention center on the beach could logically qualify for any BP funding, it should come from these later sources. So said several local enviro orgs, also some national ones. They consider this a test case. If the governor and his crony capitalists pull off this heist diverting natural resource recovery money into real estate development, then a coast-wide free-for-all boondoggle beckons.
Governor Bentley and his crew did have a small, frail peg to hang a clunky argument on. The law guiding distribution of BP’s initial payments allows them not only to revive damaged natural habitats but also to restore human uses hampered by the oil.
That’s exactly what the construction project on the beach will do, say its promoters. A guest facility used to occupy the same site in the park and this new one will draw people back, they assert.
But as sectors of the standard media have noted, along with others, that old venue — a modest, motel-like place with some meeting space attached — was wrecked by a hurricane a decade ago and never rebuilt. Since then the human uses of that location have been swimming, strolling, and sunning along the beach. But the intended convention center and hotel will generate human uses of a size and type quite unlike the casual outdoor uses at the time BP’s well erupted.
It has been entertaining to watch the governor and his comrades struggle to explain how building a convention complex restores human uses that were not occurring at the time of the disruptive event as a result of which money is now being provided to restore non-existent human uses which will come into existence later by expenditure of this money. Medieval monks solemnly discoursing on the number of angels that might dance on a pinhead could not have been more amusing.
Out With It
They could have spared themselves from the mental contortions by following the example of Orange Beach mayor Tony Kennon, who is prone to frank speech — to the likely dismay of his colleagues. In a recent NPR report (Gulf Coast States Get Creative With BP Oil Spill Money, 5/28/13) about the convention center scheme he clarified the issues. Projects to repair the environment require time and care to prepare and carry out, he said, but ones under the heading of restoring human use dangle money “that’s ready for us to grab right now.”
Or they could have approached enviro activists who would have offered alternate ideas for fostering human uses of the park, if that was truly the officials’ purpose. For miles along the gulf shore in both directions from the park, the beach has been overrun by a forest of condos and other structures. The park’s beach and dunes are the only remaining stretch in any condition approximating the original. This, along with the landward sections of the park, has the potential to become a unique nature tourism destination unequaled for hundreds of miles along the coast. BP’s money could enable that.
Far more people would come to use the park for this reason than to loll around a convention complex, provided measures were taken to prevent the visitors from overrunning and spoiling the place’s natural appeal. And with careful planning the park might even host demonstration projects for coaxing energy from the ocean’s winds and waves, rather than puncturing it for fossil fuels. Funding that with BP’s fines would be poetic justice.
Valuation Values Plus a Salute
But these are reasons that won’t persuade the governor’s crew. While they adore blathering about Christian and family values, the values receiving their genuine devotion are evident in their behavior. Those values are money and property.
Beachfront land is so spectacularly expensive that most citizens will never be able to set foot on it, except by approaching it through the few tracts still held by the public. And the governor’s bunch want to seize one of the finest remaining spots for an exclusive enclave.
This suits upstate interests who’ve said bluntly that they support the project not for any coastal restoration it offers but for the state’s portion of convention center revenues, which can be deployed hundreds of miles inland. It pleases the usual gaggle of contractors and fixers jostling for a share of the action when the money gusher uncorks. And it delights the Tea Party types, who yearn to privatize all of life.
Their combined aim is to erect on the beach in the state’s most popular and cherished park a convention compound that amounts to a giant middle finger salute to everybody who can’t afford to participate in human use of the beach — except in rare places like this, which the governor’s clique intends to seize in the name of restoring human use.
Unless those slated for exclusion decide to perform their own magic trick at the next election and make the governor and his gang disappear.
David Underhill is an occasional camper and kayaker (but not yet and maybe never a zipliner) at Gulf State Park on the Alabama coast.
© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.