November 16, 1999
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 of Commerce.]
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.
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 so."
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.
Final article: An Island in Motion