For those of us who have long advocated for a bayside park where the old USA Gulf Pines Golf Course stood at Brookley, last week saw that dream come to a bittersweet end — but hopefully more sweet than bitter, as Bighead Todd might say.
Last Thursday the USA Foundation announced it had come to an agreement to sell the 290 acres it owns next to the Brookley Aeroplex to 24/7 Development Partners of Alabama LLC for $45 million. That announcement was the foot on the throat of the grandiose dreams some in our community — myself included — harbored for turning that entire 290 acres into “Mobile’s Living Room.”
The long-closed golf course, covered with gorgeous, moss-draped live oaks, could have given us a city park that redefined how Mobilians interact with our namesake bay.
Like many others, I had hoped the flood of money coming into our area from the BP Settlement would mean an opportunity for the city to buy this land back from USA’s Foundation — giving them the money they wanted, and the citizens a game-changing new park. It made perfect sense — to me at least — to use compensation from environmental disaster to build our own Audubon Park, our version of Central Park, and to put aside money to make sure it would be glorious for generations.
But this being Alabama, expecting anything financial to go that easily should earn me a drug test. The city spent its first load of BP-related money on sorely needed garbage trucks, and then the Legislature ripped the bottom out of our cash bag and the vast majority of the remaining money we were supposed to get disappeared into the unquenchable maw of state government. This left precious little for giant parks and fishing piers, as they were far down the list below a roll-on roll-off facility at the port and an arm’s-length list of other economic development projects.
We seldom miss the chance to put economic development ahead of lifestyle choices.
So now about 250 acres of that land will be sold for “light industrial” development. (One third fewer calories than regular industrial development!) I’m not sure what that means, but I doubt it involves bicycle paths and soccer fields. I guess you could call that the bitter part of this deal. With the sale of Brookley by the Bay, as it’s been marketed, the likelihood of Mobile ever having a truly remarkable bayside park appears dead.
That deserves a moment of silence, I think. It’s a big, big lost opportunity.
Just a little over a year ago the mayor’s office was talking publicly about trying to find a way to bundle cash and a land swap that might turn the USA Foundation’s head a bit. I really have no idea how far those discussions ever got, but all I did hear is the foundation was pretty set on getting a certain amount for that land.
I suppose that’s understandable considering their charter calls for them to support the university, and making good investments is a major part of that. And this truly turned out to be a great investment. The land came to the university in 1969 for a song as LBJ pointed his bony finger at Mobile and struck down Brookley Air Force Base. South wasn’t much beyond the plan founder Fred Whiddon scratched out on a bar napkin one evening (that’s completely a guess, but I like to think that’s what happened), and the acquisition of more than 300 acres of land at Brookley was a coup.
Fast forward 41 years, and Whiddon’s successor, Gordon Moulton, decided the land was really more of a burden to the university than a boon and sold it to the foundation for a cool $20 million. That money went to expand USA’s amazing Children’s & Women’s Hospital, so it’s hard to argue it was poorly spent. And now, nine years later, the foundation has turned that $20 million into $45 million that will help support USA and ultimately improve our community.
Still, it’s a shame there wasn’t a way to get the foundation its money and to save this unique piece of property. I know it’s tough to consider shedding our title as the most land-locked city on a world-famous bay in existence, but this should have been a bigger priority.
Perhaps I’m in the minority and the vast majority of Mobilians don’t really care that much about what could’ve been. In that case, there still may be some sweet to this bitter loss.
In announcing the sale last week, USA Foundation Managing Director Maxey Roberts offered hope to those who long for a park. The foundation didn’t sell 30 acres of wetlands and an additional 10 acres along the waterfront that will be kept free of commercial development and could become the basis for an “eco-friendly” park. Additionally, the developer has also agreed to leave wetlands and waterfront not owned by the foundation unused.
We don’t know exactly what all of that means yet, but it does appear there is some opportunity to have a bayside park on the Brookley property after all. No, it won’t be epic and wide open as it could have been, but if you can’t drive a Rolls Royce, a Honda Civic is still better than walking.
Mobile needs water access. We should all want to see the bay from a perspective that doesn’t include a soundtrack of roaring tires on concrete. There need to be opportunities to sail, paddleboard, canoe and fish along the bay away from zooming traffic. Imagine how much it would change the way we live if getting on the water was a 10-minute drive, or a short bike trip versus an hour ride.
I’m going to mourn the death of the “big idea” of a 300-acre park along our bay, but also harbor hope we do something with the land that is left. I still want to see that big fishing pier and kids playing in the water.
Let’s get something sweet — even if it’s much smaller — out of this bitter loss of opportunity.
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