Comedian Kevin Hart is just the latest in a barrage of popular headlining acts scheduled to perform at the Mobile Civic Center before it closes in April.
SMG, which manages numerous city venues including the Civic Center, recently announced upcoming performances for World Wrestling Entertainment, Katt Williams and Elton John.
City spokesman George Talbot said the recent booking success changes nothing for Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration, which is conclusive about the closure.
“It’s great to see these acts coming to Mobile,” Talbot said. “No single event changes the underlying fact the Civic Center is old and very expensive to maintain and only gets more expensive as time goes on. We’re very excited to have these acts, but we still need to make a long-term decision on the property.”
While the timing of the announcements might raise some questions, SMG Regional Vice President Sam Voisin said the venue’s proposed closing and the string of big-name acts are not at all related. Voisin said the company has built relationships over time that just so happen to be paying dividends now. He called it a “coincidence.”
“We’re going to continue to do our job until the last moment, until the padlock is put on the doors,” Voisin said. “We haven’t taken our foot off the gas.”
He did admit, however, that the venue normally has one to two big shows per year and they are fortunate to have booked shows recently.
“In certain years touring is more robust than others,” Voisin said.
Councilman Levon Manzie said the Civic Center hasn’t had this many big acts at one time “in at least the last decade.”
“The looming closure plays a part,” Manzie said. “If it is closing, it’s going out with a strong string of acts.”
Councilman Fred Richardson said he doesn’t know what can explain all the announcements and while the council has no say in shutting the venue down, a vote would be required to demolish the structure. He said he would not vote to approve any related contract until it is clear that something better will be built in its place.
The venue is losing an estimated $1.8 million a year in operating costs, Talbot said. In addition, it’s not compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In order to bring the building up to code, the city would have to spend $20 million to $30 million, according to one estimate.
Under the law, the building would have to be brought into ADA compliance if any significant changes are made, Talbot said, maintaining the final decision came down to continuing to “plug leaks in the city’s budget.”
Voisin said SMG aligns with the city’s belief that it’s not economically feasible to keep the venue open. In order to modernize the building completely, Voisin estimated it would cost $40 million to $45 million.
“That’s a significant amount of money to invest unless it’s for 15 to 20 years,” he said.
The building currently has amenities dating back to the 1980s, which makes it harder to book acts that desire a state-of-the-art venue, Voisin said. The building also lacks energy efficiency, which leads to added utility costs.
While every city offers something different, Voisin said, most new venues would be complete with updated concessions featuring mobile ordering, energy efficiency and WiFi.
“It depends on what’s appropriate for the community and how much it would like to spend,” Voisin said.
The Civic Center doesn’t have any of those attributes, normally found in venues with 15,000 or more seats, he said.
As for a possible replacement for the 51-year-old building, Talbot said the city has an internal working group gathering information and creative ideas from interested developers. Talbot wouldn’t disclose how many developers have been in contact with the city, but said there was a “high level of interest” in the project.
The city also plans to send out a request for proposals to interested developers. Talbot said the public would also have input on the project before a final decision is made. The city council “can and should have a role in it” as well, Talbot assured.
Meanwhile, Voisin said the venue’s closure will have an impact on current employees. While SMG will attempt to relocate some to other areas within the company, some employees may be let go.
In addition to the Civic Center, SMG also manages the Saenger Theatre and the Arthur R. Outlaw Convention Center and will continue to manage the Civic Center Theater, which is not closing, Voisin said.
Kevin Hart’s “What Now Tour” will make a stop in Mobile on Monday, Dec. 28. Tickets for the comedy show go on sale Friday, Nov. 20, at 10 a.m. The WWE Live event will take place at the Civic Center on Sunday, Jan. 10. Tickets for that event range from $25 to $100. Elton John is slated to perform on Tuesday, March 14.