If I’m ever lucky enough to go fishing with my kids or grandkids on a big pier coming out of Mobile’s bayside park, it’ll be because people like Clarence Carrio and Mayor Sandy Stimpson never gave up on the idea.
Yesterday we learned the seemingly impossible had been flipped on its head — the old USA Golf Course at Brookley has been sold to the city of Mobile and a big piece of it will become a park that will finally give citizens access to our namesake bay. I will admit to having all but given up on that dream. Mobile Airport Authority Chairman Elliot Maisel even likened it to a fairy tale at Tuesday’s press conference announcing the deal. It’s hard to dispute that characterization.
Seven years ago, Carrio, a retired insurance adjuster, convinced me to ride out to Brookley to look at what he said should be Mobile’s next great park. It was the old Gulf Pines Golf Course, which had been owned by the University of South Alabama, then sold to the USA Foundation in exchange for money to help build Children’s & Women’s Hospital. At that point, there it sat as a gorgeous 300 acres of mostly undeveloped land along Mobile Bay.
But the foundation had plans to sell it for development and reportedly wanted as much as $60 million. Carrio pointed out how this would really be Mobile’s last opportunity to create a large bayside park that could allow citizens easy access to the water. Even an idiot like me could see he was right. Mobile wasn’t lacking for places to build new hotels, offices or Taco Bells, but once this property had been turned under and paved over, we would have lost our last chance to really embrace our bay.
And even though when Sandy Stimpson became mayor later that year and expressed interest in seeing that land turned into a park, the longer things went on, the less it seemed likely to ever come to pass. Over the years, the mayor would tell me they were working on it, but the foundation stuck hard to its guns when it came to what they wanted for the unique property.
When the millions in BP funds rolled in and were subsequently spent on things like a roll-on, roll-off auto facility for the Port, and not securing this property, I really gave up on seeing a large park there. It just seemed like economic development would always win out. The only hope I held out was possibly getting a ribbon of land along the bay similar to what they have in Fairhope that would at least offer some access.
But yesterday dreams turned to reality as Mayor Stimpson was able to announce a deal for the whole parcel of land and a plan to use half of it as public space generations of Mobilians forward will be able to enjoy. This will include a major, bayside park. The announcement came like a bolt out of the blue, with Gov. Kay Ivey on hand to explain the state’s role in making it happen. It seems that while I had given up hope, chess pieces were still moving behind the scenes that would finally give Mobile meaningful public space along the bay and access to the water.
A year ago at this time, the idea appeared as dead as Julius Caesar. In March of 2019, 24/7 Development Partners placed a $45 million option on the property and it indeed looked like commercial development was going to win out entirely over preservation and public usage. Just before Christmas last year, though, we learned the deal had fallen through and the property was available again.
What we found out Tuesday was state and federal money had been put together to purchase roughly 250 acres of the property, setting aside about 100 acres for public access and a new park, about 50 acres of wetlands for preservation and 100 acres for development in furtherance of seeing this area become the world’s fourth-largest construction spot for commercial aircraft. The city also has a five-year option to spend $9 million to obtain the last 50 acres for development. That would put the total purchase price at $42 million — the vast majority of it state and federal money.
It’s not an understatement to say this is a transformative move by the city. No, it won’t make your kids smarter, your teeth shinier or keep your street from flooding, but it will bestow upon Mobilians something the vast majority of us don’t have — access to the bay.
I don’t think it’s unfair to recognize that public access to our waterways did not rank high on our forebears’ “To Do” list. The result is a city surrounded by water we can’t really get to. This is a major step in alleviating that problem.
It might be putting the cart before the horse to dream about sailing, paddleboarding, kayaking and fishing off a nice, long pier exactly one foot longer than Fairhope’s, but we might as well make wishes while they’re coming true. Maybe there will be places to launch our boats? Almost certainly there will be spots where we can play near the bay, or wander through wetland trails.
There are many people, I know, who worked long and hard to make this happen, and certainly, Gov. Ivey, the Mobile City Council, the Airport Authority and the USA Foundation all deserve credit. Mayor Stimpson and his staff deserve credit as well for never losing sight of the ball, even as it all unraveled a couple of years ago. I’m sure Sandy will leave behind many fine legacies when he decides he’s had enough of the mayor business, but I’m not sure any will be more lasting and important to future generations than saving this last piece of waterfront land from development and saving it for public use.
It also bears saying that no truly great waterfront city lacks access to that water.
I grew up with the Mississippi Sound as my backyard, so I took for granted the availability of water access. As a landlocked Midtowner with saltwater in my veins, I’ve always lamented the lack of a bayside park where I could take my kids to fish. Thankfully, that’s a problem Mobile won’t have going forward — truly a fairy tale ending.
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