A world-class convention center in Gulf Shores. Low-fare airline service at Mobile Regional Airport. A permanent solution to Alabama’s coastal insurance crisis.
Those ideas and dozens more were flying through the fall air Tuesday as members of the Alabama Coastal Recovery Commission gathered for their inaugural meeting at the Five Rivers-Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort.
The panel of more than 80 members took the first steps toward the creation of a comprehensive plan to guide the state’s recovery from the Gulf oil spill. Its recommendations will be compiled in a report to be delivered to Gov. Bob Riley and the governor-elect by Dec. 15.
The commission’s roster is diverse, including members from a range of interests and industries in Mobile and Baldwin counties and from upstate. The group includes U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, Alabama Speaker of the House Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, and U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, among others.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Bentley appointed state Rep. Spencer Collier, R-Irvington, as his representative on the commission, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ron Sparks appointed Mobile real estate executive B.T. Roberts.
Riley told the group that Alabama could receive billions of dollars from penalties and fines levied on BP by the federal government.
“There are going to be significant amounts of money distributed along the coast,” Riley said. “And it’s going to be up to us now to make a determination about what we do with it. It’s an opportunity I’m not too sure we’ll ever have again.”
Riley emphasized that the commission’s work is separate from the claims process being run by claims czar Ken Feinberg.
“That’s another fight,” he said. “This is about the long-term opportunities we have as a region.”
Commission Chairman Ricky Mathews said the group’s first challenge is to get a handle on the extent of damage caused by the oil spill.
“If we’re going to create a roadmap to resilience, we have to understand the impact. We have to identify our vulnerabilities before we can develop a vision to address them,” Mathews said. “We have to keep it simple, we have to make it transparent — everything we do will be public — and we have to do it fast.”
Mathews, the publisher of the Press-Register, led a similar panel in south Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina. He said that the BP catastrophe may be more complex because, unlike a hurricane, much of the damage is not visible to the eye.
At Mathews’ direction, members of the commission split into clusters to begin listing ways that Alabama was affected by the oil spill and to pitch ideas for strengthening the coast against future catastrophes.
After a lunch of fried shrimp and catfish, the members divided into three “umbrella” committees assigned to examine the economic, environmental and health impacts of the catastrophe. Those committees, in turn, formed sub-groups to examine specific impacts on tourism, seafood, small business and other categories.
Mathews said that the commission plans a series of public meetings Nov. 8-12, and that regular updates on its progress will be published on its website: www.crcalabama.org. Mathews said that the commission is privately funded through money paid to the state by BP, and that no tax dollars are being used to support its work.