Forget Hilton or Holiday Inn. With half a billion dollars in investments, Alabama's state pension fund has become the largest hotel developer in the state, with a string of upscale destinations that are changing Alabama's image as much as the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trial did.
The eight hotels, stretching from the Tennessee River to Mobile Bay, are next to or a short drive from the golf trail. Both were developed by the Retirement Systems of Alabama for two purposes - making money and ending Alabama's image as a place to drive through on the way to the beach.
"The golf courses give people a fresh and compelling reason to come to the state. Then the accommodations seal the deal as far as the image of our state," state tourism director Lee Sentell said.
Retirement Systems CEO David Bronner, a blunt-talking, cigar-chomping Minnesota native, took over Alabama's pension funds for public employees in 1973. For years, he made traditional investments, but in the late 1980s, he took an unusual path that raised plenty of eyebrows.
Bronner decided to start building golf courses and lured famed designer Robert Trent Jones Sr. by promising to make them his legacy. By the time the construction ended in 2005, there were 432 holes at 10 locations across the state.
The courses started off slow, but soon were drawing praise from golf magazines throughout the world. Today, they're a hit, drawing about 500,000 visitors a year - most from outside Alabama.
But Bronner soon saw a problem with the golf trail's success, particularly among business executives using it to entertain clients.
"A lot of people liked the trail, but we didn't have first-class housing to bring in clients," Bronner said.
His answer: Buying historic hotels and renovating them and building new ones - all on or near the golf courses in Point Clear, Mobile, Prattville, Montgomery, Opelika, Birmingham and Florence.
The high-end hotels "catapult Alabama to the next level as far as being a tourism destination," said Liz Bittner, executive director of the tourism promotion group Travel South USA.
The Retirement Systems' hotel arm, PCH Hotels and Resorts, is currently operating 1,464 rooms and will add 587 more next year when the restoration of the historic Battle House Hotel is complete in Mobile and construction ends on the new Montgomery Convention Center Hotel and Spa.
The hotels operate under the Marriott brand or its more upscale Renaissance label, and their prices can approach $300 per night. But finding an open room at some locations - particularly the Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa in Birmingham - can be difficult at times.
"People want first-class facilities," Bronner said.
In the capital city of Montgomery, Bronner has worked with local officials to build a convention hotel and spa that is part of a riverfront development project including an expanded convention center, a Broadway-style theater, a minor league ballpark, an amphitheater, and a riverside park.
"This is the linchpin," Mayor Bobby Bright said as he stood inside the hotel scheduled to open in late 2007.
Sentell, whose office is a few blocks away, said it's amazing to see the change along Montgomery's riverfront.
"This will bring a lot of people to Montgomery who've just driven down I-65 to the beach," he said.
At the Florence-Lauderdale Tourism Bureau, executive director Debbie Wilson said the opening of the Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa on the Tennessee River in 2005 made the northwest corner of Alabama a destination for regional conventions for the first time.
"We've never been able to host a meeting of that size," she said.
The success is proven by local lodging tax collections, which were up 52 percent for the first nine months of the year, she said.
The Retirement Systems' hotels and a new office tower added to the Battle House in Mobile represent more than $500 million in investments.
The Retirement Systems uses other investments in TV stations and newspapers across the country to get several million dollars in free advertising each year to promote its golf courses and hotels. It's a freebie other resort developers can't match.
But not all has gone according to Bronner's plan.
Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 closed the Grand Hotel Marriott Resort in Point Clear for a year and delayed renovation on the Battle House across the bay in Mobile.
Because of that, the hotels lost $5 million in fiscal 2006 due to the shutdown of the Grand Hotel and skyrocketing insurance rates that followed the hurricane. The pension fund is forecasting a $5.5 million profit this year.
Bronner said he never expected a quick return. "A convention hotel runs negative for two or three years until you get in the convention cycle," he said.
Praise, however, has been quick for Bronner.
"Dr. Bronner is the most significant developer in Alabama's tourism industry ever," Sentell said.