Mobile County Commission President Jerry Carl outlined his plan to expand the number of soccer fields available for area youth last week, but like previous projects with the same goal, the proposal already has its own hurdles.
As opposed to an economic-driven proposal like the multi-field complex pushed by Commissioner Connie Hudson over the past three years, Carl’s plan would revisit previous efforts to add fields to existing parks within the city of Mobile.
“This is a simple solution to the big problem, which is a lack of fields that our kids can use,” Carl said. “I think in this whole process, we’ve gone so far into the commercial side of things that we’ve forgotten about our own kids.”
The plan pitched July 16 would add four pitches — three grass and one artificial turf — to the Orange Grove area, Medal of Honor Park and West Mobile Park for an estimated cost of $8 million to $10 million, with the county splitting the cost with the city of Mobile.
In total, the proposal would add 12 fields to locations falling within each commissioner’s respective district. However, Carl said he still hasn’t had much discussion about the proposal with the Mobile City Council or Mayor Sandy Stimpson.
Two of the existing parks, Medal of Honor and West Mobile, fall within Councilwoman Bess Rich’s district. Unlike Carl, Rich was vocally supportive of Hudson’s previous proposal, which was voted down last month after nearly two years of planning and $500,000 in studies.
“I’m happy for this proposal to be on the table, but right now I would say that there are several other issues and items at Medal of Honor Park that the citizens of the district would prioritize over this project,” Rich said. “In addition, this would take a huge amount of funding from the city, which I worry could adversely impact important projects we have worked with Parks and Recreation to identify, prioritize and get slated.”
Support from the city’s administration and council will be paramount, as Carl’s proposal not only has the city covering half of the estimated construction cost, but is also partially planned on city-owned property. That would make maintaining the fields a city responsibility as well.
Even if those officials agree to get on board, Hudson has already questioned the $8 million price tag Carl threw out during his presentation.
“Who knows? Because until you have engineering work, critical planning and get folks to put pen to paper, it’s just made up numbers,” Hudson said. “The devil is in the details.”
Carl said his estimates are based primarily on numbers he received from the city’s project at Herndon (Sage) Park — a $1.6 million effort that created three full-sized turf fields. He also said there’s no doubt the numbers would change if the project moves forward.
“You’ve got to give people an idea, but going out and spending a half a million dollars to put the numbers together is not the way I work,” he added. “It’s definitely not scientific, but I couldn’t imagine it going over $10 million at the most, which would make it a $5 million commitment from the county versus a $40 million commitment on the project we were looking at.”
However, that project is not officially off the table, though it has hit a couple of serious setbacks.
In June, Commissioner Merceria Ludgood denied Hudson the second vote she had routinely given to other items related to Hudson’s complex. Then last week, commissioners voted 2-1 to allocate an additional $240,000 from county lodging taxes to a marketing fund promoting tourism within the county.
That took a large chunk from the money Hudson had hoped would pay the debt service on the $20 million the county would have to borrow to resurrect her project. Still, the two-year old purchasing option for that property is still on the table, and Hudson said she’s still “holding out hope” she can salvage at least part of the effort she’s spearheaded since 2013.
“We’ve still got some conversations going on and some interested parties, but it won’t be a complex like what I proposed before, because that takes money,” she said.
Whether it’s politics or practicality, Carl and Hudson seem once again at odds about how to provide facilities for a growing soccer community in Mobile. The one thing thing they do agree on, though, is the need for soccer fields, and Chad Harrelson, executive director of Mobile United Football Club, said that’s something youth soccer players and their parents would likely support no matter how it’s packaged.
“The soccer community is going to get behind building any fields, anywhere, and will support any idea that tries to address the deficit of fields that we have,” Harrelson said. “We obviously would have preferred the complex because we believe it would generate revenue for the city and county, but there’s nothing wrong with putting these fields in pods around town where they’re going to be more accessible to the kids of the community.”
Though he said Carl’s proposal wouldn’t allow Mobile to host large-scale tournaments and events like Hudson’s would have, Harrelson did admit “opportunities could still be out there” because the fields could be used for lacrosse, football, adult kickball and other activities as well.
Harrelson also said if Mobile keeps growing, there would still be a need for additional fields that, if added down the road, could be used to host larger events. Carl didn’t seemed very opposed to that possibility, but said the kids who play soccer locally should be prioritized over any projected tax revenues that might come from bringing tournaments to the area.
“If it’s such a great investment from a commercial standpoint, why are the commercial developers not stepping in and wanting to do it on their own?” Carl asked. “I think if we take care of children first, the soccer complex will come later down the road.”