November 16, 1999
The Chamber Establishes A Government
by Bill Patterson
[This is the third article on the modern history of Dauphin Island. The first
covered the building of the bridge to the island during the 1950s, and the
second covered the purchase and development of the island by the Mobile Chamber
The enthusiasm of the Chamber's island boosters did not last long, and by
1970 their plans for a Gulf vacation resort in Mobile County had soured. The
Sand Dunes Casino and the Fort Gaines Club were destroyed, the first by neglect
and the other by fire. The average Mobilian never again stood at the center
of island development. The public lost out because of the inability, or the
unwillingness, of the Chamber and the organizations it created to follow through
with their plans. In the early 1970s the Mobile Press Register, under its
new editor, William Hearin, ran an expose about the deterioration of the public
facilities on the island and demanded the resignation of the members of the
Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board.
The 1960s had been the best years for tourism on Dauphin Island. As soon as
the Chamber's resort opened, thousands of Mobilians traveled each weekend to
the island. Their destination most often was the public beach and fishing pier
at the Sand Dunes Casino. The Casino, built at a cost of $3 million in today's
dollars, was for family recreation, not gambling. The island's new subdivisions,
with their inexpensive lots on streets named by a Chamber committee, were all
sold. The Birmingham News reported "Alabama marshland now choice waterfront"
and that the Dauphin Island subdivisions were the equal of "developments of
land in Florida." In 1959 a Holiday Inn opened on the island, eleven years before
the first chain motel opened in Gulf Shores.
Follow the Money
In his 1974 book, The Development of Dauphin Island, Alabama:
Gem of the Ocean, a Chamber official claimed that Dauphin Island was "rapidly
being turned over to private enterprise, which after all, was the Chamber's
purpose in the first place." The Chamber claimed it had accomplished this
through two organizations set up under the Dauphin Island Trust. These were
the Dauphin Island Property Owners Association and the Dauphin Island Park
and Beach Board. When the trust was signed in 1953, the Chamber intended that
the Association and the Board would run the vacation island. This trust, drawn
by the Chamber with Merchants National Bank, handled the money from the land
sales. Neither of the organizations created by the Chamber had the power to
tax, but as the island's needs grew, and local and state governments proved
unwilling to fund infrastructure or new public beaches, the island reached
a crisis. The Chamber's design had created a civic impasse. Throughout the
decades the Board and the Association clashed, and in 1988, after island residents
voted to incorporate the City of Dauphin Island, these two groups were often
at odds with the new government.
Today both organizations still have money problems. Last
month The Harbinger asked a Property Owners Association spokesperson if the
organization would help pay for the emergency berm planned for the island's
west end. The spokesperson said no because "we don't have any money." Fiscally
the Association should have been the best off of the organizations set up
under the trust. The Chamber raised $6 million ($37 million in today's dollars)
by selling its subdivision lots. The trust divided up the money left after
the Chamber paid its costs, seventy percent to the Property Owners Association
and thirty percent to the Park and Beach Board. The Chamber set up the Association
as a nonprofit corporation governed by a nine-member board. The trust placed
three major tasks with the Association: develop a water system, construct
a public golf course, and develop parks, beaches and other recreation sites
for the use of owners of lots in its subdivisions. The Harbinger spoke last
week with Freda Roberts, Revenue Commissioner of Mobile County and a fifteen-year
resident of Dauphin Island. Roberts explained that the Association was structured
so that "property owners who aren't living there all the time have some say
In 1979 the Property Owners Association sold its water system to the newly
established Dauphin Island Water and Sewer Authority. The Association still
owns the Isle Dauphine Club, with its swimming pool, tennis courts, restaurant
and golf course. While the trust required the Association to build a public
golf course, the course the Chamber opened was private. The Development of
Dauphin Island, Alabama, told how the island golf course ultimately became
private: "However, it was in 1954 that the federal courts ruled out the rights
of owners of semi- private golf courses to decide who could play and who could
not play....we decided to re-design the course and move it to the property
adjoining the Isle Dauphine Country Club which was of course a private operation."
The deed to the site of the Chamber's original course, property that formerly
belonged to the City of Mobile, prevented private use of the land. In 1991
the Isle Dauphine Club and Golf Course, still owned by the Association, opened
to the public after the club declared bankruptcy. The Association still owns
a mile of beach front at the Isle Dauphine Club.
While the Property Owners Association was a private corporation,
the Park and Beach Board was a public board. Its three members serve six-year
terms, and each is recommended by the Mobile County Commission and approved
by the Governor. According to Freda Roberts, "the Governor has always approved
the Commissioners' recommendations." Under the trust, the Board was charged
with the development of public parks, beaches and other community and public
recreation facilities. Roberts said the Board was a "quasi state agency" structured
so that "the island would be for all the state, open to everybody." Roberts
said the Board was the first of its type in the state. The original public
facilities included Fort Gaines, a recreation building named the Fort Gaines
Club and the Sand Dunes Casino, with its mile of public beach and a fishing
pier. Not far from Fort Gaines was a public campground. Within a few years
the Fort Gaines Club burned to the ground. Today the land is either part of
the campground or leased to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. The Casino was bulldozed
in 1971 at the county's expense.
Mike Henderson, executive director of the Board, says it
is a "strange organization." Henderson was hired in 1980 after Hurricane Frederick.
He says that though some people think it is a county board, it has always
been "Dauphin Island's Park and Beach Board." Today the Board owns property
worth over $200 million and operates a number of sites for the public: a campground,
the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, Fort Gaines, Cadillac Park, and two fishing piers.
Henderson said the Board is also developing parks at Bayou Heron and Aloe
Bay. But what might have been the main public legacy of the Chamber's development,
the Casino with its public resort, has never been replaced. During the 1980s
a $250,000 project, funded by the state Conservation Department and the Board,
built a 1,000 feet of boardwalk, pavilions, restrooms, showers, and a parking
lot at the old Casino site, but by the mid-1990s erosion and storm had destroyed
much of that property.
Today the site, the island's only public beach, still has
neither a bathhouse nor restrooms, but the Board has recently made improvements.
Submerged tree stumps, exposed by hurricanes, made swimming dangerous. Signs
warned "No Swimming." Henderson said that last year the Board removed the
stumps at a cost of $7,000. He also said the Board got a $12,500 matching
grant from the state to build restrooms, explaining this new facility will
be portable and easy to move in case of erosion. But Henderson noted his Board
has no budget from the county or the state. The Board's income comes from
fees it charges at its campground, fishing piers and Fort Gaines.
He added that the Board also gets a small amount of oil
lease money -- "enough to pay utility bills." The Harbinger spoke with John
Pafenbach, spokesperson for the Mobile County Commission, who indicated there
was no item in the county budget for the Park and Beach Board, and "if the
county ever gave them any money, it would have been a special item."
The biggest challenge faced by the Property Owners Association
and the Park and Beach Board was coping with ecological change on the barrier
island, change hastened by a succession of hurricanes. But only massive spending
by the federal government has kept the island economically viable. In 1980,
after Hurricane Frederick, the Wall Street Journal carried a page-one article
about Dauphin Island. Under the headline "Down The Drain?" the business daily
blamed weak construction regulations and government-backed flood insurance
for "unwise building" on the island.
April 10, 2001
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Editorial Board: Edmund Tsang, Dan Silver, Tom Brennan, Konrad Kressley,
Phil Tapia Copy Editor: Dana Escobio, Tom Brennan, Michael Smith Illustrator:
D. A. Powell, Dawn Loper-Claire, Stacy Taylor, Mackie Fiala, L. D. Fletcher
Coordinator: Edmund Tsang Typography: L. D. Fletcher Photography: L. D.
Fletcher, Kevin Marston Production: Andrew Wilhelm, Regina Tsang, Pat &
Ernie Pinson Legal Counsel: Dom Soto