By Sharman Egan/contributing writer
What a May it was in Mobile! Market in the Park became Market in the Square once again as the heat (on the powers that be) drove the farmer’s market back to Cathedral Square. Thank you from the bottom of my fresh veggie-loving stomach. The Food Channel blew through town, packing tables at LoDa Bier Garten and Von’s Bistro. And it was Halloween in May, as MobiCon filled downtown with sci fi-ers and gamers. Highlights included a cosplay parade and a steampunk ball.
Those knuckleheads in Montgomery were busy, passing three bills that benefit Mobile. Rejoice, your free mudbugs are safe (and you can still down a beer with them). It all started when the Mobile County Health Department and ABC Board (the adult beverage police) thought we were having way too much fun down here in “sweet lunacy’s county seat.” They decided to crack down on two time-honored downtown sidewalk traditions: crawfish boils and consumption of adult beverages.
The so-called Crawfish Bill passed in May, ending the panic. It allows non-restaurants to serve food (and not just crawfish) at “regional celebrations, traditions or cultural events” without having to jump through all the Health Department hoops. Back in March, HB 185 passed, allowing you to continue to order an adult beverage from a sidewalk cafe in the downtown entertainment district.
The third bill isn’t nearly as much fun as crawfish and beer but it’s far more important to the future of Mobile.
Much of the revitalization in downtown and midtown over the last four years has been driven by the Alabama Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Program approved in 2013. Tax credits, which could reduce the cost of rehab projects by as much as $5 million, were key to the redevelopment of the Admiral Semmes Hotel, the Staples Pake building, Marine Street Lofts, Old Shell Lofts, Broad Street Lofts and numerous others.
The program expired in May 2016, and it looked like it would not be renewed. After a lengthy lobbying effort by preservationists, developers and Mayor Sandy Stimpson, among others, the Legislature reinstated the credits in May for a period of five years. The new law has more restrictions but is still good news for continued redevelopment in Mobile.
That is no doubt good news for Memphis-based Heritage Land & Development Co. In May, the company purchased an entire city block downtown, which includes the Trustmark building at 106 St. Francis Street. That building has suffered from low occupancy and some of the other buildings within the block are in dire need of rehab.
The company seems to have an affinity for historic bank buildings in particular. It redeveloped the First National Bank Building in Tuscaloosa and the Federal Land Bank Building in Columbia, South Carolina, and is currently working on the First Tennessee Bank Building in Chattanooga. All three are mixed-used projects.
The company invested $14 million in the Tuscaloosa project, which opened as The Tower Apartments in 2015. It used historic tax credits to help offset the cost of rehabbing the building into 69 luxury apartments. A bank and law office occupy the first floor.
In June, the focus will be on the historic community of Africatown with the inaugural Africatown Bridge Challenge on June 24. It includes a 5K route over the bridge and back — the first ever — and a 1-mile fun run/walk followed by awards, music and food. If you do the 5K, you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking view from the bridge. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Africatown community gardens and the creation of a new marketplace offering fresh produce and arts and crafts.
Even if you’re not a runner/walker, it’s a good excuse to check out the historic African-American community. A few years ago, Kevin and I joined a bike tour that took us out Bay Bridge Road (renamed Africatown Boulevard in 2016) to the Old Plateau Cemetery where we learned about its fascinating history.
Founded in 1876, the cemetery is the final resting place of many of the 110 men, women and child slaves who arrived in Mobile in 1860 aboard the schooner Clotilde — 52 years after the U.S. abolished the import of slaves. This was the last recorded landing of a slave ship in the country. After the Civil War, the freed slaves established the community of Africatown. Many of the current residents are their descendants.
Efforts are underway to highlight the history of Africatown and revitalize the community. It was designated as part of the Dora Franklin Findley African-American Heritage Trail in 2009 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. The city of Mobile developed a neighborhood plan in 2016 which includes development of a museum next to the cemetery.
In February, a bust of Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis was unveiled in the courtyard of Union Missionary Baptist Church on its 148th anniversary. Lewis, who died in 1935, is considered the last survivor of the Clotilde and a symbol of the group of former slaves, who triumphed over adversity to create one of the first free African-American communities in the U.S. Artist April Livingston created the sculpture to replace one that was stolen in 2002.
Another artist, Labarron Lewis, was commissioned by the community to create a mural of the Clotilde on a siding near the bridge. The huge mural may be complete by the time you read this. Don’t miss it. It’s stunning.